Hong Kong Website Blocked, Sparking Fears Over Great Firewall

2021-01-08
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Hong Kong Website Blocked, Sparking Fears Over Great Firewall Pan-democratic lawmakers march in Hong Kong on the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from China to Britain, July 1, 2020.
Reuters

A website dedicated to publishing first-hand accounts of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement has warned its users to prepare for large-scale internet blocks, filters, and censorship in future, in the first indication that China may be exporting its Great Firewall to the city under a draconian national security law that took effect on July 1.

The HKChronicles website started receiving reports from users based in Hong Kong that they were no longer able to access the site late on Jan. 6, the site's founder and chief editor Naomi Chan said in a statement.

"[I] would also like to advise Hong Kongers to make early preparations to counter future internet blockage at a larger scale, and to face the darkness before dawn," she wrote.

Chan said that the website hadn't blocked the users from viewing its content, but that traffic coming from ISPs based in the city had fallen dramatically since the reports started coming in.

"After discussing and investigating with our supporters, we found that some ISPs of Hong Kong has deliberately dropped any connection to our servers, so that the user could not receive replies from our servers, resulting in an inability to access our content," Chan wrote.

"Some of the websites that share the same IP address were also affected. Based on the reports from users, the ISPs that had participated in the blocking of our website include Smartone, CMHK, HKBN, PCCW, and more," she said.

"We believe that Hong Kong ISPs [have] attempted to block our website and prevent citizens from accessing our content, which could involve government’s request or cooperation," Chan said.

In response to media inquiries, the Hong Kong police declined to comment on individual cases, but cited Article 43 of the Hong Kong National Security Law, which states that the police may require service providers to block access to online content message deemed "likely to constitute a crime against national security or result in a crime against national security."

The police said they would "take action in accordance with the law" depending on the circumstances.

RFA found that the website's home page was accessible on Friday via mobile network providers and broadband networks, but none of the content linked from the main page would load unless a virtual private network (VPN) was used.

The entire site, including Chan's statement, was accessible from the U.K. at around 1800 GMT, however.

Internet access under threat

Since the city was handed back to China in 1997, Hong Kong's seven million residents have enjoyed unfettered internet access free from the complex system of block, filter, and human censorship that limit what users in mainland China can see or do online.

But the national security law, which took effect on July 1, 2020, gives sweeping powers to national security police to take action against public speech that criticizes the Hong Kong or Chinese authorities, or is deemed to encourage action against Hong Kong by foreign entities.

While protesters and pro-democracy figures have already been arrested under the law, sometimes on the basis of what they have posted online, the apparent blockage of HKChronicles is the first indication that the newly imposed national security system is beginning to use its powers to censor online content directly.

Police said on Friday that all but three of the 53 pro-democracy politicians and social activists arrested under the national security on Jan. 6 had been released on bail, with no immediate charges being brought.

Jailed activists Joshua Wong and Tam Tak-chi were among those arrested and questioned in the operation, while former Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai was remanded in custody after allegedly failing to surrender a British National Overseas (BNO) passport as required by his bail conditions.

So far, dozens have been arrested, but only four people have been charged under the law.

And the District Court jailed three people for up to five-and-a-half years on Friday for "rioting" during a mass occupation of the Hong Kong International Airport in August 2019.

Amy Pat, Lai Yun-long,and Ho Ka-lok were found guilty of the charge and handed the toughest jail terms to date for participants in the 2019 mass pro-democracy and anti-extradition movement.

Pat was also convicted of an additional charge of false imprisonment for using cable ties to restrain Global Times reporter Fu Guohao. Judge Clement Lee said their treatment of Fu was "crazy, extremely aggressive and insulting."

Ho was sentenced to five-and-a-half years, Lai to five years and three months, and Pat, who was already in prison over another offense, to four years and three months.

Reported by RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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