U.S. tech giants face hard choices under Hong Kong’s new security law

By Brenda Goh and Pei Li

SHANGHAI/HONG KONG (Reuters) – U.S. tech giants face a reckoning over how Hong Kong’s security law will reshape their businesses, with their suspension of processing government requests for user data a stop-gap measure as they weigh options, people close to the industry say.

While Hong Kong is not a significant market for firms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, they have used it as a perch to reach deep-pocketed advertisers in mainland China, where many of their services are blocked. But the companies are now in the cross hairs of a national security law that gives China authority to demand that they turn over user data or censor content seen to violate the law – even when posted from abroad.

“These companies have to totally reassess the liability of having a presence in Hong Kong,” Charles Mok, a legislator who represents the technology industry in Hong Kong, told Reuters.

If they refuse to cooperate with government requests, he said, authorities “could go after them and take them to court and fine them, or imprison their principals in Hong Kong”.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have suspended processing government requests for user data in Hong Kong, they said on Monday, following China’s imposition of the new national security law on the semi-autonomous city.

Facebook, which started operating in Hong Kong in 2010, last year opened a big new office in the city.

It sells more than $5 billion a year worth of ad space to Chinese businesses and government agencies looking to promote messages abroad, Reuters reported in January. That makes China Facebook’s biggest country for revenue after the United States.

The U.S. internet firms are no strangers to governments demands regarding content and user information, and generally say they are bound by local laws.

The companies have often used a technique known as “geo-blocking” to restrict content in a particular country without removing it altogether.

But the sweeping language of Hong Kong’s new law could mean such measures won’t be enough. Authorities will no longer need to get court orders before requesting assistance or information, analysts said.

Requests for data about overseas users would put the companies in an especially tough spot.

“It’s a global law … if they comply with national security law in Hong Kong then there is the problem that they may violate laws in other countries,” said Francis Fong Po-kiu, honorary president of Hong Kong’s Information Technology Federation.

CONTENT QUESTION

While the U.S. social media services are blocked in mainland China, they have operated freely in Hong Kong.

Other U.S. internet platforms are also rich with content that is banned in mainland China and may now be judged illegal in Hong Kong.

U.S. video streaming site Netflix, for example, carries “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”, a 2017 documentary on activist Joshua Wong whose books were removed from Hong Kong public libraries last week.

“Ten Years”, a 2015 film that has been criticized by Chinese state media for portraying a dystopian future Hong Kong under Chinese Communist Party control, is also available on its platform.

Netflix declined to comment.

Google’s YouTube is a popular platform for critics of Beijing. New York-based fugitive tycoon Guo Wengui has regularly voiced support for Hong Kong protesters in his videos. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

None of these companies has yet said how they will handle requests from Hong Kong to block or remove content, and the risk of being caught in political crossfire looms large.

“The foreign content players have to rethink what they display in Hong Kong,” said Duncan Clark, chairman at consultancy BDA China.

“The downside is very big if they get U.S. senators on their backs for accommodating. Any move they make will be heavily scrutinized.”

(Reporting by Brenda Goh and Pei Li; Additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Robert Birsel)

U.S. says ‘deeply concerned’ by Beijing’s detention of Chinese law professor

Flags of U.S. and China are displayed at American International Chamber of Commerce (AICC)'s booth during China International Fair for Trade in Services in Beijing, China, May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Tuesday said it was deeply concerned about China’s detention of Xu Zhangrun, a law professor who has been an outspoken critic of the ruling Communist Party, and urged Beijing to release him.

Xu, 57, a professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University, came to prominence in July 2018 for denouncing the removal of the two-term limit for China’s leader, which allows Xi to remain in office beyond his current second term.

According to a text message circulated among Xu’s friends and seen by Reuters, he was taken from his house in suburban Beijing on Monday morning by more than 20 policemen, who also searched his house and confiscated his computer.

“We are deeply concerned by the PRC’s detention of Professor Xu Zhangrun for criticizing Chinese leaders amid tightening ideological controls on university campuses in China. The PRC must release Xu and uphold its international commitments to respect freedom of expression,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus wrote in a tweet.

The detention comes as a new national security law came into effect in Hong Kong last week. The sweeping legislation that Beijing imposed on the former British colony punishes what China defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with up to life in prison.

Critics say the aim of the law is to stamp out a pro-democracy movement that brought months of protests, at times violent, to the city last year.

The imposition of the new law further deteriorated ties between Washington and Beijing, which had been at loggerheads for months over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a nearly two-year trade war.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States is “certainly looking at” banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok, suggesting it shared information with the Chinese government, a charge it denied.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Sandra Maler and Alistair Bell)

Hong Kong court denies bail to first person charged under new law

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A Hong Kong court denied bail on Monday to the first person charged with inciting separatism and terrorism under the city’s new national security law after he carried a sign saying “Liberate Hong Kong” and drove his motorbike into police.

