Hong Kongers Erase Their Digital Footprints

As a former British colony, Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned to Chinese control in 1997. The reality, however, is somewhat different as social media users are deleting posts or alter identities to avoid detection and prosection under newly imposed Chines security legislation. 

As China' new national security laws for Hong Kong are implemented by local police, people are rushing to alter their digital footprints or remove their presence entirely from social media.

The legislation has triggered widespread  self-censorship among Hong Kong people. A Twitter user named "Winnie" has deactivated an account with the hashtag #hkprotest. "I'm not doing it because I feel I am at risk, it is out of an abundance of caution," the tweet said, adding that "my heart goes out to the visible activists." Prominent activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung is likely to one of the first two targets after the security laws are enacted. 

The new laws, which will outlaw activities of "separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference" and follow last year's massive anti-government protests, have raised concerns among legal experts. It seems clear that the law will have a severe impact on freedom of expression, if not personal security, on the people of Hong Kong.

A high school teacher in his late 20s, who requested anonymity, explained to the Nikkei Asian Review newspaper why he recently changed his name on Facebook: "We are now so afraid that we could be sold out by our so-called friends online." He has  changed his profile photo on social media, deleted politically sensitive posts, and has gone through his online "friends" list to check whether anyone could possibly target him for his liberal views on political and social issues. He screened his online contacts by reading through their recent postings of their political views. 

The teacher's colleague, who also requested anonymity, is taking a similar approach. The colleague, who is in his early 30s, changed the online name that he had used for seven years after learning that others had done so out of security concerns. Not only has the colleague dropped his familiar cyberspace identity and erased past postings that could be deemed politically sensitive, he has stopped writing comments on news and social events published on Facebook and Instagram. He now simply reposts content that he finds online without making additional remarks.

Both men said "fear" was looming over them, as the enactment of the national security laws is imminent. Although articles and provisions of the laws have not yet been made public, comments from prominent pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong and a "summary" from China's official Xinhua News Agency are causing jitters among many people in Hong Kong.

The eradication and alteration of digital footprints were first seen June last year, when a series of protests erupted against a proposed extradition bill. 

Some of social media users have changed their names, deleted content from cyberspace and closed down WhatsApp chat groups in advance of the new laws as direct reaction to the enactment of the law. Even though the two teachers do not intend to leave Hong Kong for now, it remains an option. The teacher in his 20s said that he spoke with his father and his younger brother after the initial announcement of the national security bill, and decided to remain in Hong Kong, even though the family has the financial means to depart.

Hongkongers have taken to the streets to protest China’s confirmation that someone traveling overseas to successfully lobby for sanctions could be charged with foreign collusion offences, or that provoking hatred of police, by spreading “rumours” of violence for instance, could be a national security offence.

Nikkei:       Guardian:         FirstPost

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