Law in the Internet Society

Social Media Landscape in Hong Kong: Rapprochement to Mainland China

This essay aims to show that in Hong Kong, which is no longer a bastion of freedom behind the Great Firewall, social media platforms, including American platforms like Facebook, are subjected to the power of the pro-Beijing government and de facto the CCP. From this observation, it will then discuss the bigger picture, namely mainland’s current Internet censorship system.

Current situation in Hong Kong

As the 2011 Tahrir Square demonstration in the Arab Spring or more recently the 2018-2019 yellow vests movement in France have shown it, Internet plays an essential role in the emergence of social movements, enabling the communication, promotion and organization of mass demonstrations. Logically, this applied to the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests. Yet, Chinese and American social platforms have also been used by the HK government to identify and arrest dissidents ( ), to lead pro-Beijing campaigns to discredit the protesters, and have even been victim of Beijing-led cyber-attacks to prevent the organization of demonstrations ( In June 2020, some tech companies, including Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, expressed their concerns about the HK national security law, under which local authorities can request service providers to remove some online content and to communicate sensitive user data if a “threat to national security” is demonstrated, with sanctions up to 100,000 HK dollars ($12,903) and imprisonment for six months. More specifically, they announced that they would suspend their cooperation with the local government on data requests, as this could significantly compromise pro-democratic protesters, which could lead one to believe that they are engaged in defending dissidents and freedom of expression.

But, in my opinion, this is misleading since other decisions show that these companies are ready to cooperate with the HK government and the CCP. Indeed, pro-democratic protesters have recently reported that some of their content was removed by Facebook for dubious reasons (see for example the suspension of the Facebook group “Cat Is Cat” for violations of Facebook’s animal trade’s policies: This is reminiscent of the removal by Apple of an app, that indicated police movements, because of government pressure in 2019 (, and of Google’s inaction in 2019 to help the dissenter Joshua Wong tightly surveilled by the HK government. An older illustration of cooperation between an American platform and the CCP is the 2005 arrest of Shi Tao, whose data had been communicated by Yahoo to the CCP. ( These examples suggest that big “platforms [do not] resist government pressure” ( To be noted that since 2020, fearing pro-Beijing censorship on Facebook, many protesters have migrated to other platforms such as MeWe? , an American ad-free platform with a light approach to moderation content.

In June 2021, the HK government passed a new ‘anti-doxxing’ law, holding platforms responsible for doxxing campaigns and exposing their employees to considerable criminal penalties. With this law, American platforms are even more likely to comply with the government's rules; it has therefore been viewed as a “legislation which could usher in government censorship online.” ( The other option would be to simply leave HK, as it represents a relatively small market compared to the platforms’ international presence. This would naturally increase the power of mainland platforms in HK.

Chinese censorship-based model and the evolution under Xi Jinping

HK’s internet landscape moving closer to the situation in China, it is now key to understand how the sophisticated Internet censorship system works on the mainland, affecting 1.4 billion people. The Chinese Great Firewall blocks the access to foreign information sources, like Facebook, Google, or Wikipedia, to shape public opinion along the party line. Chinese alternatives like WeChat? (that belongs to Tencent) or Baidu are strongly controlled by the CCP which employs between 500,000 and 2 million online commentators, the “50 Cent Army”, to manipulate online discussions, create content in favor of the CCP, and promote the party’s narratives on China’s power. This censorship implies intimidating anyone who criticizes the CCP (not only journalists and activists), deploying physical attacks, cyberattacks, and verbal abuse. A recent illustration of this strategy is the disappearing of Jack Ma who had criticized the Chinese financial system and public banks.

These radical sanctions aim to encourage self-censorship. Indeed, knowing that they can always be monitored and fearing retaliation from the Party, also as part as the gradually implemented ‘social credit’ system, Chinese people have learned to not say nor write (including online) what they really think. Some activists have tried to elaborate techniques to bypass censorship control, like using homophones (particularly numerous in Chinese) or steganography to disguise a message, but this has become very tricky since Xi Jinping came to power (

Indeed, as observed by different human rights organizations (ibid), censorship has significantly intensified since the arrival of Xi Jinping who reinforced the means dedicated to crackdown on dissidents (e.g 2015 repression of about 300 human rights lawyers), to identify content that is contrary to the party line (through IA notably), to organize propaganda and to block access to foreign websites. As a result, the young educated generation, which is even more isolated from international platforms, has become very much in favor of the Great Firewall. As opposed to the former generation that was more critical, it sees the Great Firewall as necessary to protect China from false information and societal instability. What is more, censorship has reached a new level of intensity during the pandemic: first, with Dr Li Wenliang being muzzled, then the CCP only allowing news that presented China’s management of the pandemic as a great success and as the symbol of Chinese superiority, and more recently creating a narrative according to which the pandemic actually originated from the US. (


It has been shown that China’s interference in Hong Kong’s Internet landscape is already in place, forcing Hongkongers to adopt self-censorship reflexes ( and American platforms to cooperate or leave the territory. On the mainland, Internet censorship has intensified in recent years, and especially during the pandemic, making opposition to the regime rarer than 10 years ago and changing public debate. Finally, scholars have observed that beyond national borders the CCP has started adopting a more aggressive stance in promoting China. Influence operations, to seduce foreign audiences by creating a positive narrative of China but also to infiltrate and coerce them, are now endowed with more substantial means, and Hong Kong and Taiwan are seen as outposts to test the efficiency of these operations (,


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r5 - 10 Jan 2022 - 10:09:11 - EleonoreVarale
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