Hongkongers have deleted their social media accounts and scrubbed online traces of political content as Beijing passed sweeping national security legislation for the city on Tuesday.

The unprecedented law, which targets secession, subversion, foreign interference and terrorism, came into force less than six weeks after it was announced – paving the way for a broader crackdown on political dissent after months of citywide unrest.

protest causeway bay 1 July 2020
Photo: Joshua Kwan/United Social Press.

In the days that led up to China’s top legislative body voting unanimously in favour of the final draft, Twitter users began recording a dip in the number of their followers, as some sought to hide their digital footprints amid concerns over repercussions under the new law. Critics fear the legislation will stifle freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory.

Groups disband

The purge came as leading democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Nathan Law and Jeffrey Ngo on Tuesday cut ties with their political group Demosisto, which later disbanded in light of their departures. Soon after, pro-independence groups Studentlocalism and the Hong Kong National Front announced they would wind down local operations and instead continue to work from abroad.

Spokesperson Joey Siu from student union body the Hong Kong Higher Institutions International Affairs Delegation resigned from her position moments after the passing of the law, saying that she would continue her activism only in a personal capacity.

facebook headquarters singapore social media reaction like
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“This is the revolution of our times for the children of Hong Kong. Without victory there is no room for survival,” she wrote on Facebook.

Delegation spokesperson and activist Sunny Cheung – who spoke at the US Congress last September – also announced the group would be disbanding.

An anti-extradition law group at Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College – which had voiced opposition to extradition plans with mainland China last year – announced it would cease operations on Instagram.

“I believe you all know that the [National People’s Congress Standing Committee] has unanimously passed the national security law. The law will be in force and enforced on July 1 – tomorrow. Therefore, we will stop using this Instagram account. Hope you all understand. We believe that we will all persist with determined minds and not forget our original intent. Stand united. We shall meet again in the future in the streets of protests.”

Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College

Meanwhile, District Councillors Gary Li, Jordan Pang and Louis Ho quit the local political group Victoria Social Association, after pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po characterised the trio as pro-independence.

‘Online exodus’

One Twitter user — a 29-year-old education sector worker who wished to remain anonymous — told HKFP she has lost around 11 followers since the start of the week: “People were worried their past tweets may be used against them so the only thing to do was to delete their accounts and leave no trace.”

“Hong Kong Twitter [users] are quite vocal, especially over the past year. Whenever there’s been anything political, Hong Kong Twitter has always been there to give their commentary, thoughts and opinions.”

She said she has started to use a virtual private network (VPN), which enables users to privately reroute their connection using an encrypted tunnelling protocol, often used to bypass firewalls or for security reasons.

She added many of her pupil’s parents have jumped onto Signal – a private messaging app considered to be more secure: “If the white collars feel their safety is at risk, there’s definitely something wrong.”

“I’m part of the crowd who are staying online. I think the shared sentiment is we don’t want to be silenced as it’s letting them win and giving in to what they want, which is for us to be terrified into submission.”

Additional reporting: Rachel Wong.

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Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.