Beijing overrules Hong Kong court, tighter crowdfunding controls, advocacy initiatives abroad
In this issue: This Hong Kong Media Bulletin covers Beijing-imposed restrictions on foreign lawyers in national security cases, new regulations that hinder crowdfunding for prodemocracy activists, ongoing pressure on Google over search results, and UK advocacy for Jimmy Lai.
Image of the month: Free Political Prisoners
This image shows a group of approximately 20 people who climbed to the top of Lion’s Rock in Hong Kong on New Year’s Eve, commemorating 2023 with a demand that authorities free all political prisoners in the territory. Lion’s Rock has been the site of many protests, with its dramatic view of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island in the background. (Image: ReNews)
Highlights from this issue:
- Beijing overrules Hong Kong court on overseas lawyer
- Google refuses protest anthem censorship request
- UK advocacy for Jimmy Lai
- Erasure of past Hong Kong media reports
Beijing overrules Hong Kong court, tighter crowdfunding controls, censorship dilemma for US tech
As protests swelled in China, the ruling Chinese Communist Party dropped its flagship zero-COVID restrictions in December and opened the country’s borders. Hong Kong also rescinded most of its COVID-19 policies, including a restrictive quarantine. Rule of law eroded further in Hong Kong as authorities continued to persecute Jimmy Lai for his prodemocracy efforts. Activist Chow Hang-tung, meanwhile, won an appeal overturning a conviction of inciting others to participate in an “unlawful assembly” and a 15-month sentence related to her Facebook activity. But Chow had nearly finished serving her term before it was overturned; she still faces charges that could keep her behind bars. Other updates include:
Rule of Law
- Beijing overrules Hong Kong court on overseas lawyer: On December 30, the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing issued an interpretation of Hong Kong’s National Security Law (NSL), saying that courts must secure approval from the territory’s chief executive or an oversight committee before overseas lawyers can work on national security cases. Hong Kong chief executive John Lee had requested the NPC’s involvement after the Court of Final Appeal ruled that Apple Daily founder and government critic Jimmy Lai could be represented by a British lawyer in his NSL case. The NPC’s decision to overrule local courts significantly erodes the rule of law in Hong Kong. Those interventions were limited in the past, with only five such decisions being made between 1997 and 2016.
- Crowdfunding regulations: Hong Kong’s Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau announced that it would create a Crowdfunding Affairs Office (CAO) to regulate the practice. During the 2019–20 protests, residents launched crowdfunding efforts to support protesters who were arrested; authorities later arrested activists on money laundering charges for their crowdfunding activities. Individuals and entities will have to apply to the CAO before making crowdfunding solicitations, while their applications will be vetted on criteria including potential harm to “national security.”
- Heavy app censorship, VPN bans: A December report found that Apple’s app store in Hong Kong had the third-highest rate of unavailable apps in the world after China and Russia, possibly because of direct censorship or self-censorship. According to an investigation by the group AppleCensorship, 53 virtual private network (VPNs) have been made unavailable for Hong Kong users since the imposition of the NSL.
- Google refuses protest anthem censorship request: The tech company said on December 15 that it does not manipulate its algorithm to rank pages in response to the government’s efforts to censor “Glory to Hong Kong,” a protest anthem that has accidentally been played at several international sporting events. Hong Kong officials and Beijing denounced Google’s stance. Google’s refusal to stand down comes as the government deliberates on a planned cybersecurity law that may impose tighter controls on foreign companies.
- Guidelines for teachers on NSL: The Education Bureau in December released the Guidelines on Teachers’ Professional Conduct, which requires teachers to have a “correct” understanding of national security. Authorities have placed greater scrutiny on teachers after large numbers of students took part in prodemocracy protests in 2019, some with sympathetic support from their instructors. Educators are banned from teaching “biased values,” encouraging speech that “violates the social order,” and are required to report possible illegal activities to school administrators.
- UK advocacy for Jimmy Lai: A wave of advocacy has built in the United Kingdom in December and January after Beijing denied Jimmy Lai—who holds UK citizenship—access to his preferred legal counsel. In late December, seven UK-based Hong Kong advocacy groups called on London to sanction John Lee and other officials for targeting Lai. Lai’s legal team wrote to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in early January, requesting a meeting to discuss securing Lai’s release; on January 10, Foreign Office minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan met the team. The Frontline Club, a press membership group, held a London event that included Lai’s son and the head of his international legal team two days later.
- Advocacy groups push Washington on immigration protections: A group of 47 Hong Kong diaspora advocacy groups wrote to the Biden administration in December, calling for a renewal and expansion of the Deferred Enforced Departure policy for Hong Kongers before its February 5 expiration. The policy, announced in August 2021, instituted a 18-month deferral period for Hong Kongers, many of whom fled to the United States after the prodemocracy protests and whose visas have since expired.
- German politicians establish Hong Kong parliamentary group: In mid-December, lawmakers from Germany’s four largest political parties established a Hong Kong parliamentary group to follow developments in the territory and strategize how to support human rights there. One of the group’s cofounders said they wanted to demonstrate that events in Hong Kong had not disappeared from the political agenda in Berlin.
- New issue of diaspora magazine Flow HK: The first diasporic Hong Kong magazine, Flow HK, recently released its latest issue. The magazine’s Chinese name means “be water,” a slogan used in the 2019–20 prodemocracy protests and derived from a Bruce Lee quote. Flow HK launched in February 2020 in Taiwan as a platform to protect Hong Kongers’ freedom of expression. The newest issue included articles on the diaspora in Vancouver, profitability of patriotic movies in China, the pursuit of authenticity, and Hong Kong nationhood.
What to Watch For
- Erasure of past Hong Kong media reports: On January 4, Citizen News, an independent Chinese-language digital outlet, deleted its online content, including its website, Twitter posts, and Facebook and Instagram accounts, exactly a year after it announced its closure. Watch for the continued erasure of local outlets’ old news content, as press groups and individuals grapple with the threat of sedition and NSL prosecutions in light of the cases against Stand News and Apple Daily.
- Continued convictions of journalists for protest coverage: Two freelance journalists who covered prodemocracy protests are in prison following late 2022 rulings. Tang Cheuk-yu was convicted of “possession of offensive weapons in a public place” in late November. Choy Kin-yue had successfully appealed an unlawful assembly conviction, only for that ruling to be overturned in mid-December. Watch for ongoing efforts to punish Hong Kong’s independent and freelance media as authorities target reporters who covered the protests.
- Firmer response to abusive Chinese consulate staff: Following the outrageous beating of a Hong Kong protester outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester on October 16, six diplomatic staff—including Consul General Zheng Xiyuan, who was photographed participating in the attack—left the United Kingdom. They departed after London requested Beijing waive their diplomatic immunity. Watch for a heightened response from governments towards brazen violations of local laws by Chinese diplomats, especially as they scrutinize “overseas police stations” operating in parallel to law enforcement.
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