Hong Kong lawmaker deletes Facebook posts under new security law

Paul Tse deletes posts criticizing the government after his comments are labeled 'dangerous' by the city's leader.
By Sam Yuen for RFA Cantonese
2024.03.29
Hong Kong lawmaker deletes Facebook posts under new security law Hong Kong lawmaker Paul Tse (2nd from R) leaves North Point Community Hall after an oath-taking ceremony for the first group of district council members in Hong Kong, Sept. 10, 2021.
Li Zhihua/China News Service via Getty Images

Hong Kong lawmaker Paul Tse, who was among dozens of pro-government legislators who voted in favor of the city's Safeguarding National Security Ordinance last week, has removed posts from his Facebook page for fear that comments he had posted there earlier could be used to prosecute him under the law.

Tse's Facebook account was unavailable when checked by RFA Cantonese on March 27.

The move came after Tse, who represents the tourism sector in Hong Kong's Legislative Council, was criticized by Chief Executive John Lee in January for sounding like an opposition politician after he accused the city's government of caring more about the opinions of social media users in mainland China than those of Hong Kong's tax paying citizens.

Tse’s move underscores fears among Hong Kongers that the new law, which critics say will undermine human rights protections, will mean ever-widening definitions of what constitutes a crime, and leave people vulnerable to malicious reporting to the authorities.

Hong Kong lawmaker Paul Tse appears to have hidden or deleted all posts from his Facebook account as of March 29, 2024. (Image from Facebook)
Hong Kong lawmaker Paul Tse appears to have hidden or deleted all posts from his Facebook account as of March 29, 2024. (Image from Facebook)

Lee warned that Tse's criticism of the government's law enforcement tactics was "dangerous," and reminded him of rhetoric from the 2019 protests, as well as "soft confrontation," the government's term for subtler forms of opposition and criticism that it also regards as potentially criminal.

"Soft confrontation" was one of the terms used by Lee and his officials as justification for a second national security law under Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law, which functions as a constitutional framework for the city's government.

Social media criticism

Tse told a question and answer session in the legislature on Jan. 25 that the Hong Kong government seemed more responsive to social media criticism from the rest of China than to its own people.

"Law enforcement forces have seemingly given the public the impression that they value the online opinions of Xiaohongshu users, who are not taxpayers, more than Hong Kong citizens, who actually pay tax," Tse said, referring to a social media and e-commerce platform described as "China's answer to Instagram."

He quipped that the attempt to placate mainland Chinese public opinion would lead to "Xiaohongshu running Hong Kong," a play on the government's insistence that only "patriots" loyal to Beijing should run Hong Kong.

Tse singled out heavy-handed police enforcement of jaywalking penalties and heavy fines on restaurants for creating obstructions, as well as "cracking down on bookstores."

Hong Kong's Chief Executive John Lee (C) applauds with lawmakers following the passing of Article 23 legislation at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on March 19, 2024. (Louise Delmotte/AP)
Hong Kong's Chief Executive John Lee (C) applauds with lawmakers following the passing of Article 23 legislation at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on March 19, 2024. (Louise Delmotte/AP)

"Some Hong Kongers feel that the government's style of governance is far removed from the reality of actual Hong Kongers who pay their taxes," Tse said.

Repeated calls to Tse's phone rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.

However, Tse wrote in a column in the Economic Journal newspaper that he had deleted his Facebook account due to fears that his past posts about Xiaohongshu running Hong Kong and other topics would be used to accuse him of "incitement to hatred," possibly through a malicious tip-off via the much-used national security hotline.

Tse's Facebook account was visible again by noon GMT on Friday, but all posts appeared to have been hidden or deleted.

'No need to panic'

By contrast, fellow LegCo member Doreen Kong said she wasn't worried about her recent comments criticizing the government for spending HK$50 million, or US$6.4 million, on an illuminated egg art installation in the Central business district.

"If you do not intend to endanger national security, you will not break the law," Kong told the Hong Kong Economic Journal. "There is no need to panic." 

The article also quoted lawmaker Lau Chi-pang as saying that he isn't worried about keeping books banned under the national security crackdown for private use.

"I research riots, so it's normal for me to have historic data about riots," the paper quoted Lau as saying. "Any research into Hong Kong between 2010 and 2020 will inevitably involve inflammatory propaganda and publications from that era."

Interactive installations of the 'teamLab: Continuous' by Japanese brand teamLab, an interdisciplinary group of artists are placed by Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, March 25, 2024. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
Interactive installations of the 'teamLab: Continuous' by Japanese brand teamLab, an interdisciplinary group of artists are placed by Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, March 25, 2024. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Documentary films depicting the 2019 protest movement have been banned from public screening in Hong Kong, because they are deemed to “glorify” a protest movement that the government has said was an attempt by “hostile foreign forces” to overthrow the government.

Lau said a historian who privately read Guerilla Warfare by Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara but didn't try to put its ideas into practice wouldn't be committing "incitement" under the national security law.

RFA Cantonese reached out to fellow lawmaker Gary Zhang, who has also made some remarks that are critical of government policies, and to former pro-democracy lawmaker Tik Chi-yuen, regarded as the only token "opposition" member of LegCo, for comment on Wednesday, but neither responded.

The current Legislative Council was elected under new rules that only allow “patriots” approved by the government to run, and has no remaining opposition members, with many former pro-democracy lawmakers in exile or on trial under the 2020 National Security Law.

'Seditious' speech

Meanwhile, Albert Chen, chair professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, was at pains to reassure people that they were unlikely to run afoul of the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance unwittingly.

The law's provisions regarding "seditious" speech were most worthy of the public's attention, Chen said in comments reported in the Ming Pao newspaper on March 27, reminding readers that Hong Kong's courts heard more than 30 cases of "sedition" in 2020 alone.

Citizens should "pay attention to relevant legal standards" in their speech, to avoid accidentally running afoul of the law, he told the paper.

But he said "constructive criticism" was unlikely to be judged to be "incitement of hatred or contempt of the government" under the new law, without detailing what criteria might be used to gauge if criticism was "constructive" or not.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.

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