Friday, December 20, 2019

[EJinsight] Erosion of freedoms, not US law, that investors will fret about

When US President Donald Trump officially signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law late last month, the mainland officialdom lashed out at Washington almost immediately. Before Trump cleared the legislation, state-owned newspaper People’s Daily described the bill as "a piece of waste paper”.

Beijing's fierce reaction suggests that the new law is indeed seen as a threat by China.

One key provision of the new piece of legislation is that it requires the US Secretary of State to issue certification on the autonomy of Hong Kong on an annual basis so as to justify the city's special trade and economic treatment, as an entity that is different from mainland China.

Such requirement, in fact, is already stipulated in the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, only that this time, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act has laid down the list of items which the US State Secretary needs to examine in a more specific and detailed fashion.

Some pro-establishment lawmakers in Hong Kong have said that such annual certification move by Washington would trigger uncertainty, prompting an outflow of capital and talents from the city, or affect the development of the innovation and technology sector in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.

In my opinion, pro-Beijing lawmakers have got it all wrong about the causality of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

It is because the most fundamental concern that is prompting foreign investors to leave Hong Kong is neither the new US law nor an annual report compiled by the US government, but rather their first-hand experience of how freedoms and rule of law were being undermined in recent years.

To give one example, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has invoked the omnipotent emergency law to introduce an anti-mask rule. Also, interim injunctions have been sought to crack down on online posts at the expense of freedom of information.

Such developments are exactly the reason why foreign companies are beginning to have doubts on the issue of keeping their investments and the business operations in Hong Kong.

In other words, it is the diminishing confidence in Hong Kong’s rule of law and autonomy due to the recent events here, rather than Washington's moves to enact new Hong Kong-related legislation, that will trigger a potential brain drain and capital flight from the city.

The only way the SAR administration can hope to rebuild foreign investors’ confidence is by sending a signal that it will safeguard Hong Kong's core values, such as rule of law and freedom of information, and uphold human rights and individual liberties.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 5 2019

Translation by Alan Lee

Sunday, December 15, 2019

[RTHK LTHK] The looming threat of censorship through anti-misinformation laws

You may have recently seen a series of so-called government announcements in the public interest, or API, on TV, cautioning the public to be careful about the information they receive on the internet. The API tells the public to verify and fact-check before believing these information, and not to spread misinformation, or the consequences can be devastating. 

The advice is reasonable. But the intention may be dubious. Why? It is because the government and especially the police force have been one of the biggest sources of misinformation in Hong Kong, during the last six months of pro-democracy protests which followed the government’s attempt to ram through the extradition bill. Needless to say, government claims about the extradition bill must have been some of the best examples of spreading misinformation, or simply lies. Likewise, many of the recent claims made by the police about their actions in their almost daily press conferences since this summer must be also justifiably classified as misinformation. 

So, it is quite clear to many that what the government is trying to do is to monopolise what is true and what is not. In recent weeks, more and more government officials and senior police officers, running out of arguments to justify their own versions as their truths, simply resort to attacking the other sides’ views as “fake news.”

Some may remember about two month ago, a letter from the police to Facebook was leaked on social media. In the letter, the Police requested the global social media company to remove a number of posts made by different users, based on the allegation that these posts were critical of the police and would potentially harm their reputation. Fortunately, the social media company did not comply with these requests. 

The issue at hand is not fake news. The issue at hand is freedom of expression, disguised by the authority in the name of countering misinformation. 

This week in the Legislative Council, in a written question put up by the Honourable Ted Hui, the police admitted to 621 removal requests made this year up to the end of November to local and international Internet and social media platforms, a whopping 18 times more than in 2018. The government response puts the blame on “a vast amount of fake news and baseless accusations that targeted the Police.” It is simply ludicrous for a government with the lowest approval and credibility ratings in history to say that. To many, this government which refuses to even allow an independent commission to investigate the police is itself the biggest source of fake news, and not to be trusted. 

The government seems to be saying that truth must be approved by authority, and its version of facts cannot be disputed by anyone, especially those who hold a different political view. 

So really, where do fake news come from? In August, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube removed over 200,000 accounts which were tied to the China government or state media, that were used purposely to smear the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests, and to spread misinformation about the protests. 

