Hong Kong
Suppressing a City Song

'Glory to Hong Kong' Is Banned in Hong Kong

This story was produced and published by Asia Democracy Chronicles. Art credit: Asia Democracy Chronicles

Now you hear it, now you don’t. 

If you happen to be in Hong Kong, chances are it will be the latter, at least if what you want to hear is “Glory to Hong Kong.” 

For the last two months or so, the song has been disappearing and reappearing, and then disappearing again on various streaming platforms accessed by those in the city. Google and YouTube have also blocked Hong Kong users from accessing videos covered by a recent court injunction against the song.

The moves have upset many and raised concerns about the ever-dwindling freedoms in Hong Kong. But Google and YouTube caving in particular has sparked grave worries about internet freedom in the future.

The question now is: If the Hong Kong government uses the injunction to request Alphabet, the parent company of Google and YouTube, to take down more videos about the song, or gets another injunction for banning other content on the internet, will it and other technology giants do so?

A prominent pro-democracy anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong,” first gained popularity during the 2019 protests in the city, and has been in the Hong Kong government’s crosshairs since.  

In September 2022, a 43-year-old man was arrested for sedition after playing the song on a harmonica when people were queuing to pay tribute to the late Queen Elizabeth II outside the British consulate in Hong Kong.

n October 2023, a court handed down a 30-day prison sentence to a 69-year-old busker who had played the song on an erhu, a two-stringed musical instrument, outside metro stations and a walkway. Although the busker was charged only with illegal performance and fundraising instead of national security offenses, the judge said that it was a serious case involving national security. 

She also described the defendant’s behavior as “soft resistance,” a phrase that the government uses to describe the dissemination of “misleading” information or so-called “anti-government” messages via different forms of art. 

Due to the risk of prosecution, no one performs “Glory to Hong Kong” in public anymore. But this is apparently not enough for the government, which seeks to eradicate the song from Hong Kong entirely. 

Song gets legal shove

Last year, the Hong Kong government went to court to have the song banned in the city, but the Hong Kong High Court rejected the application. This May, however, an appeal court overturned that ruling, and accepted the government’s argument that “prosecutions alone are clearly not adequate to tackle the acute criminal problems and that there is a compelling need for an injunction.”

Days after the appeal court issued its ruling, the song’s then distributor, the Scotland-based EmuBands, removed it from streaming platforms, citing the court order. Google and YouTube also started blocking access to the 32 videos covered by the injunction.

The song’s creator subsequently found another distributor to re-upload ‘Glory to Hong Kong,’ but the new distributor, based in the United States, took down the song, too, a few days later. 

Yet the court did not completely ban the song, which means there was no reason for the distributors to remove it to comply with the order. As for Google and YouTube, statements made last July by Secretary for Innovation, Technology and Industry Sun Dong indicated that the companies’ refusal to comply with the government’s request to remove the song from their search requests had actually prompted the quest for a court order.

“Google said you must have evidence to prove that [the song] violated local laws, that [we] needed a court order,” the online Hong Kong Free Press quoted Sun as saying. “Very well, since you brought up a legal issue, let’s use legal means to solve the problem.”

And as it has turned out, that was all it took for Google and YouTube to do what the government had long wanted.

Corporate responsibility

Although hearing the song may have constantly made the ears of Hong Kong authorities itchy, it was not until several incidents in which sport event organizers mistakenly played the song as Hong Kong’s national anthem that a serious campaign to get rid of it began. 

The error had occurred apparently because the song appeared at the top of Google’s search results when searching for “Hong Kong’s anthem.” 

For sure, there had been growing concerns on whether or not private companies would comply with government requests after the 2020 imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong. The law grants the authorities sweeping powers to crack down on human rights and freedom; the U.N. Human Rights Committee has already called for its repeal, stating that it restricts a wide range of human rights. Facilitating the government’s request under the national security law can therefore be seen as equivalent to assisting human rights abuses.

The huge Chinese market is certainly a key consideration for many companies. But as the distributors of  “Glory to Hong Kong” have demonstrated, simply avoiding political trouble or the risk of irritating governments – even those with which they do not have direct business  – is enough for some companies to succumb under pressure and compromise. 

One could argue it reflects their lack of commitment and determination in defending human rights, particularly when facing influential powers like China.

Private companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, however. The U.N Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights states clearly that business enterprises should “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts” and seek to prevent the impacts “that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” They also need to take the necessary steps to cease the impacts.

By taking down “Glory to Hong Kong” from all streaming platforms, the song’s distributors did the contrary; it helped the Hong Kong government deprive people of a basic right to access information.

The same can be said of Google and YouTube when they blocked access to the 32 videos to users in Hong Kong.

The interim injunction order granted by the court does restrain anyone from broadcasting, performing, printing, publishing, selling, or disseminating its melody or lyrics – but with the intent of inciting others to commit secession or with a seditious intention to advocate separation of Hong Kong from China. 

Notably, though, the court in its judgment said that the injunction was necessary to persuade technology companies “to remove the problematic videos in connection with the Song (sic) on their platforms.”

Giants’ decision

As one of the major technology giants in the world, Alphabet has always said that it is committed to human rights. Indeed, in the past, the company and its subsidiaries had refused to comply with requests from Hong Kong authorities. 

Just last year, for example, YouTube repeatedly refused requests from the Hong Kong police to remove specific content, among them five videos about an imprisoned activist and two videos about “Glory to Hong Kong” being played as the national anthem in a sporting event.

But the recent decision of two of Alphabet’s subsidiaries has now triggered concerns about its human rights commitment. On June 4, the chairs of the bipartisan U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) sent a letter to Google and YouTube CEOs calling for restoring the videos and urging Google to fulfill its human rights obligations as a business enterprise.

In 2010, Google made a noisy exit from China, citing continued efforts by Beijing to police and censor its search results. Yet before it did so, it had been quietly trying to heed Beijing’s directives – until rights activists and even its own employees found out about what it had been doing and began hounding it to stop. 

The U.S.-based news, information, and services platform The China Project asserts that Google never really left China, and that today Alphabet and its subsidiaries not only have investments in Chinese companies, but also have “presence” in the country itself. 

This helps explain Google and YouTube’s recent decisions – which unfortunately could be taken as a model by other tech giants and business enterprises in responding to government requests that endanger human rights, such as blocking websites or providing personal information for political prosecution.

Despite its draconian national security laws and its continued crackdown on civil society and dissenters, the Hong Kong government wants to depict the city as the same international financial hub that it was before, where human rights and freedom are respected and observed.

But the saga of “Glory to Hong Kong” illustrates the increasingly challenging environment that business enterprises face there. It also reminds us of the need to monitor whether these enterprises comply with their human rights responsibilities when operating in Hong Kong, and just about anywhere else.

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