The big picture: It’s only been one week since China passed a controversial national security law that gives it vast new powers over Hong Kong, but the internet has already changed dramatically for people in the semi-autonomous city.
What sort of powers? The law lets mainland Chinese officials operate in Hong Kong for the first time. It also gives Beijing the power to overrule local laws, and it creates a series of vaguely-worded new crimes, for example making it illegal to incite “hatred” towards the Chinese government. Hong Kong police can censor internet content and track citizens online. They can now conduct searches without a warrant, force web platforms to take down or block posts, seize electronic records, and conduct surveillance of suspects without court oversight. Companies who don’t comply with these orders can be fined up to HK$100,000 ($12,903), and employees can face jail terms of up to six months.
The fallout: Effectively, this brings Hong Kong into China’s Great Firewall, a tightly controlled and censored version of the internet that blocks most foreign internet tools and mobile apps. Foreign companies are only permitted to operate if they comply.
Taking a stand: Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, Zoom, and WhatsApp all pledged to refuse to comply with government orders to hand over data in Hong Kong on July 6. Apple has said it is “assessing” the situation. On July 7, TikTok said it will withdraw from the region completely. It’s likely that any tech company that refuses to follow local laws will end up being blocked in Hong Kong.
The wider dilemma: Facebook, Google and others will now have to operate within rules set by the Communist Party of China if they want to stay in Hong Kong. If they do that, they will likely face a backlash back at home among their employees and US lawmakers. If they don’t, they lose out on getting any foothold at all within the biggest online market in the world. Ultimately, China has plenty of its own homegrown alternatives to the US tech giants—so from its government’s perspective, it has little to lose if they withdraw.