Tong Ying-kit, 23, was arrested after a video posted online showed him knocking over several officers at a demonstration last Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Beijing imposed sweeping national security legislation on its freest city.

The city’s government has said the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”, connotes separatism or subversion under the new law, stoking concern over freedom of expression in the former British colony.

Tong, who was unable to appear in court on Friday as he was being treated in hospital for injuries sustained in the incident, appeared in court in a wheelchair.

In rejecting bail, Chief Magistrate So Wai-tak referred to Article 42 of the new law, which states that bail will not be granted if the judge has sufficient grounds to believe the defendant will continue to endanger national security.

The case was adjourned until Oct. 6 and Tong was remanded in custody.

Critics say the law – which punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison – is aimed at crushing dissent and a long-running campaign for greater democracy.

Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said it is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect the rights and freedoms that underpin the city’s role as a financial hub.

Also on Monday, prominent democracy activist Joshua Wong pleaded not guilty to inciting others to participate in an unlawful assembly during anti-government protests last year.

Fellow activist Agnes Chow pleaded guilty to a similar charge. Their case has been adjourned to Aug. 5.

Wong and Chow, who were both granted bail last year, led a pro-democracy group called Demosisto that they dissolved hours after Beijing passed the national security law.

The United States, Britain and others have denounced the new legislation, which critics say is the biggest step China has taken to tighten its grip over the city, despite a “one country, two systems” formula meant to preserve its freedoms.

(Reporting By Jessie Pang and Pak Yiu; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Facebook, Twitter suspend processing of government data requests in Hong Kong

By Katie Paul

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc have suspended processing government requests for user data in Hong Kong, they said on Monday, following China’s establishment of a new national security law for the semi-autonomous city.

Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, is “pausing” reviews for all of its services “pending further assessment of the National Security Law,” it said in a statement.

Twitter said it had suspended all information requests from Hong Kong authorities immediately after the law went into effect last week, citing “grave concerns” about its implications.

The companies did not specify whether the suspensions would also apply to government requests for removals of user-generated content from its services in Hong Kong.

Social networks often apply localized restrictions to posts that violate local laws but not their own rules for acceptable speech. Facebook restricted 394 such pieces of content in Hong Kong in the second half of 2019, up from eight restrictions in the first half of the year.

Tech companies have long operated freely in Hong Kong, a regional financial hub where internet access has been unaffected by restrictions imposed in mainland China, which blocks Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Last week, China’s parliament passed sweeping new national security legislation for the semi-autonomous city, setting the stage for the most radical changes to the former British colony’s way of life since it returned to Chinese rule 23 years ago.

Some Hong Kong residents said they were reviewing their previous posts on social media related to pro-democracy protests and the security law, and proactively deleting ones they thought would be viewed as sensitive.

The legislation pushed China further along a collision course with the United States, with which it is already in disputes over trade, the South China sea and the coronavirus.

(Reporting by Katie Paul in San Francisco and Akanksha Rana in Bengaluru; Editing by Krishna Chandra Eluri and Richard Chang)

Exclusive: Hong Kong activists discuss ‘parliament-in-exile’ after China crackdown

By Natalie Thomas and Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy activists are discussing a plan to create an unofficial parliament-in-exile to keep the flame of democracy alive and send a message to China that freedom cannot be crushed, campaigner Simon Cheng told Reuters.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, was convulsed by months of often violent pro-democracy, anti-China protests last year against Chinese interference in its promised freedoms, the biggest political crisis for Beijing since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Hong Kong police fired water cannon and tear gas and arrested more than 300 people on Wednesday as protesters took to the streets again in defiance of new, sweeping security legislation introduced by China to snuff out dissent.

The law pushes China’s freest city and one of the world’s most glittering financial hubs on to a more authoritarian path. China, which denies interfering in Hong Kong, has warned foreign powers not to meddle in its affairs.

Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen, worked for the British consulate in the territory for almost two years until he fled after he said he was beaten and tortured by China’s secret police. Cheng, who has since been granted asylum by Britain, describes himself as pro-democracy campaigner.

“A shadow parliament can send a very clear signal to Beijing and the Hong Kong authorities that democracy need not be at the mercy of Beijing,” he told Reuters in London. “We want to set up non-official civic groups that surely reflect the views of the Hong Kong people.”

He said that while the idea was still at an early stage, such a parliament-in-exile would support the people of Hong Kong and the pro-democracy movement there. He declined to say where the parliament might sit.

“We are developing an alternative way to fight for democracy,” Cheng said. “We need to be clever to deal with the expanding totalitarianism: they are showing more powerful muscle to suppress so we need to be more subtle and agile.”

