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Lui from Hong Kong: I no longer feel I can freely express myself

Lui, a 30-year-old NGO worker from Hong Kong, feels she can no longer speak freely, neither on social media nor in public. Many of her friends have changed their names on Facebook, so Lui can no longer tell who is who. She and her friends are now forced to learn new ways to communicate and protect their data.

“I used to read about the situation in mainland China and thought how suffocating it must be like — it felt unreal, like a dystopia. I never thought this dystopia and nightmare will now come to my hometown, Hong Kong,” Lui, a 30-year-old NGO worker from Hong Kong, told CyberNews.

What is happening in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong started boiling in June 2019 and hasn’t stopped since. Hong Kong, previously a British colony, was returned to China in 1997. Under “one country, two systems” arrangement, the city used to enjoy some autonomy.

The extradition bill, introduced in April 2019, was met with public anger as it would have allowed extraditing criminals to mainland China. It triggered the backlashes between protesters and law enforcement. Even though the bill was withdrawn in September, the demonstrations continued, and the situation in Hong Kong does not seem to get any better.

China imposed a new National Security Law in Hong Kong, which caused a snowball effect. The UK indefinitely suspended its extradition deal with Hong Kong, and the US is now going to treat Hong Kong as mainland China as Donald Trump accused China of taking away Hong Kong’s freedom. This means the end of Hong Kong’s special trade status.

Bloomberg Quicktake tweet screenshot

The new law has also made it very difficult to run data and network services for the tech giants. TikTok has already left Hong Kong, while Facebook, Twitter, Google, Zoom and LinkedIn paused the processing of requests from the Hong Kong government as they are reviewing the National Security Law.

But, most importantly, Hongkongers, who used to praise their freedom while living so close to the Communist regime, are now suffocating. Lui, a 30-year-old NGO worker from Hong Kong, agreed to talk to CyberNews under a condition of anonymity about how it feels to live in Hong Kong these days.

Ironically enough, she asked to use Signal for our interview. “Better safe than sorry,” she said.

Lui: “it felt like a dystopia”

Lui, when we talked earlier you have mentioned that the situation in Hong Kong in the past year was rather worrying and depressing. For many years, Hong Kong was considered free and safe. As a citizen, do you feel you can freely express yourself these days, especially on social media?

No, I no longer feel I can freely express myself, whether on social media, with acquaintances and colleagues, or in public. 

For many years, I did not have second thoughts about expressing myself. Of course, this was within certain limits that respect the freedoms of other individuals. But overall, I did not fear any significant political, legal, or social consequences. Even though there were areas to be improved (such as Hong Kong’s archaic Public Order Ordinance), in general, the freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, etc., are things I took for granted, because these are human rights and something I grew up having — like air. I used to read about the situation in mainland China and thought how suffocating it must be like — it felt unreal, like a dystopia. I never thought this dystopia and nightmare will now come to my own hometown, Hong Kong.

In the past year, since the beginning of the protests in June 2019, many have become much more cautious. Many of my friends changed their names on Facebook to something utterly unrecognizable, so that I can no longer tell who is who. This is because companies have allegedly warned and even fired employees for what they said or shared on Facebook, even though these were not public posts. Also, regardless of political views, people were being attacked online by those of opposing views, since the situation was so polarised and tense. Still, I don’t think most people were worried about getting on the wrong side of the law. 

Now, the situation is different. With the sudden imposition of the National Security Law, it is very unclear who can get arrested and charged. The police have arrested a protester under the new law simply for having a sticker on his phone bearing the popular protest slogan of “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”. Apparently, this slogan is now associated with seeking the independence of Hong Kong — a big no-no for mainland China — even though I think many, if not most, did not think so when they first shouted the slogan. 

Now, I definitely think twice before saying anything “political.” Even among close friends, there were moments when the thought of “What if one day we are no longer friends and he or she screengrabs what I said now and reports me?” crossed my mind. I decided to ignore such thoughts and went ahead to say what I said anyway because I am only exercising my legitimate freedom of speech — one should not “obey in advance” until the “red line” is indeed confirmed beyond doubt, and even then one should try to challenge these "red lines." Still, you can see that the atmosphere of fear and distrust is real. It is really sad.

Now this National Security Law was adopted, requiring digital service providers to provide information to law enforcement or police if requested. How did you react? How did your friends react? Maybe you’ve stopped using the internet that much, deleted all the sensitive data, quit certain social networks?

Almost immediately, my friends and I installed Signal on our phones. I’m not even sure if Signal is more secure than Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, but it seems better to be safe than sorry, especially since the National Security Law is so vague and its implementation so intransparent. 

My friends were also sharing information over VPNs, but I haven't bought one yet.

Some Facebook groups I was a member of closed shortly before the National Security Law came into force, for example, a group for alumni of my secondary school who supported the protests.

One of my friends is well-connected with politicians in different parts of the world, and they sometimes have (very legitimate) exchanges on public policy. This friend now uses ProtonMail for these correspondences — no one can be sure what the Chinese Communist Party interprets as “collusion with foreign forces.” Maybe even this interview counts as one :)

HKFP tweet screenshot

What do you think will happen in the foreseeable future? Will Western companies such as Facebook resist the law or just start working according to local regulation?

It is hard to say. Maybe Western companies will hold on for a little longer, whether because of their ethical codes or because they could get sanctioned by their own governments. But I will not be surprised if these companies provide at least some data to the governments of Hong Kong or mainland China in the future.

If they decide to leave Hong Kong, will you have alternatives for Facebook, Zoom, etc, or will you just keep using them over VPN?

Not really. I think my friends and I will use more secure options such as Signal and ProtonMail. But for platforms without convenient alternatives, like Facebook, I think we will use a VPN.

Did you use TikTok? How popular was it among your friends? Do you miss it or maybe you still use it?

I don’t use TikTok. I doubt my friends use it either. TikTok is perceived by Hong Kongers — at least those around me — as a mainland Chinese app, hence “unsafe” and "not cool." Moreover, TikTok seems to be for those who are younger?

TikTok left Hong Kong

Do you worry about the security of your data these days? Perhaps you are learning new ways to use the internet safely, etc., or maybe you’ve always taken precautions when surfing the net?

Yes, I worry about the security of my data. I did not know about Signal or ProtonMail two months ago, but now I have both installed. Many of my friends on Signal are setting messages to disappear after a certain number of hours or days. 

My friends have shared posts on how to “safely” use the internet. Basically, everything I now use is unsafe, including Gmail and Google Drive. But I tend to think I have “nothing to hide” — I’m not doing anything illegitimate. So I’ll keep using these services, even if there is some risk to it. 

I am in the campaign team of a potential candidate for the upcoming Legislative Council elections this September. But because this potential candidate is relatively "not sensitive,” we haven’t switched our communications to "more secure" options — we still rely on WhatsApp and Google Drive.

I find myself thinking about questions I never thought about before. For example, I never thought twice about how I type Chinese on my home and office computers. Suddenly, I became aware that I have been using a software for Putonghua pinyin (an input method) from mainland China, which means it is possible that every single Chinese word I type ends up on a server somewhere. But again, I think I have “nothing to hide” and there aren’t very good alternatives, so I haven’t switched over to something else yet.

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