Liberty Has Been Taken Away from Hong Kong

Hong Kong protest
Credit: Joseph Chan / Unsplash

Fear, dissent, and undervalued or devaluation of what French philosopher called – domestic social contract between Hong Kong citizens and mainland Chinese government appears to be the root cause of the unrest and violence in Hong Kong. People started raising their voice against tight control of the government, but they are doing it under constant fear of being prosecuted. Protests have gone to such an extent that, in the fear of facial recognition, Hong Kong residents have destroyed the installed CCTV cameras which normally aid in the governance and policing. It is not an exaggeration to say that the technology which is said to put forth a secure and effective governance itself brought this imbroglio. But state claims that facial recognition is not being used in public spaces but we have seen protestors using face masks, umbrellas, lasers —  all these to avoid cameras. 

These technologies which are used by Hong Kong state departments (here, we do not consider public spaces) are imported from liberal democratic countries such as, Australia. Interestingly, Sensetime, a Hong Kong based company, which is one of the pioneers in facial recognition said that it has no contracts signed with the state of Hong Kong. Chinese dream of becoming AI leader by 2030, and the policy providing local government freedom to decide AI policies also points to the encouraging usage of surveillance technologies. Ironically, because of the pandemic and for the effective control of virus spread, AI usage has got a legitimacy in Hong Kong. Now, it inadvertently became a part of social contract. 

As if this is not sufficient, the New Hong Kong Security Law has made the situation worse. On the pretext of putting an end to the violent protests and bringing back Hong Kong’s stability, China passed this legislation. What’s surprising is that the contents of the bill were not made public even after the legislation has been passed. They were released to national media outlets and it is the only source to know its contents. According to BBC report, this legislation criminalizes subversion, secession, violence against people and public property, and any collusion with foreign entities undermining the national government. It is important to understand the term subversion – ‘undermining public authority.’ Which means, one cannot criticize, question the authority. 

However, implementation of such surveillance is not completely against the freedoms which Hong Kong is enjoying prior to the new law. Data privacy is well protected within the market. Hong Kong has data protection law from 1996 which espouses guidelines for informed consensual usage of personal data, period of retention, withdrawal of permission by the user to use the data. Exempting the government, laws are pretty fair for citizens. Even the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) mandated that the finance and investment firms should provide the working and limitations of AI algorithms to the clients so as the client would take an informed decision regarding the algorithm usage. This new National Security Law significantly makes use of the exceptions provided under Part 8(58), under the pre-text of national security to retain and analyze the personal data which is the worrisome factor for Hongkongers. In the recent history, such surveillance was seen and was in existence in East Germany in the form of Stasi, but today, owing to Artificial intelligence systems, surveillance can be extended to entire country without human spy network. This is precisely what Hong Kong fears. Having said this, one question still looms large. Hong Kong was historically a part of mainland Chinese empire. It has got historical cultural linkage. So, why Hong Kong is not like mainland China? The answer is found in the history of China and how Hong Kong is drifted away from that history. 

Hong Kong, even though ancient and medieval history shows it as a part of same empire, its link to the sea and modern history reveals a cultural dissection from the mainland. Liberty ensured free flow of thoughts, satiric arts, criticism, open practice of banned religions of China, and most of all, there was no self-censorship. With the National Security Law, Hong Kong opens its borders for internet wall and illiberal cyber space which restricts the very essence of Hong Kong – liberty. 

Until today, subversive speech was not a crime in Hong Kong, but in China it is dealt with strict action. Chinese government hired millions of micro blog monitors to report social media posts which are deemed to be subversive to the state and social order. Surveillance system also involves in the collection of DNA, biometrics, 3D image modeling of face, voice samples of people who are segmented as risk or from risk community such as Uyghurs. To understand the future of China, in case this pace of surveillance is maintained, one has to read the fiction write-up published in MIT Technological Review, where camera surveillance is embedded with DISCO algorithms (fastest mining algorithms) which anticipates the behavior of public and stop violence pre-emptively. These algorithms are not un-achievable. Already many security agencies across the world use semiotics in identifying the potential risk which has the technological similarity to the fictional story mentioned above. 

