For decades, Hong Kong’s internet operated outside the reach of China’s vast army of censors, guaranteeing the free flow of information that undergirds the city’s status as a global business hub.
Little by little, that is starting to change, as a small but growing list of websites go dark under a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
The creeping censorship casts uncertainty over the future of the city’s free and open internet, a draw for international businesses that has remained largely untrammelled by a Beijing-imposed national security law (NSL) used to wipe out virtually all political opposition and silence critical media and civil society.
“So far, in the cases of suspected national security law takedowns, the police did not give any indication as to even if the NSL was applied to those websites that ‘disappeared,'” Charles Mok, a former pro-democracy politician who represented Hong Kong’s information technology sector, told Al Jazeera.
“There is no reason to believe that this will not occur more frequently,” Mok added, predicting the concept of endangering national security could be expanded to cover topics such as Hong Kong’s controversial “zero COVID” pandemic policy.
On Monday, Hong Kong Watch, a United Kingdom-based group that advocates for freedoms in the city, said that its website had become inaccessible through certain networks in the Chinese territory.
Hong Kong Watch CEO Benedict Rogers said that blocking the site, if confirmed, would amount to a “serious blow to internet freedom,” and add to fears that Beijing planned to place Hong Kong behind the “Great Firewall,” under which popular websites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are banned.
The Hong Kong Police Force said it did not comment on individual cases but carried out operations “on the basis of actual circumstances and according to the law”.
Growing list of blocked websites
The website is at least the fourth pro-democracy or anti-government site to be blocked in the city since the July 2020 imposition of the national security law, according to Nathan Hammond, an independent digital rights analyst based in Hong Kong.
Previous sites blocked in the city include HK Charter 2021, a pro-democracy charter drawn up by exiled Hong Kong activists, and HKChronicles, a site that has been used by activists to doxx police and supporters of Beijing.
Under the NSL, authorities can order internet providers to remove content deemed to constitute or encourage subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces or terrorist acts, all of which are vaguely defined. The law, under which more than 150 people have been arrested, many of them for speech crimes, has been widely condemned as draconian by human rights activists, civil society leaders and foreign governments.
The Hong Kong government and Beijing have credited the law for restoring order to the city after often violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Although the scope of internet controls in the city so far remains narrow, an acceleration of censorship would deal a further blow to the former British colony’s image as a good place to do business, which is already under strain due to some of the world’s harshest pandemic rules. Branded for decades as “Asia’s World City,” the Chinese territory is facing an exodus of firms and talent as a growing number of residents tire of lengthy quarantines, travel bans and strict social distancing rules that have no end in sight, even as the rest of the world learns to live with COVID-19.
In a survey carried out by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong in July, 84 percent of respondents said free access to the internet was very important for doing business. However, just 46 percent expressed optimism their access would remain unrestricted in Hong Kong over the next three years.
“In sum, the free flow of information is seen as crucial to international companies and individual employees in Hong Kong,” AmCham President Tara Joseph told Al Jazeera. “Right now, people believe they have strong access to the information they need, but there is concern about the future.”
A Hong Kong Police Force spokesperson told Al Jazeera the NSL only applied to material “likely to constitute an offense endangering national security or is likely to cause the occurrence of an offense endangering national security”.
“The public can continue to use the internet legally and will not be affected,” the spokesperson said.
While reluctant to confirm instances of internet censorship, Hong Kong authorities have signaled their intention to introduce further curbs on the flow of information, including a law to tackle so-called “fake news”. The city government has also promised to draft its own national security law to plug loopholes in the Beijing-imposed legislation.
Mok, the former politician, said authorities might find it difficult to import wholesale Chinese mainland-style internet censorship into Hong Kong “given the telecom regulatory framework is entirely different and a multitude of global and local firms are licensed to provide external connectivity services”.
But, he said, a “pseudo firewall” was already being put in place.
“The free flow of information is critical to business, investment, business and the economy,” Mok said.
“Even the government said that the free flow of information is one of Hong Kong’s advantages in the past frequently, and it should not be any different now,” he added. “I think businesses are concerned about that, but few come out to speak out, for fear of repercussions.”