Sunday, June 23, 2024

Hong Kong is safe from China’s Great Firewall—for now

Computer scienceHong Kong is safe from China’s Great Firewall—for now

To read more about how this injunction is specifically designed for Western Big Tech platforms, and the impact it’s likely to have on internet freedom, you can read my story here.

Aside from the depressing implications for pro-democracy movements’ decline in Hong Kong, this lawsuit has also been an interesting case study of the local government’s complicated relationship with internet control and censorship.

I was following this case because it’s a perfect example of how censorship can be built brick by brick. Having reported on China for so long, I sometimes take for granted how powerful and all-encompassing its censorship regime is and need to be reminded that the same can’t be said for most other places in the world.

Hong Kong had a free internet in the past. And unlike mainland China, it remains relatively open: almost all Western platforms and services are still available there, and only a few websites have been censored in recent years. 

Since Hong Kong was returned to China from the UK in 1997, the Chinese central government has clashed several times with local pro-democracy movements asking for universal elections and less influence from Beijing. As a result, it started cementing tighter and tighter control over Hong Kong, and people have been worrying about whether its Great Firewall will eventually extend there. But actually, neither Beijing nor Hong Kong may want to see that happen. All the recent legal maneuverings are only necessary because the government doesn’t want a full-on ban of Western platforms.

When I visited Hong Kong last November, it was pretty clear that both Beijing and Hong Kong want to take advantage of the free flow of finance and business through the city. That’s why the Hong Kong government was given tacit permission in 2023 to explore government cryptocurrency projects, even though crypto trading and mining are illegal in China. Hong Kong officials have boasted on many occasions about the city’s value proposition: connecting untapped demand in the mainland to the wider crypto world by attracting mainland investors and crypto companies to set up shop in Hong Kong. 

But that wouldn’t be possible if Hong Kong closed off its internet. Imagine a “global” crypto industry that couldn’t access Twitter or Discord. Crypto is only one example, but the things that have made Hong Kong successful—the nonstop exchange of cargo, capital, ideas, and people—would cease to function if basic and universal tools like Google or Facebook became unavailable.

That’s why there are these calculated offenses on internet freedom in Hong Kong. It’s about seeking control but also leaving some breathing space; it’s as much about looking tough on the outside as negotiating with platforms down below; it’s about showing its determination to Beijing but also not showing too much aggression to the West. 

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