Singapore newspaper article on Biden's 'dictator' comment blocked in Hong Kong

The Lianhe Zaobao also appears to be limiting access to mentions of the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
By Gigi Lee for RFA Cantonese
Singapore newspaper article on Biden's 'dictator' comment blocked in Hong Kong President Joe Biden waves as he walks to board Air Force One at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Monday, June 19, 2023, as he heads to California for four fundraisers.
Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Internet users in Hong Kong have been unable to access an online newspaper article describing how U.S. President Joe Biden called Chinese president Xi Jinping a "dictator," sparking a fresh war of words between the two superpowers in the wake of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that was supposed to have eased tensions.

An article published by the pro-China Singapore newspaper Lianhe Zaobao about the diplomatic row was unavailable to Hong Kong readers on Wednesday, sparking concerns that the authorities are starting to impose China's Great Firewall of internet censorship in the city, amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent.

Clicking on a link to the June 21 article on the paper's website displayed in Google search results from Hong Kong yielded an error message that read: "Sorry, but that page doesn't exist."

However, other stories on the same website were accessible around the same time.

Further investigations from Hong Kong revealed that articles mentioning the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre and the recent arrests of Hong Kongers commemorating it in public were also unavailable on the paper's website.

The same articles were easily accessible from outside Hong Kong, however.

Network engineer and citizen journalist Zhou Shuguang, who currently lives in democratic Taiwan and uses the online handle “Zuola,” said the block had likely occurred within Hong Kong-based servers hosting the paper's content, rather than being imposed by the paper in Singapore.

"There are host servers in many different places around the world ... including in Hong Kong, Osaka, Japan, and the United States," Zhou said after investigating the page and its domain name, server and other technical information available on the paper's website. 

"The purpose is to allow readers faster access to content."

But the servers in Hong Kong will come under the control of the authorities there, who would likely apply provisions from a draconian national security law banning public criticism of the authorities.

"Servers in Hong Kong are governed by the Hong Kong National Security Law, or the Hong Kong government," Zhou said.

But he said it wasn't out of the question that the Lianhe Zaobao had also engaged in some form of self-censorship to gain access to readers in China.

Expansive national security law

Hong Kong data scientist and pro-democracy activist Wong Ho-wa agreed, saying that the paper appears to have made a decision to deny Hong Kong users access to certain content.

He said if the authorities had imposed an external block, then the entire website would be unavailable, as was the case in 2021 when they blocked access to the Hong Kong Chronicles website.

"If you can get onto the website, but some content is visible and other content isn't, most of that is controlled by the media organization or the official website," Wong told Radio Free Asia. "Naturally there are certain factors they consider."

"It's not about the server – it's a programming or regional issue," he said, citing regional variations in availability of content on streaming site Netflix as an example.

An employee of the Lianhe Zaobao who responded to a query about the issue from RFA on Wednesday said: "We are looking into it." However, no further response had been received by the time of writing.

An official who responded from the Hong Kong government's Innovation, Technology and Industry Bureau said the issue didn't fall within its remit.

Hong Kong's national security legislation applies – in theory, at least – anywhere in the world.

The British government in February hit out at authorities in China and Hong Kong after they put pressure on the London-based rights group Hong Kong Watch to take down its entire website, citing the law.

"You and Hong Kong Watch are obliged to remove the website ... without delay, and immediately cease engaging in any acts and activities in contravention of the national security law or any other laws of Hong Kong," the city's national security police wrote to the group's CEO Benedict Rogers.

"Should you fail to do so, further action will be instituted against you and Hong Kong Watch without further notice."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Paul Eckert.


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