All of this can be normal within the mainland China because the normalcy of tight control, self-censorship are historically observed. China has witnessed extreme forms of oppression since decades. It is not just the firewall or CCTV surveillance that has restricted people from being vocal about their opinions but any literary work or opinion opposing the narratives of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is censored. There are various incidents of brutality such as execution, imprisonment, persecution recorded in the Chinese history. Specifically in the era of Ming dynasty, there were frequent executions of the scholars. The roots of censorship can be traced centuries back and is still prevailing but in an improvised form. 

The evolution of old Chinese literature shows the sustained political illiberality in the Chinese regime for years. There were many leaders of Ming dynasty who persecuted the scholars and forced them to work in their office so as to keep a constant check on their liberal writings. This was an indirect way to stop their literary contributions and make them work under their surveillance. This suppresses their creativity indirectly. 

Gao Qi, a famous poet of early Ming dynasty was one among those who were persecuted by the Chinese leaders. He was highly subjugated by Hongwu Emperor, also known as Zhu Yuanzhang — the first emperor and the founder of Ming dynasty. When the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty’s rule was overtaken by Hongwu Emperor, the government was formed on Confucius ideology. He forced scholars and literary artists to join the official work rather than writing poems. That was because, their free expression had a chance of criticism, political satire which could undermine the imperial authorityThese historical incidents simply show how scholars and their views were indirectly oppressed. It did not matter to the ruler how much creativity the scholars had, for them, it was more important to hold them under their own control. Quashing their creative side and suppressing their expressions was one way to maintain their power and rule. Making them work in their own office portrays the conquering attitude of the rulers. 

Detention and persecution were basic tool to ensure public obedience and subjugation. In the current scenario, same is followed with an intention of de-motivating public to express political displeasure to party. Vagueness and ambiguity in the law gives public a self-doubt. As the exact reason of detention and persecution is not known to people, fear overpowers their thinking capacity resulting in self-censorship.  This phenomenon exists in the Chinese society to show that truth, criticism and freedom cannot exist together. Self-censorship is found amongst netizens, journalists, activists, writers or publishers. This exists due to the vague sense of threat which restricts expressions against the party. The fear of being examined and punished has forced people to restrict their ideas before they emerge. People are not aware of the exact consequences and this is what frightens them. If there is a clarity on the consequences people would exactly know what actions will lead to what consequences, then they will be self-assured on their own activities. This may result in reducing the firm grip of the Chinese government on people which they enjoy. But that was not the case in the history or is the case in the present. 

In contrast to China, Hongkongers have lived an unrestricted life till now. They have not practiced the art of self-censorship and will face a tough time acquiring this skill in future. Especially teenagers and adults, will face difficulty while adopting new law. It is not that they are unaware about the CCP’s propaganda but instilling fear in themselves and normalizing the same within the society will take time. Hongkongers are seen being vocal about their opinions. Since last year of June, Hong Kong has been seen protesting rigorously against extradition bill.  Protest groups like ‘Silver Hair’ and ‘HKCAT’ showed the participation of both young and old people. The result might not be in their favor but the courage to stand against the government and openly criticizing it shows the intrepid nature of the Hongkongers. Now as the NSL is passed, the current shift in the nature will not be possible for them. People those who are born and brought up in a completely open environment will require strenuous efforts while adjusting in a completely new environment. This increases the chances of depression, lack of confidence, self-doubt and critical thinking of an individual.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

Arun Teja Polcumpally is currently a doctoral fellow at Jindal School of International Studies. He is a Research Assistant at Center for Security Studies (CSS) and Editor at Jindal Center for Global South. His area of research is the impact of digital technologies on the global power structure. He worked as research assistant at Foundation for Democratic Reforms, Hyderabad in 2018 before becoming campaigning manager at Social Post Political Consultancy.  

Vatsala Mishra is a Threat Analyst in Barclays Joint Operations Command Centre. Her major role is to closely monitor Asia Pacific region. She holds a Master’s Degree in International Studies and Bachelor’s in Psychology. She has served as an intern in Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi  and Mitkat  Advisory. Her area of interest is China and she takes deep interest in internet surveillance and censorship.