On June 30, China passed a new national security law in Hong Kong that upended the city’s politics and threw the tech community into disarray. The law’s draconian provisions criminalize a range of activities and give law enforcement agencies power to carry out sweeping surveillance and censorship measures.
Not only is the law designed to break the back of the Hong Kong protest movement, but China’s actions effectively put an end to the one country, two systems model. This unusual governing arrangement had traditionally guaranteed Hong Kongers expanded rights of free expression beyond those held by citizens of mainland China. In substitute, Chinese authorities have taken decisive steps to bring Hong Kong into the fold of China’s Great Firewall—a closed, censored version of the internet that blocks most foreign apps and platforms from operating.
How Are Global Tech Companies Responding
Some of these effects are already happening. A dramatic chill has descended over online speech in Hong Kong as the government prepares to implement the directive. Newspapers report that several apps designed to categorize businesses’ political affiliations (whether certain establishments are pro-mainland Chinese or pro-protester) have suspended their services. Some people are preemptively self-censoring their online content—taking down pro-independence posts, removing likes of protester group pages, and deleting social media accounts critical of the government. Amid rumors that WhatsApp may start handing over users’ private data to Chinese authorities, Hong Kong has experienced a surge of downloads of the encrypted communications app Signal.
International tech companies find themselves drawn into the struggle. In recent days, a growing list of companies has refused—at least for the moment—to comply with the Chinese government’s data handover requests. These requests potentially apply not only to Hong Kong citizens, but to anybody worldwide who may be contravening the law. Other companies including Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Google, Zoom, Microsoft, and LinkedIn have publicly stated that they are suspending cooperation with Hong Kong authorities while they analyze the new law or, as Facebook has dryly stated, conduct “formal human rights due diligence and consultations with international human rights experts.” In response, Chinese authorities have suggested that noncompliance may lead to criminal prosecution or even jailtime for company employees.
As of now, not all tech companies have chosen to oppose these requests. Apple indicated that it is “assessing” the law but has not committed to pausing government requests for user data. TikTok, owned by the major mainland Chinese tech firm ByteDance, has conspicuously withdrawn its app from Hong Kong users “in light of recent events.” While some commentators describe TikTok’s actions as threading a delicate balance between consenting to the Chinese government’s requests and protecting free expression, its decision to depart Hong Kong (rather than suspend cooperation with the authorities entirely) completely deprives Hong Kongers of any access to its platform.
Will Digital Repression Spread Around the World?
The developments in Hong Kong naturally raise larger questions about the global fight over digital rights and internet freedom. Do they signal a new phase in the rise of digital authoritarianism? Will other autocratic regimes, encouraged by China’s actions, seek to impose additional surveillance and censorship restrictions? While it is too early to know the full consequences of the Hong Kong crackdown, four dynamics will tell a lot about where things are headed.
First, how steadfastly will international tech companies hold the line against national security requests from China? The results so far have been encouraging, but it is early days. Tellingly, tech companies, like Facebook, have issued guarded statements. Rather than outright condemning the national security law as running afoul of free speech principles, most firms have emphasized that they are temporarily suspending cooperation while they study the impact of the law. This is a useful short-term strategy to buy time and escape China’s initial ire, but it doesn’t solve the larger issue. Will tech companies conform to China’s restrictions, or will they uphold free speech standards even if it brings financial damage? Ultimately, companies will be forced to make a choice.
Recent precedent isn’t encouraging. Last year, both Google and Apple removed several apps from their online stores associated with the Hong Kong protests, after pressure from Chinese authorities. Apple, for example, banned a crowdsourced map service that allowed protesters to track police activity. Google removed a mobile game that permitted users to roleplay as Hong Kong demonstrators, stating that it has a policy that prohibits “capitalizing on sensitive events.”
It is unclear if companies are now willing to go further in defiance of China’s latest edicts. If Hong Kong police start arresting company employees, as the government has threatened to do, will this change the calculus for tech firms? What if China prohibits its companies from advertising on social media platforms that refuse to comply with the national security law? Such revenue totals in the billions of dollars—researchers estimate that Facebook alone made $5 billion, or 10 percent of its total sales, from Chinese-based advertising in 2018. Undoubtedly, tech firms face difficult questions in the months ahead if the confrontation persists.
Second, how much pressure will Chinese authorities put on tech companies that refuse to comply with the national security law? There are a range of punitive actions that Chinese officials could take against companies that decline to cooperate. Such measures include inflicting substantial financial penalties on violating firms, physically seizing equipment and taking control of servers, arresting company personnel, and initiating criminal charges. At a minimum, companies can expect that long-term noncompliance will eventually result in them losing access to the Hong Kong market.
However, Chinese authorities may also refrain from fully penalizing tech companies, particularly U.S.-based firms, to limit escalation of already fraught tensions between the two countries. China may also decide that—while it wants to send a strong message about who controls Hong Kong— actually carrying out a maximal range of punishment may not be in its self-interest, particularly if doing so would lead to increased commercial and capital flight from the territory.
Third, what countervailing pressure will the United States and other liberal democracies exert on tech companies to uphold free speech standards? Big tech firms are caught in the middle of a fierce tug-and-pull between China and like-minded authoritarian countries that desire to restrict internet freedoms as opposed to liberal democracies that remain committed to preserving digital rights. The extent to which the United States and other democratic countries push back against Chinese actions will go a long way toward determining whether tech companies hold their positions or capitulate to China’s demands. Yet mixed messages emanating from the Trump administration are muddying the waters. Earlier in the week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated that the United States would “certainly look into” banning Chinese social media apps, such as TikTok, on national security grounds. Rather than painting a contrast with China and demonstrating U.S. commitment to free speech principles, Pompeo signaled instead that the administration would match China’s actions by enacting its own restrictions.
Fourth, what precedent will China’s actions set for other authoritarian regimes that are also considering repressive digital restrictions? Other governments—from Russia to Pakistan—are closely watching the unfolding events in Hong Kong and gauging whether China’s behavior will trigger punitive costs. Political scientists recognize that “diffusion is no illusion;” global trends move countries along with them, especially when powerful states follow in a similar direction. Thus, China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and its strong-arming of tech companies may lead to widespread emulation from fellow autocrats elsewhere who pursue similar policies.
A City at a Crossroads
Hong Kong represents an important inflection point in the digital rights struggle. China is making it clear that its suppression of digital rights extends beyond the mainland and now encompasses territories formerly considered unassailable. Its behavior raises grave questions about what comes next. Will China’s example cause autocrats to enact similar national security restrictions against their populations? Will the potential U.S. response lead to further fragmentation of the internet into respective liberal democratic and authoritarian spheres of influence?
In the meantime, what is tragically evident is that the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong’s citizens have most likely come to an end. What remains unclear is the impact these developments will have on the broader digital rights struggle taking place around the world.
Editorial Note: This commentary was amended on July 11 2020 to add a mention of Google’s stated policy of not capitalizing on sensitive events.