He said more and more people were “losing hope that it is effective to go out on to the streets or run for election” to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or mini-parliament.

“We should stand with the Hong Kong people and support those staying in Hong Kong,” he said.

‘VERY GOOD SIGNAL’

Asked about HSBC’s support for the sweeping national security law, Cheng said the British government should speak to senior British capitalists to make them understand the importance of democracy.

After Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered millions of Hong Kong residents the path to British citizenship following China’s imposition of the law, hundreds of thousands of people would come to the United Kingdom, Cheng said.

“The UK has given a very good signal,” Cheng said. “At least hundreds of thousands of people will come.”

Almost 3 million Hong Kong residents are eligible for the so called British National (Overseas) passport. There were 349,881 holders of the passports as of February, Britain said.

“One day we will be back in Hong Kong,” Cheng said.

Hong Kong returned to China 23 years ago with the guarantee of freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including its independent legal system and rights to gather and protest, under a “one country, two systems” formula.

Huge protests calling for democracy, especially on the anniversaries of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen crackdown, were common and brought major streets to a standstill for 79 days in the Umbrella movement of 2014.

The national security law punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, will see mainland security agencies in Hong Kong for the first time and allows extradition to the mainland for trial.

(Reporting by Natalie Thomas, editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Stephen Addison)

U.S. House bill targets banks amid fears over China law for Hong Kong

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Wednesday that would penalize banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement Beijing’s draconian new national security law imposed on the former British colony of Hong Kong.

China responded by saying the United States should stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and warned that it would “resolutely and forcefully resist”.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that protected its freedoms, including an independent legal system, and wide-ranging autonomy. But China on Tuesday introduced sweeping national security legislation for the city, condemned by the United States, Britain and other Western countries.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab reprimanded HSBC and other banks on Wednesday for supporting the new law, saying the rights of Hong Kong should not be sacrificed for bankers’ bonuses.

Senior British and U.S. politicians criticized HSBC and Standard Chartered last month after the banks backed the new law.

The law punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, will see mainland security agencies in Hong Kong for the first time and allows extradition to the mainland for trial.

The House measure passed unanimously, reflecting concern in Washington over the erosion the autonomy that allowed Hong Kong to thrive as China’s freest city and an international financial center.

The U.S. Senate passed similar legislation last week, but under congressional rules the bill must return to the Senate and be passed there before being sent to the White House for President Donald Trump to sign into law or veto.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an unusual appearance at a committee hearing on the situation in Hong Kong to say the security law marked the death of the “one country, two systems” principle.

“The law is a brutal, sweeping crackdown against the people of Hong Kong, intended to destroy the freedoms they were promised,” she told the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing on Thursday the United States “must stop advancing the bill, let alone sign it or implement” it.

“Otherwise China will resolutely and forcefully resist,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the security law was an affront to all nations and Washington would continue to implement Trump’s directive to end the territory’s special status.

The United States has already begun eliminating Hong Kong’s special status, halting defense exports and restricting the territory’s access to high-technology products.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Huizhong Wu in Beijing; Editing by Sandra Maler, David Gregorio and Nick Macfie)

China passes national security law in turning point for Hong Kong

By Clare Jim and Yew Lun Tian

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s parliament passed national security legislation for Hong Kong on Tuesday, setting the stage for the most radical changes to the former British colony’s way of life since it returned to Chinese rule 23 years ago.

Details of the law – which comes in response to last year’s often-violent pro-democracy protests in the city and aims to tackle subversion, terrorism, separatism and collusion with foreign forces – were yet to be released.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam nevertheless welcomed the law’s passage and said it would come into effect later on Tuesday, giving the city’s 7.5 million people little time to digest what is expected to be highly complex legislation.

Amid fears the law will crush the global financial hub’s freedoms, and reports that the heaviest penalty under it would be life imprisonment, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong’s Demosisto group said it would dissolve.

“It marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before,” Wong said on Twitter.

The legislation pushes Beijing further along a collision course with the United States, Britain and other Western governments, which have said it erodes the high degree of autonomy the city was granted at its July 1, 1997, handover.

The United States, already in dispute with China over trade, the South China Sea and the coronavirus, began eliminating Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law on Monday, halting defense exports and restricting technology access.

China said it would retaliate.

Lam, in a video message to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, urged the international community to “respect our country’s right to safeguard national security”.

She said the law would not undermine the city’s autonomy or its independent judiciary.

Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.

The editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a tabloid published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, said on Twitter the heaviest penalty under the law was life imprisonment.

As the law was passed in Beijing, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong held a drill which included exercises to stop suspicious vessels and arrest fugitives, according to the Weibo social media account of state-run CCTV’s military channel.

