The world’s largest social media companies have found themselves in the middle of a tit-for-tat escalation over the future of Hong Kong, as Facebook, WhatsApp and Google refuse to disclose information to the Chinese government and the United States threatens to ban Beijing-based TikTok.
TikTok announced it would stop operations in Hong Kong on Tuesday less than an hour after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was looking at banning the Chinese social media app over data and national security concerns.
TikTok, which has 1.6 million Australian users, maintains the decision was due to Hong Kong’s new national security laws, which would have compelled it to hand the information of pro-democracy protesters to the Chinese government.
But the chief executive of its China businesses, Kelly Zhang Nan, told Chinese media on Tuesday that the mainland version of the site, Douyin, would continue to operate in Hong Kong. Douyin is censored by Beijing and has suspended users for speaking Cantonese while publicising crackdowns on protesters.
Katherine Mansted, senior public policy advisor at Australian National University’s National Security College, said TikTok’s decision to withdraw from Hong Kong was both strategic and commercial.
“TikTok has come under a lot of global fire about of its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party and it has maintained that it doesn’t share data with authorities … that position would be almost impossible to maintain if it kept its product in Hong Kong,” Mansted said.
“On the practical reasons, the company that owns TikTok, ByteDance, has a rival product which is similar which it runs in China. In order to comply with the new national security rules in Hong Kong, it makes more sense for them to roll out that product.”
TikTok is facing increased scrutiny in countries like the US and Australia because of the links between Chinese-owned technology companies and the Chinese government. Local experts have previously raised concerns about the platform’s use of data and censorship. TikTok hit back against a call for it to be banned in Australia on Monday and is preparing to address a parliamentary committee where it will answer concerns over how it deals with user data.
Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Twitter and Telegram all said that they would not process any requests made of it by Hong Kong police as the sweeping new national security legislation designed to eliminate political dissent in the Chinese territory was codified on Tuesday.
Mansted said mainland China was notorious for excluding foreign companies that don’t comply with its laws. “Just as what the public can say in the street is changing, their digital experience is changing too,” she said.
In Hong Kong on Tuesday, dissenting books were stripped from shelves and schools were told to prepare to educate students about the new laws. The Financial Times reported Charles Ho, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, warned foreign journalists they could be kicked out “if they promote Hong Kong independence”.
Controversial national security laws for Hong Kong have been passed by China with Beijing saying it will create stability, whilst critics say it will undermine the city’s civil and political freedoms.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam rejected claims the laws would trigger the end of the “one country, two systems” handover treaty signed between China and the UK in 1997. “This is not doom and gloom for Hong Kong. In the passage of time confidence will grow,” she said. “The law actually removes fear and lets Hong Kong people return to a normal, peaceful life.”
The territory has been rocked by often violent protests in the past 15 months over the increasing influence of Beiijng. Protesters have been warned that they may be charged for holding up blank pieces of paper after all pro-independence slogans and chants were banned.
Federal cabinet will debate proposals to give visas to Hong Kong residents wanting to leave the former British colony on Wednesday, ahead of an expected announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison by the end of this week.
The 20,000 temporary migrants from Hong Kong already in Australia are likely to be given priority and any new arrivals will be recruited through the existing skills streams rather than through the humanitarian intake or a separate Hong Kong safe haven specific visa.
The government has substantial room to offer places given Australia’s immigration intake so far this year is expected to be a fraction of the 160,000 cap given the travel restrictions triggered by the coronavirus.