This article is written by Jenna Manhau as part of EngageMedia’s Youth Advocacy and Communications for Internet Freedom project, which aims to expand awareness and engagement with digital rights issues among youth advocates in the Asia-Pacific.
Jenna Manhau is a digital policy analyst, content writer, digital literacy Program Director and Community Relations Manager at DotAsia Organisation, and IGF Youth NRIs coordinator. Jenna has been invited to join the youth organising team of the Youth Track for the United Nations Internet Governance Forum since 2022. She has joined The Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet) as an observer in 2023. She is also the author of a newsletter about digital issues and public policy called “Jen Z issues”.
Hong Kong, one of the world’s top financial centres and home for millions, has recorded a rapid outflow of its own people for another year, with 113,000 net departure of permanent residents in 2022 alone. The outflow of residents continues, with an additional 291,000 departures occurring only through mid-August in 2023. Since January 2020, close to 500,000 residents have left the city and chosen to relocate.
Under the wave of emigration, everyone is grappling with the decision of “to go” or “to stay” and many have decided to leave the place they grew up. I am among those who have made this difficult decision.
While the rest of the world has already resumed a “normal life” post-lockdown, many people in Hong Kong have been drained from the political tension between Beijing and Hong Kong, and fled the city for life. The patriotic education measures and the introduction of the National Security law on June 30, 2020, have exacerbated the decline of population and might have cast a shadow over Hong Kong’s competitiveness.
High Wall, Firewall and the Egg
As someone who was born and raised in a city like Hong Kong, and has lived through its societal and political changes, I have a brief idea of what ” freedom” means to a civilian (and in this digital age, Internet freedom plays a big part of it on a day-to-day basis). I moved to Canada to buy myself some freedom to express and access information, but I found myself sacrificed in the wrestling between governments and tech giants and living within the “firewall” again.
Recently, the reaction from Big Tech, Meta specifically, towards the Canadian Online News Bill (C-18) made me understand that power and control are not only displayed in authoritarian regimes. Bill C-18 is a new legislative framework that requires companies like Meta and Google to pay online news outlets in Canada if they include the news content or link to the news articles on their service platforms. In June 2023, Meta claimed to be compliant and thus removed news from its platforms. Starting August 2023, Canadians could no longer have both domestic and international news on either Facebook or Instagram.
Amidst the ascent of artificial intelligence (AI), propaganda is on the rise, threatening elections and casting shadows over our personal freedom. With the rise of regulatory regimes across the globe, we must stand on the side of the egg. For instance, in Cambodia, the looming cybersecurity legislation threatens the sanctuary of privacy and freedom of expression; while Vietnam has a long history of pressuring social media platforms to take down content that deviates from the government’s narratives.
In the words of Haruki Murakami, from “Kafka on the Shore”: If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg. Why? Because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg.
The Power of Netizens
The bird may be caged, but its spirit soars free. One may be confined, but their intellectual and emotional freedom persists. During the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, the “Yellow Economic Circle” emerged as a grassroots economic resistance movement. This initiative was conceived by protesters to provide support to like-minded businesses, often known as “yellow shops”, and to sustain the livelihoods of pro-democracy business owners within the pro-Beijing establishment in Hong Kong.
Leveraging the power of the Internet and technology, the Yellow Economic Circle expanded its reach through the online community economy, creating a “virtual enterprise” with small businesses, and opening up global job opportunities. Nonetheless, four years after the 2019 movement, the Yellow Economic Circle encountered setbacks due to various challenges, including selective enforcement of social distancing policies by the Hong Kong government during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thanks to the Internet, those under oppression continue to strive for a voice, brewing solidarity among activists in Asia. In April 2020, netizens from Thailand and China were fighting on X (formerly known as “Twitter”), pitting Chinese nationalists against democratically-minded young people in the region. Subsequently, a “Milk Tea Alliance” emerged, bringing together netizens from Hong Kong and Taiwan who both engaged in similar struggles against authoritarianism and China’s expanding influence in the region. This alliance first began as an Internet meme and soon transitioned into real-life action, playing a significant role in the 2020 Thai anti-government protests and the Myanmar’s Spring Revolution against the military coup since 2021.