Yet, it is now the Hong Kong government and pro-establishment political figures that are making noises about fake news, saying that in order to counter these so-called misinformation, legislation should be passed to ban fake news. They would point to such legislation in other countries such as Germany and France, or Singapore. 

When I was in Berlin, Germany, two weeks ago, for the Internet Governance Forum, in a summit with legislators around the world, we compared notes about censorship attempts by different governments in the name of protecting the people, but in fact at the expense of curtailing freedom of expression. A German member of parliament told me in no uncertain term that, quote, misinformation is legal is Germany, end of quote. She said that freedom of expression is enshrined in the German Basic Law and not to be compromised by any other legislation. The new law was just an attempt to regulate contents that are narrowly defined such as relating to criminal defamation, hate crimes, or Holocaust denial. But, criticising the government is certainly a right that is legally protected at the highest level of their constitution. Even so, the legislations of such laws in Germany or France were still highly controversial. 

When I told this German legislator that pro-government politicians in Hong Kong are justifying removal of content on social media by quoting the German example, her response was — this must be an example of using misinformation to justify laws against misinformation, that is, plain censorship. Her conclusion was that laws in one land cannot be copied to another, or there will be abuse. 

Hong Kong, by comparison with Germany or France, does not have the democracy and the power vested in the people to protect our people’s own rights. One can reference the recent case of Singapore, where it also passed an anti-fake news law, and in recent weeks have started to enforce it against people posting messages on Facebook. When a member of the opposition party posted an opinion criticising certain government investment decisions, the Singaporean government decided that was fake news. 

So beware of the government’s evolving attempts to censor the Internet and social media, by drumming up the negative side. The Big Brother wants to stifle opinions against it, because that is the rule number one of hanging on to the authority they wish to continue to dominate. We must continue to guard against Internet censorship because no one else will save us. It is our — the people’s own — free opinion vs the government’s version of the only truth — that is what it is all about. And it’s worth the fight. 

For Radio Television Hong Kong's Letter for Hong Kong, Dec 15 2019

Friday, December 06, 2019

[EJinsight] DC election results have debunked myth of 'silent majority'

In her first media session after the Nov. 24 District Council elections, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor refused to accept the clear message of the election result that public opinion is overwhelmingly against her and the pro-establishment camp.

She said that the days of calm and peace prior to election day showed that members of the public didn’t want the chaos in our city to continue.

But is that really the mainstream opinion of the people of Hong Kong?

A journalist at the news conference raised a very good question: Would such “tranquility” last if the people’s demands, which were expressed in such a peaceful and rational way, remain unanswered?

Another reporter said, “Clearly the public support the protesters. Should you not have some concessions, perhaps an inquiry into what's happened here? Because they are saying to all of us who are on the streets that they will go back and it will be even more violent if you don't engage. Is it not time now, six months [into the protests], to properly engage rather than just saying there is a silent majority which clearly doesn't exist?”

As part of her response, Lam said, “No, I did not refer to a silent majority. I did confess that this particular election has clearly reflected that many voters wanted to express their opinions and views to the government, to myself. And the views and opinions expressed, I hope you agree, are quite diverse.”

Well, Lam didn’t respond to the reporter’s question directly, only referring to the results of the de facto referendum as diverse.

And this begs another question: How much longer can the chief executive, who continues to lie to the public and to herself, hang on to her office?

In fact, this year’s DC elections marked a significant milestone in the history of Hong Kong, in that not only did its record-breaking voter turnout of over 70 percent wow the West, but its results also completely dispelled the myth pitched by Lam that the “silent majority” of our city are pro-government.

Suffice it to say that this election was indeed a “de facto referendum” on the core values of Hong Kong: the fight for freedom and democracy versus the power eroding the freedoms that Hong Kong people should have.

Very obviously, the outcome just couldn’t have been clearer: the vast majority of our citizens have chosen to stand by their civil liberties and human rights to which they are entitled.

Even though Lam has promised that the administration “will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect”, it has already become so apparent that “reflection” alone isn’t enough to resolve the current crisis.

In order to allow Hong Kong to start afresh and move on, Lam and her entire cabinet must resign, the police’s misconduct and malpractice must be probed, and the five demands of the people must be met immediately.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 27 2019

Translation by Alan Lee