The website for Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC) appears to have been partially blocked in Hong Kong, a move the US-based NGO said “unironically” lent support to a report it had published hours earlier about the need for international businesses to think carefully about operating in Hong Kong.

The HKDC site could not be reached on some of Hong Kong’s major mobile networks on Wednesday, but remained accessible via VPN tools and some internet service providers.

HKDC Hong Kong Democracy Council website blocked
The website of US-based advocacy group Hong Kong Democracy Council appeared to have been blocked by a number of internet service providers in Hong Kong on October 26, 2022.

“HKDC condemns the Hong Kong government’s concerted efforts to erode internet freedom, among the many freedoms Hongkongers have been stripped of over the past years,” Anna Kwok, the strategy and campaigns director for HKDC told HKFP on Wednesday.

“With the regime’s determination to eliminate all voices against the party line, and with its increasingly frequent website bans, it is not difficult to imagine a future where Hong Kong sees its own Great Firewall.”

Access to a number of sites related to issues of democracy or Taiwan have been blocked in the city in recent years, sparking fears of increasing internet censorship.

In February, access to the website of UK-based NGO Hong Kong Watch was apparently blocked, while anti-government website HKChronicles was blocked in January last year. It became the first website barred by the police under a national security provision that allows the police to block access to online content, bypassing the city’s courts.

Websites for Taiwanese independent government agency Transitional Justice Commission, and 2021 Hong Kong Charter, launched by overseas Hong Kong activists, also appear to have been previously blocked.

hong kong watch
Photo: HKFP remix.

Responding to an enquiry from HKFP, the police said they would not comment on specific cases. A police spokesperson, however, pointed to Article 43 of the national security law, saying “the Police may require service provider(s) to take a disabling action on electronic message(s) on an electronic platform the publication of which is likely to constitute an offence endangering national security or is likely to cause the occurrence of an offence endangering national security.”

Additionally, the police highlighted Article 3 of the security legislation, which stipulates that Hong Kong authorities “shall effectively prevent and supress any act or activity endangering national security in accordance with the law,” saying it was applicable to “electronic message(s) on an electronic platform” that were likely to cause or constitute an offence. “The public can continue to use the internet lawfully and will not be affected,” the spokesperson added.

HKFP has reached out to major internet service providers, including 3 Hong Kong and Smartone, for comment.

HKDC social media pages remained accessible on Wednesday.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

‘Disappearing open internet access’

The HKDC website is home to a number of reports and databases, including public lists of Hong Kong political prisoners and businesses believed to have violated United Nations human rights principles in Hong Kong.

“The website ban, unironically, supplements our report, ‘Business NOT as Usual: International Companies in the New Authoritarian Hong Kong,’ published just hours ago,” Kwok said. The report was published ahead of a major bankers’ summit to be held in Hong Kong next month.

central finance business people population economy employment
Central district in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

Positioned by the government as a symbol of the city’s reopening that will cement its status on the international stage, the event has attracted criticism online over allowing attendees to escape some Covid-related restrictions that apply to all other arrivals.

Kwok said the apparent website ban should give international corporations reason for pause, adding that “authoritarian governments are intolerant of information flow, which is a key condition for businesses to thrive in this globalised world.”

“We call on the international society to recognise Hong Kong’s disappearing open internet access,” she added, “to provide circumventive education and tools – such as the VPN – preemptively, and to strengthen cybersecurity infrastructure in ensuring data privacy.”

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Mercedes is a Hong Kong-based British journalist with an interest in environmental and social issues. She has written for the Guardian and the BBC and previously worked at the South China Morning Post.