Freeing the Caged Bird
Alejandro Jodorowsky once said, “Birds born in a cage think flying is an illness”. Being born in a rather privileged place with a comfortable environment, it’s not uncommon to find a Hongkonger not valuing the concept of freedom, or they don’t care enough to think about it. As long as they can go to work, fulfil their duty, and enjoy a prosperous life.
As a matter of fact, Hong Kong was colonised by the British for a period of 156 years until it was handed over to China on July 1, 1997. This legacy of the colonial age composed a complex history of Hong Kong’s democratic rights and freedom, allowing an ideology that’s distinctive from China to co-exist even if Hong Kong is part of China.
In the past decade, Hong Kong had a couple of major social movements, such as the Umbrella Movement in 2014, and later in 2019 with a series of protests triggered by the extradition bill. It was full of hue and colours during that period of time, when people of the city leveraged the power of technology and the Internet, such as forums like LIHKG (often being referred to as the Hong Kong version of Reddit) and encrypted messaging apps like Telegram to organise events to exercise their rights to protest, freedom of expression, and liberty
However, when COVID-19 suddenly entered the scene, all the movements related to democracy, human rights, and its territorial relationship with China were sucked into the void. We haven’t heard as much about Hong Kong since. But what’s really happened after?
According to an article published by Human Rights Watch, over 100 people have been arrested for violating the National Security Law, while over 10,000 have been arrested for their involvement in the 2019 protests. Numerous sectors and institutions were reshaped and “reformed”, including the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. Notably, even Amnesty International concluded its presence in Hong Kong at the close of 2021 after standing in the city for over 40 years.
Sing Until You Can’t in the Age of No Media
Like a caged bird that defies its confinement by singing, even in the darkest times, Hong Kong’s press continued to strive for expression and the spirit of resilience. Until June 30, 2020, an unprecedented strain was thrust upon Hong Kong’s press freedom. This period witnessed the closure of notable outlets, including Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, while independent news sources followed suit.
The suppression of press freedom is obvious to all, but the erosion of freedom of speech and expression runs even deeper. In 2021, the Hong Kong government unveiled proposals to legislate misinformation and disinformation. By that point, Hong Kong’s media landscape was already dominated by pro-Beijing or state-owned entities. It’s worth noting that not all societies can readily accommodate a multitude of voices, and thus, any perspectives that deviate from the mainstream media narratives may be labelled as “fake news”.
Although the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, John Lee, mentioned to Sing Tao newspaper in June 2023 that the government may drop the plan of enacting the fake news law in favour of alternative solutions to mitigate the issues, the voices of the pro-democracy camp had been silenced and press freedom was on the brink of being completely dismantled. As for the general public or even those with a passing interest in policy matters, the scarcity of media outlets left little room for one to fact-check what’s right or wrong.
In July 2022, the first English edition of the Hong Kong Chronicles was published. During the two years leading up to the release of the English version, two editions of the Chinese version have been released and it drew criticism for being perceived as a government-endorsed account, primarily reflecting official narratives. With Internet freedom and freedom of expression hanging by a thread, one cannot help but wonder if the authentic history record might one day be entirely obliterated. Is there a way to preserve it? Will there be a viable mean to protect it when traditional media is dwindling?
Exactly four years ago, I headed to Berlin to attend the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Those were times when our words were sharp like swords; those were times when our courage fueled our voices. Those were the “Revolution of Our Times”.
At the time of penning this article, I was on my way to Kyoto for the very same event. However, the times have shifted, and there are facets of this subject I may no longer have the liberty to explore, discuss, or express in the same manner. I don’t know if I ever will.
May these words be held and well up as tears, in hope it plants a seed in your heart remembering freedom is not free.
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