Following a number of incidents in which the 2019 protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” was played at international sporting events, the Hong Kong government has requested that Google manually manipulate its search results to ensure that the Chinese national anthem appears as a top search result for certain queries.
Despite public pressure from Chris Tang Ping-keung, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security, Google has thus far refused the request, citing a company policy that prohibits Google from blocking, removing, or re-ranking most search results. Google’s policy experts and lawyers have argued that the Hong Kong government has no legal basis for its demands, in contrast with other authorities—for example, the United States government or the European Union’s Court of Justice—who have successfully used judicial and regulatory means to alter Google’s behavior in their respective jurisdictions.
The mainland Chinese government has also stepped in on the side of Hong Kong authorities, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin announcing Beijing’s support for the efforts to force Google to change its search results.
This type of political interference by Hong Kong’s government is not unique to Google’s case. Bloomberg News has also reported that financial market analysts in Hong Kong and mainland China are indicating that self-censorship related to political pressure has severely curtailed their ability to provide accurate research, internal reporting, and data collection. Per Bloomberg’s report, financial analysts feel strongly that their quality of work is strongly impacted by declining civil liberties in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government’s efforts to pressure Google shows the degree to which the political risk environment has changed for international companies operating in Hong Kong. As noted in HKDC’s recent report Business Not as Usual: International Companies in the New Authoritarian Hong Kong, the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy have made it necessary for multinational corporations doing business in Hong Kong to develop a set of Hong Kong-specific policies, guidelines, and due-diligence processes that will help them deal with the city’s increasingly authoritarian government.
The increasing pressure felt by finance employees in Hong Kong also demonstrates another issue raised by HKDC’s Business Not as Usual: the threat that Hong Kong’s National Security Law may threaten the safety of individuals employed by international companies. International companies operating in the city should consider not just the reputational risks that come with continuing to do business in a city like Hong Kong, but also the risks posed by Hong Kong’s growing authoritarianism to their employees.