(Online) Freedom Has Never Been Free

Phoebe Page 4 February 2021
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

A new visa scheme came into effect on Sunday 31 January, offering Hong Kong residents with a British National Overseas (BNO) passport a path to residency and eventual citizenship in the UK. The scheme was announced last July after Beijing imposed a wide-ranging national security law in Hong Kong, sharply curtailing rights and sparking renewed waves of pro-democracy protests.

The British government is determined to live up to what it sees as a ‘moral duty’ to protect BNOs living in Hong Kong, while the Chinese government hopes to prevent mass emigration from the former British colony. China’s foreign ministry reacted immediately to the UK government’s announcement on Friday, saying Chinese authorities will no longer recognise the BNO passport as a travel document – a significant but largely symbolic piece of tit for tat, as it shouldn’t actually prevent Hongkongers from leaving. China has also warned that the move is in violation of international law, which, given China’s own record, was pretty ironic.[1]

Since the Hong Kong government (read: Beijing) passed its new national security law in July 2020, fears have grown that internet freedoms in Hong Kong could be curtailed as they are in the mainland by the ‘Great Firewall of China’, the vast censorship apparatus that blocks foreign search engines and social media platforms, and magics away all information deemed subversive.[2] Now, I am not a techie. (I can’t tell my VR from my AI or IoT, and I only came across VPNs in 2019 when caught in Ukraine with the unthinkable prospect of missing the Fleabag series two finale.) But in recent years even we technophobes have been unable to overlook the way technology is increasingly used to control and coerce populations.

Hong Kong’s free and open internet is a defining trait that has set it apart from the Communist mainland since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.[3] As other freedoms diminished, protestors have relied on digital tools to mobilise demonstrations, but now find these tools being used against them. People are scared. Many have rushed to erase their digital footprint, conscious that a Beijing-style internet means not only restrictions but constant monitoring and punishment: ‘if you say something wrong they can ask the service provider to give your IP address so they can grab you.’[4] Even TikTok has left Hong Kong, an apt and punny sign that time is running out for the territory’s remaining freedoms.

‘When the national security legislation was introduced, China said it was necessary to bring stability to the people of Hong Kong,’ elucidates Dominic Raab. ‘It is clearly being done to crush political dissent.’ (The man’s perceptiveness abounds.) This sort of thinly-veiled guise becomes all the more dangerous in the digital space, with states exploiting the serious nature of cybersecurity threats to exert their own power: they simply define ‘cybersecurity’ as protecting the state from political instability, and measures will ensure the state’s own preservation rather than the ‘security’ of the citizens.[5] It is a vicious circle. Freedoms are curtailed, protestors mobilise online, authorities move to quash dissent, internet freedoms are limited further.

It is a vicious circle. Freedoms are curtailed, protestors mobilise online, authorities move to quash dissent, internet freedoms are limited further.

This is why the relationship between technology and human rights is often described as a cat and mouse game, ‘between users who feel empowered with technology and authorities who use it for greater control.’[6] It is the same with evasion techniques: citizens use special technology to get around firewalls, the government blocks it, new circumvention technology is created. If people want to find a way they will, and almost anyone can: just as I was desperately trying to access iPlayer to discover Fleabag’s fate (thank you Cam VPN), no doubt Ukrainian troops only a few hundred miles east were employing roughly the same encryption technology to protect against a certain unfriendly neighbour with impeccable hacking form. And the situation is no different in Hong Kong, where purchases of VPNs and proxies have soared in recent months.[7]

It is ironic, then, that the proposed path to freedom should be an app. According to Priti Patel, one of the advantages of the new UK visa system is that, from February 23, BNOs with eligible biometric passports will be able to use a new smartphone app to complete their application online.[8] Considering ‘the visa centre has no diplomatic immunity and the [Beijing]-backed national security office is just two subway stops away’, the online process will give applicants greater security amid fears they could be identified and targeted by the authorities.[9] Admirable intent, though for any Hongkongers following the British government’s recent foray into ‘world-beating’ app development, I’m not sure how reassuring this will be.[10]

One Hongkonger expressed relief that ‘now I’m in the UK I can do anything I want.’ Sure, British citizens don’t have to pretend to support the government – in fact we pride ourselves on doing the opposite – but as another recent migrant from Hong Kong points out, ‘there’s always a fear of being tracked by IP address.’ One recalls the great game of cat and mouse. The Chinese government has proven its skill at tracking citizens down, and in this case, it knows exactly where they are headed, and strongly disapproves: the ‘interference’ in Hong Kong affairs is unacceptable, they say – even if the UK is ‘in dire need of talents and capital…’ Meow.[11]

This petty geopolitical bitching aside, and whatever the truth of the UK’s ‘dire need’, Hong Kong’s brain drain will be of serious economic benefit to the UK. Around 300,000 Hongkongers are expected to come, three-quarters of whom hold university degrees or earn salaries well above Hong Kong’s average. One ‘modest’ estimate predicts an economic stimulus of £40bn over five years.[12] To a cynic, then, this might seem a case of cat, mouse, and fatter cat.

One ‘modest’ estimate predicts an economic stimulus of £40bn over five years. To a cynic, then, this might seem a case of cat, mouse, and fatter cat.

Either way, the ‘profound ties of history and friendship’ Britain shares with its former colony remain as histrionic now as in those heady days of tea and opium. Priti Patel could recently be heard soliloquising about the UK ‘once again [providing] safe haven to those having the lights switched off on their liberty.’ Rousing stuff. But it is right that the UK should be a haven for any persons deprived of basic rights. And, to borrow from another amateur poet, one hopes that the new system will indeed let a hundred BNO freedoms bloom.


[1]https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/07/23/britains-pathway-citizenship-hong-kongers-violates-international/; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/04/hong-kong-security-law-may-break-international-laws-china-human-rights-un.
[2]The national security law prohibits acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and interference by foreign forces. It was seen by Beijing as a necessary step to regain control over the region, which in 2019 was beset by months of protests against a latterly withdrawn extradition bill.
[3](The BNO status was created before the UK handed responsibility for Hong Kong back to China in 1997, when an agreement was reached to introduce ‘one country, two systems’, allowing Hong Kong citizens to maintain the level of political freedom they had enjoyed under British rule. The Joint Declaration was set to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy from the communist ruled mainland until 2047, but the agreement has come under threat as Beijing has steadily tightened its grip over recent years).
[4]Charles Low is chairman of the Hong Kong chapter of the Internet society, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/08/china-great-firewall-descends-hong-kong-internet-users.
[9]Michael Mo, a district councillor in the Tuen Mun area of Hong Kong, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/08/china-great-firewall-descends-hong-kong-internet-users.