‘OVERPOWERING’

The legislation may get an early test with activists and pro-democracy politicians saying they would defy a police ban, amid coronavirus restrictions, on a rally on the anniversary of the July 1 handover.

At last year’s demonstration, which came amid a series of pro-democracy protests, a crowd stormed and vandalized the city’s legislature.

“We will never accept the passing of the law, even though it is so overpowering,” said Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai.

It is unclear if attending the unauthorized rally would constitute a national security crime.

A majority in Hong Kong opposes the legislation, a poll conducted for Reuters this month showed, but support for the protests has fallen to only a slim majority.

Police dispersed a handful of activists protesting against the law at a shopping mall.

Dozens of supporters of Beijing popped champagne corks and waved Chinese flags in celebration in front of government headquarters.

“I’m very happy,” said one elderly man, surnamed Lee.

“This will leave anti-China spies and people who brought chaos to Hong Kong with nowhere to go.”

This month, China’s official Xinhua news agency unveiled some of the law’s provisions, including that it would supersede existing Hong Kong legislation and that interpretation powers belong to China’s parliament top committee.

Beijing is expected to set up a national security office in Hong Kong for the first time and could also exercise jurisdiction on certain cases.

Judges for security cases are expected to be appointed by the city’s chief executive. Senior judges now allocate rosters up through Hong Kong’s independent judicial system.

It is not known which specific activities are to be made illegal, how precisely they are defined or what punishment they carry.

Britain, the European Union, Japan, Taiwan and others have also criticized the legislation.

China has hit back at the outcry, denouncing “interference” in its internal affairs.

(Additional reporting by Yanni Chow, Carol Mang, Joyce Zhou, Tyrone Siu, Jessie Pang and James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Hong Kong police issue warning amid calls for new demonstrations

By Clare Jim and Noah Sin

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police issued a warning late on Tuesday that they would not tolerate disruptions to public order after activists circulated calls online for fresh demonstrations on Wednesday.

A new national security law proposed last week by Beijing has revived mass protests by demonstrators who say China aims to curb the freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong, a global financial center with broad autonomy.

Thousands of protesters clashed with police on Sunday in the first big demonstrations since a wave of violent protests last year. Financial markets have been alarmed by the prospect of a dramatic assertion of Chinese control over the city.

Calls were circulated on Tuesday on online forums for a general strike and protests on Wednesday against a national anthem law due for a second reading in the city’s Legislative Council. Such calls do not always result in protests. Police said gatherings must not disrupt traffic and warned of jail terms for those who cause illegal disturbances.

The anthem law would require schools to teach China’s national anthem, organizations to play it and sing it, and anyone who disrespects it to face jail or fines.

Protesters see it as a symbol of China’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s way of life, as manifest in the security law floated last week, which could pave the way for mainland security agencies to open up branches in Hong Kong.

“NO NEED TO WORRY”

Hong Kong authorities insist there is no threat to the city’s autonomy.

“There is no need for us to worry,” the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam told a weekly news conference. “In the last 23 years, whenever people worried about Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and freedom of expression and protest, time and again, Hong Kong has proven that we uphold and preserve those values.”

The United States has branded the security law a “death knell” for the city’s autonomy. Britain, which ruled Hong Kong until returning it to China in 1997, said it was deeply concerned by a law it said would undermine the “one country, two systems” principle under which Hong Kong is governed.

Hong Kong’s Bar Association said the draft had “worrying and problematic features”. According to the draft proposal last week, the legislation aims to tackle secession, subversion and terrorist activities.

On Sunday, police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of people who thronged the streets to protest against the proposed legislation. Almost 200 were arrested.

It was the first major protest since pro-democracy demonstrations rocked Hong Kong last year over an unsuccessful plan to introduce an extradition law with China, Hong Kong’s worst crisis since its return to Chinese rule.

More demonstrations are expected in the coming weeks as residents grow more confident about gathering with the coronavirus outbreak under control.

Investors’ concerns were clear in a sell-off on the Hong Kong bourse on Friday, though stocks regained some ground this week.

“Medium-to-long term it will still depend on U.S.-China relations and the political situation in Hong Kong,” said Steven Leung, executive director for institutional sales at brokerage UOB Kay Hian.

Beijing and city officials have toughened their rhetoric recently, describing some of the acts in last year’s protests as terrorism and attempts at secessionism.

While authorities scrapped the extradition bill that sparked that unrest, they dug in their heels against calls for universal suffrage, amnesty for arrested protesters, an independent inquiry into against police handling of the demonstrations and a request not to label the protests riots.

Opinion polls show only a minority of Hong Kong people support independence, which is anathema to Beijing.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Noah Sin and Donny Kwok; Writing by Marius Zaharia and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel, Peter Graff)