The online censorship plans were contained in a 116-page government document released last night (July 6) that also revealed expanded powers for police, allowing warrantless raids and surveillance for some national security investigations.
China imposed the law on semi-autonomous Hong Kong a week ago, targeting subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces – its wording kept secret until the moment it was enacted.
Despite assurances that only a small number of people would be targeted by the law, the new details show it is the most radical change in Hong Kong’s freedoms and rights since Britain handed the city back to China in 1997.
Late yesterday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke out against “Orwellian” moves to censor activists, schools and libraries since the law was enacted.
“Until now, Hong Kong flourished because it allowed free thinking and free speech, under an independent rule of law. No more,” Pompeo said.
Under its handover deal with the British, Beijing promised to guarantee until at least 2047 certain liberties and autonomy not seen on the authoritarian mainland.
Years of rising concerns that China’s ruling Communist Party was steadily eroding those freedoms birthed a popular pro-democracy movement, which led to massive and often violent protests for seven months last year.
China has made no secret of its desire to use the law to crush that democracy movement.
“The Hong Kong government will vigorously implement this law,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the city’s Beijing-appointed leader, told reporters today (July 7).
“And I forewarn those radicals not to attempt to violate this law, or cross the red line, because the consequences of breaching this law are very serious.”
With pro-democracy books quickly pulled out of libraries and schools, the government signalled in the document released on Monday night that it would also expect obedience online.
Police were granted powers to control and remove online information if there were “reasonable grounds” to suspect the data breaches the national security law.
Internet firms and service providers can be ordered to remove the information and their equipment can be seized. Executives can also be hit with fines and up to one year in jail if they refuse to comply.
The companies are also expected to provide identification records and decryption assistance.
Big tech unease
However the biggest American tech companies offered some resistance.
Facebook, Google and Twitter said Monday they had put a hold on requests by Hong Kong’s government or police force for information on users.
Facebook and its popular messaging service WhatsApp would deny requests until it had conducted a review of the law that entailed “formal human rights due diligence and consultations with human rights experts,” the company said in a statement.
“We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions,” a Facebook spokesman said.
Twitter and Google told AFP that they too would not comply with information requests by Hong Kong authorities in the immediate future.
Twitter told AFP it had “grave concerns regarding both the developing process and the full intention of this law”.
Tik Tok, which is owned by Chinese company Byte Dance, announced it was pulling out of Hong Kong altogether.
“In light of recent events, we’ve decided to stop operations of the TikTok app in Hong Kong,” TikTok told AFP.
Tik Tok has become wildly popular amongst youngsters around the world. However many Hong Kongers have distrusted it because of its Chinese ownership.
ByteDance has consistently denied sharing any user data with authorities in China, and was adamant it did not intend to begin to agree to such requests.
In less than a week since the law was enacted, democracy activists and many ordinary people have scrubbed their online profiles of anything that China may deem incriminating.
Last night’s document also revealed that judicial oversight that previously governed police surveillance powers in Hong Kong had been eliminated when it comes to national security investigations.
Police officers will be able to conduct a search without a warrant if they deem a threat to national security is “urgent”.
“The new rules are scary, as they grant powers to the police force that are normally guarded by the judiciary,” barrister Anson Wong Yu-yat told the South China Morning Post.
Meanwhile, the imposition of the sweeping national security law on Hong Kong has sent chills through Taiwan, deepening fears that Beijing will focus next on seizing the democratic self-ruled island.
China and Taiwan split in 1949 after nationalist forces lost a civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists, fleeing to the island which Beijing has since vowed to seize one day, by force if necessary.
“The law makes me dislike China even more,” 18-year-old student Sylvia Chang told AFP, walking through National Taiwan University in Taipei.
“They had promised 50 years unchanged for Hong Kong but they are getting all the more heavy-handed... I am worried Hong Kong today could be Taiwan tomorrow.”
Over the years China has used a mixture of threats and inducements, including a promise Taiwan could have the “One Country, Two Systems” model that governs Hong Kong, supposedly guaranteeing key civil liberties and a degree of autonomy for 50 years after the city’s 1997 handover.
Both Taiwan’s two largest political parties long ago rejected the offer, and the new security law has incinerated what little remaining faith many Taiwanese may have had in Beijing’s outreach.
Some now fear even transiting through Hong Kong, worried that their social media profiles could see them open to prosecution under the legislation.
The law “makes China look so bad, distancing themselves even further from Hong Kongers, not to mention people across the strait in Taiwan”, Alexander Huang, a political analyst at Tamkang University in Taipei, told AFP.
‘Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow’
Beijing has taken an especially hard line towards Taiwan since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), ramping up military, economic and diplomatic pressure.
Tsai views Taiwan as a de facto independent nation and not part of “one China”.
But the pressure campaign has done little to endear China to Taiwan’s 23 million people.
In January, Tsai won a second term with a historic landslide and polls consistently show a growing distrust of China.
A record 67% now self-identify as “Taiwanese” instead of either Taiwanese-Chinese or Chinese – a 10% increase on the year before – according to a routine poll conducted by the National Chengchi University.
In 1992, that figure was just 18%.
In recent decades Taiwan has morphed from a brutal autocracy into one of Asia’s most progressive democracies.
Younger Taiwanese tend to be especially wary of its huge authoritarian neighbour.
Social media is filled with messages of support for Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Some back Taiwanese independence, or highlight China’s rights abuses in regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang.
Wendy Peng, a 26-year-old magazine editor who said she often shared pro-Hong Kong democracy messages on social media, said she would now avoid visiting the city.
“The national security law makes me wonder how far would China go. Right now I don’t see a bottom line and there’s probably none. I think it’s possible they will target Taiwan next,” she said.
Peng’s fears are not unfounded.
As well as allowing China’s security apparatus to set up shop openly in Hong Kong for the first time, Beijing’s security law claims universal jurisdiction.
Article 38 says security crimes can be committed anywhere in the world by people of any nationality.
Hong Kong police have made clear that support for Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang independence is now illegal.
University employee Patrick Wu, 31, said he would now avoid even transiting through Hong Kong.
“It’s like a blanket law, whatever China wants to define and interpret,” he told AFP. “I don’t know if the ‘Likes’ or messages I have left on social media will be prosecutable.”
Last week Chen Ming-tong, the minister for Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, accused Beijing of aiming to become a supremely powerful “heavenly empire” by ordering “subjects all over the world” to obey its law.
Lin Fei-fan, deputy secretary-general of the ruling DPP, warned that “regular Taiwanese people” might now face arrest in “manufactured cases” if they went to Hong Kong.
He cited China’s jailing of Taiwanese NGO worker Lee Ming-che under the mainland’s own subversion laws.
Lee was arrested in 2017 during a trip to the mainland and held incommunicado for months before his eventual fate was made public.
Sung Chen-en, a political commentator and columnist in Taipei, said Beijing’s new security law “creates a great uncertainty about what can be said” far beyond Hong Kong’s borders.
“If everyone is watching his own expression of opinions, it creates a chilling effect on democracy,” he told AFP.
“If everybody is exercising constraint, there is no freedom at all.”