Schools in Hong Kong have been told that they must remove books and teaching materials that could violate the sweeping national security law that was imposed by Beijing last week, sparking concerns over mounting censorship in the city.
The Education Bureau on Monday ordered schools to review all reading materials in the curriculum. The move comes on the same day that police were given expansive new investigative and surveillance powers over the territory and its citizens, including internet and publishing platforms.
“If any teaching materials have content which is outdated or involves the four crimes under the law, unless they are being used to positively teach pupils about their national security awareness or sense of safeguarding national security, otherwise if they involve other serious crime or socially and morally unacceptable act, they should be removed,” the Education Bureau said in a statement.
“School management and teachers should review all learning and teaching materials in a timely manner, including books,” the statement added.
The national security law dramatically broadens the powers of local and mainland authorities to investigate, prosecute and punish dissenters. It criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers and those who are convicted of such crimes can face sentences of up to life in prison.
Part of the new law includes the introduction of “national security education” in schools and universities. The last time Hong Kong tried to introduce Chinese civic education into local schools in 2012, tens of thousands of people protested on the streets, arguing it constituted mainland propaganda.
The directive to schools comes after several political activists reportedly had their books removed from public libraries in the city over the weekend.
Public libraries suspended loaning out several titles, with the library’s website listing them as “under review” on Saturday, according to public broadcaster RTHK.
Among the titles are two books written by Joshua Wong, the prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activist who helped lead the 2014 Umbrella Movement mass protests, and one from pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan.
Speaking to CNN on Monday, Wong said fundamental rights were being eroded the the city.
“If basic freedom still exists under the national security law, how come the book I published when I was still in high school was banned in the Hong Kong public library?” he said. “It’s not only about the political rights any more. It’s not only about the rights of protesters. It’s about the fundamental freedom or liberty that everyone cherish in this city, being eroded and fade out already.”
United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Chinese Communist Party’s handling of Hong Kong “Orwellian” saying in a statement the party’s “destruction of free Hong Kong continues.”
“With the ink barely dry on the repressive National Security Law, local authorities — in an Orwellian move — have now established a central government national security office, started removing books critical of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) from library shelves, banned political slogans, and are now requiring schools to enforce censorship,” he said in the statement.
“Until now, Hong Kong flourished because it allowed free thinking and free speech, under an independent rule of law. No more.”
In a press conference on Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam dismissed concerns that the law undermines people’s freedom, and said it will instead “restore stability” and help its residents “exercise their rights and freedoms, without being intimidated or attacked.”
“Instead of spreading fear, the law will actually remove fear and let Hong Kong people return to a normal peaceful life and Hong Kong will resume its status as one of the safest cities in the world,” she said.
To media workers concerned about censorship or prosecution under the law, Lam said, “if journalists can guarantee that they won’t breach this law, then I can also guarantee the same.”
Her comments come after the Hong Kong government on Monday said that it would conduct a six-month review of public broadcaster RTHK’s “governance and management” from July 15.
Expanded police powers
On Monday, Hong Kong Police were given expanded powers that include entering premises without a search warrant and stopping persons under investigation from leaving Hong Kong while conducting operations related to the national security law, according to a government press release.
The new investigative powers also allow the police to demand publishing platforms and internet service providers remove information that undermines national security.
This can be carried out with the approval of the Commissioner of Police and the Secretary of Justice, rather than a judge.
Police can also demand Taiwanese and overseas political organizers to submit information regarding their activities, wealth, and income in Hong Kong according to the statement. The Secretary for Security may order assets to be frozen if there is reasonable doubt that the property may contribute to undermining national security.
Anyone who fails to comply with police’s requests can be fined or jailed for up to two years.
The huge expansion of security powers were bestowed on police without any consultation with Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Operations under the national security law do not need legislative approval and their workings can remain secret from the public and immune to judicial review.
The vaguely-written nature of the law has sparked fear and concern among many citizens who are unsure where that red line is and how it will impact their lives. Offenses under the law are broad and far-reaching, with no certainty of what actions will be deemed illegal until prosecutions are brought.
The Hong Kong government, including the Chief Executive Lam, has repeatedly insisted that the new law won’t affect freedom of speech. But many, including journalists, artists, academics and businesspeople, are concerned that the law will lead to self-censorship.
Tech companies wary over data use
On Tuesday, popular video app TikTok said it will exit Hong Kong “In light of recent events.” It is unclear when TikTok — which is owned by Beijing-based startup ByteDance — will exit Hong Kong, or whether the Chinese version of the app, known as Douyin, will continue to be available, as is the case in mainland China.
Also on Tuesday, video conferencing platform Zoom became the latest tech company to announced it will pause processing requests for user data made by the Hong Kong government.
“Zoom supports the free and open exchange of thoughts and ideas,” it said. “We’re actively monitoring the developments in Hong Kong SAR, including any potential guidance from the US government.”
It comes after Facebook, Google and Twitter said they will stop processing similar requests made by Hong Kong law enforcement authorities while they carry out an assessment of the law.
Messaging app Telegram told local media Hong Kong Free Press that it “does not intend to process any data requests related to its Hong Kong users until an international consensus is reached in relation to the ongoing political changes in the city.” It added that the platform has never disclosed data to the Hong Kong authorities.
Encrypted messaging service Signal said in a tweet that it “never started turning over user data” to Hong Kong police and that it “does not have user data to hand over.”
Others, however, say they have no choice. Speaking to local media last week, Lento Yip Yuk-fai, chairman of the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association, said that companies will now have no choice but to help police if they make national security requests.