Photo by Leon Seibert on Unsplash

Last year, China passed a new law for Hong Kong that removes the complexities from punishing protesters and drastically reduces the city’s autonomy. In the name of national security, the law empowers Chinese central and Hong Kong governments to supervise schools, social organizations, media, and, last but certainly not least, the Internet. The police can censor Internet content and track citizens online, which inhibits the freedom of expression. Searches can be carried out without a warrant, posts and platforms alike can be taken down, not to mention that they can seize electronic records.

The first blocking of a website has given rise to concerns that the Great Firewall will seize Hong Kong. For the sake of clarification, the Great Firewall of China is an initiative of the Ministry of Public Security to regulate Internet domestically. To put it simply, access is blocked to foreign websites and cross-border Internet traffic is slowed down. The biggest censorship and Internet monitoring operation affect not only people from China but also Internet users elsewhere in the world. The suppression of freedom has real consequences.

In Hong Kong, access to the website dedicated to Tiananmen victims is restricted

On January 14, Hing Kong Broadband Network admitted to having blocked HKChronicles, a website that was set up as a response to 2019 pro-democracy protects in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Internet users haven’t been able to access the online platform without virtual private networks. As of 2021, no one has been punished for using a VPN. This was the very first time that authorities have censored a website under the law since it came into force. Until recently, Hong Kong residents have enjoyed freedom under the “one country, two systems” framework established when the former British colony was formally transferred to China in 1997.

While such a move isn’t unprecedented, this gives us reason to worry with regard to the scope and pace of future infringements, alongside the broader implications. IT professionals, as well as members of various financial institutions, are taking into account the possibility of moving to other Asian cities. It’s important to understand that the success of Hong Kong is largely based on Internet freedom. If officials don’t stick to the core values, that could have a devastating impact on regional development.

U.S. businesses in Hong Kong want local authorities to commit to the free flow of information

Foreign companies that wish to do business in Hong Kong have to make great efforts to comply with the authorities in exchange for market access. Needless to say, there are limits to which companies will do more just to sell a product. Foreign firms are reluctant to comply with the rules, which translates into the potential for lost profits. Organizations that do comply become vulnerable to Chinese hackers. As far as U.S.-China relations are concerned, it’s worth mentioning that the importance of this test can’t be overstated. The globe’s great powers will no doubt go into separate directions, maybe dangerously.

Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Google, Zoom, and WhatsApp have all rejected government orders to hand over data. Apple is still assessing the situation, while TikTok affirmed that it will withdraw from the region. The fact of the matter is that a great many tech companies are reviewing their involvement in the territory. Even if Hong Kong is an international business center, tech companies fear the latest privacy law, which will hold them and their employees liable for any content posted. It’s up to the government to address the concerns of the business community.

Beijing could impose restrictions on the functionalities of VPNs

The residents of one of the largest and developed cities around the globe aren’t directly monitored by the firewall, yet the new law that was enforced last year breeds fear and terror. Authorities haven’t disclosed whether or not they scrutinize communications sent over VPN providers. Nonetheless, Beijing authorities have announced that they will impose restrictions regarding VPN use. Little has been done to enforce them, which might be explained by the fact that they had no intention of disrupting business or preventing access to information, as far as scientists and academics are concerned.

If restrictions were to be imposed, VPN operators would have to limit the number of sites they connect to. Equally, authorities would disrupt the technical operability of these tools so they would become slow or ineffective. There’s no way of knowing what the future will hold, but it’s pretty scary. If you want to be sure that you can safely browse the web while you’re in China, install a VPN before arriving in the country. Once connected, your activities are hidden from the ISP, not to mention the government, so you enjoy online privacy.

The good news is that companies can avoid the need of resorting to a VPN by leasing a circuit from China Telecom or other state-owned providers, which directly connect to the headquarters abroad.  The normal operations of foreign trade enterprises and multinational companies won’t be affected. Attention needs to be paid to the fact that the future of the Internet in Hong Kong remains highly uncertain.

Final considerations

The law might have stopped people from openly provoking or attacking the central government, yet officials insist that they haven’t restricted freedom in any way. The enforced measures are meant to bring stability back to Hong Kong, but they risk having the exact opposite effect. At this moment in time, it’s essential that the world supports the voices of Hong Kong citizens and not ignore what is going on. National security shouldn’t affect freedom of information. It’s necessary to support activists, journalists, and writers within the country. Why? Because they are the real agents of change.

The bottom line is that China’s national security law threatens Internet freedom. Beijing keeps on tightening its grip on civil society, banning secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion. Despite the gloomy future, blockchain can be deployed to preserve data. It restores information across several databases, meaning that it becomes more difficult to hack. If the Chinese government comes up with narratives with the sole purpose of hiding the truth, blockchain technology guarantees the data won’t be deleted online.