China has unveiled new powers to censor the Internet in Hong Kong and access user data under the strict National Security Law, but US tech giants have rejected the decision, citing concerns about rights and freedoms.
The plans to impose censorship on the Internet came in a 116-page government document published Monday evening, which also revealed the expansion of the police’s powers to allow them to carry out unauthorized raids and monitor some investigations related to national security.
China imposed the law in the semi-autonomous Hong Kong a week ago. The law punishes sabotage, separatist activities, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers. Its items were kept secret until it came into effect.
Despite guarantees that the law targets a few people, new details reveal that it is the biggest radical change of freedoms and rights in Hong Kong since Britain returned it to China in 1997.
On Monday night, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the “Orwellian” measures to impose control on activists, schools and libraries since the law was applied.
“While the ink in which the repressive National Security Law was written has not yet dried up, local authorities – in Orwellian action – have begun removing books critical of the Communist Party of China from the shelves of public libraries, and by banning political slogans, and they now require schools to impose Control. ”
He added, “Hong Kong has flourished so far because it allowed free thinking and free speech under the independent rule of law. It is over. ”
Under its agreement with Britain on the return of Hong Kong, Beijing promised a guarantee of 2047 freedoms and autonomy which would not be matched on the mainland.
Years of mounting anxiety that the ruling Chinese Communist Party has been steadily diminishing those freedoms, leading to a pro-democracy movement that led to massive demonstrations, sometimes punctuated by violence, for seven months last year.
China has made no secret of its desire to use the law to crush the democratic movement.
“The Hong Kong government will strictly enforce the law,” the Hong Kong-appointed executive officer from Beijing told reporters on Tuesday.
“I warn those extremists against trying to violate this law or cross the red lines because the consequences of breaking this law are very serious,” she added.
With books on democracy rapidly being withdrawn from libraries and schools, the government indicated in the document published on Monday evening that it expected obedience to the Internet as well.
The police were given powers to monitor and delete electronic information if there were “reasonable grounds” to suspect that the data violated the National Security Law.
Internet companies and service providers can be asked to delete information, and the companies ’equipment can be confiscated. Executives can also be fined and sentenced to up to one year in prison if they refuse to comply.
Firms are expected to provide identification records and decryption assistance.
However, the largest American technology companies reserved their decision.
Facebook, Google and Twitter said on Monday that they have suspended requests from the Hong Kong government or its police to provide information about users.
And Facebook announced in a statement that it, along with its popular WhatsApp service, will reject requests until a review of the law includes “formal procedures regarding compliance with human rights and consultations with human rights experts.”
“We believe that freedom of expression is a basic human right and we support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or any other ramifications,” a Facebook spokesman said.
The Twitter and Google services also told France Presse that they would not comply with Hong Kong authorities’ requests for information in the near future.
Twitter told France Press that it had “significant concerns about the stage of development and the full intention of this law.”
The platform, Tik Tok, owned by the Chinese company Beat Dance, announced its withdrawal from Hong Kong entirely.
“In light of the recent events, we have decided to suspend operations of the application of Tiktok in Hong Kong,” Tik Tok told France Press.
Tik Tok is very popular with young people around the world. But many Hong Kong citizens do not trust her because she is owned by Chinese.
Byte Dance consistently denies any sharing of user data with the authorities in China, and asserts that it does not intend to begin approving such requests.
In less than a week since the law was implemented, democracy advocates and many ordinary people have deleted personal files on the Internet for anything that China may criminalize.
The document, released Monday night, also revealed that previous judicial oversight of the powers of surveillance granted to the police had been revoked in investigations into national security.
Police officers will be able to conduct searches without a warrant for that, if they consider a threat to national security “urgent”.
“The new rules are frightening, giving the police authority powers that are usually protected by the judiciary,” attorney Anson Wong Yu-yat told the South China Morning Post.