Hong Kong: Subscribers of overseas activists’ blogs and channels face legal threat

Screenshot from Ted Hui's Patreon.

The implementation of national security law (NSL) in Hong Kong has reached a new draconian level as the city’s police force arrested four paid subscribers of exiled activists’ online platforms last week.

The four individuals were alleged of “aiding” wanted activists Nathan Law and Ted Hui's secession and collusion crimes under the NSL with their paid subscription to their blogs.

Back in July, Hong Kong Police issued an arrest bounty of HKD 1 million (USD 130,000) on both Law and Hui,  along with six other exiled activists: Elmer Yuen (Hong Kong Parliament), Anna Kwok (Hong Kong Democracy Council), Dennis Kwok (ex law-maker), Mung Sui Tat (labour activist) and Kevin Yam (Barrister). 

Last week, the Hong Kong Police issued five more arrest bounties of HKD 1 million on exiled activists, including Simon Cheng, Frances Hui, Joey Siu, Johnny Fok and Tony Choi. 

All the 13 wanted individuals were accused of violating the national security law. These offences include incitement to secession, incitement to subversion, and collusion with foreign countries or external elements to endanger national security. 

During the press conference on the new bounties on December 14, the city's security authorities told the press that they had arrested four individuals who were paid subscribers of Nathan Law and Ted Hui's online platforms between December 2020 and November 2023.

Their subscription fees during the three years ranged from HKD 10,000 to 120,000 (USD 1,280 to 15,380), and thus, they were alleged to have committed the crime of aiding, assisting or funding separatism under Article 21 of the NSL. Under the offence, the sentence is between five and ten years imprisonment for severe cases, while for minor cases, it can be from short-term detention to five years imprisonment. 

It is believed that the four individuals are paid subscribers to Nathan Law and Ted Hui’s Patreon, a US-based online platform business for content creators to run a subscription service and sell digital products.

Since the shutdown of two major pro-democracy news outlets, Apple Daily News and Stand News, in 2021, critical voices and journalists have moved to Patreon to comment on the city’s current affairs and sustain their careers.

The news of the arrest has thus caused panic on social media as subscribers were worried that local banks or Patreon had leaked their personal information to the police authorities. Some Patreon writers have already seen an exodus of their subscribers.

Ted Hui believes that the arrest was a fear-mongering tactic. The ex-lawmaker, who is now based in Australia, shared his view on Facebook:

港府拘捕我Patreon的訂閱者,無非是要散播白色恐怖,對持相反政治立場的普通市民趕盡殺絕,完全是暴政所為。…我在律師樓執業的工作雖工資不高, 但有穩定的收入, 港共的跨國打壓伎倆是無法影響我生活的。…不論訂閱多寡, 為香港的自由發聲是我的志業, 我絕不會停止。

The goal Hong Kong government’s arrest of my Patreon subscribers is to create white terror. The tyranny wants to eliminate ordinary people who hold a different political stand… Currently, I have a stable income from my job in a legal firm, the HK-CCP repression would not affect my life… Regardless of the number of my subscribers, I am determined to voice out for Hong Kong’s freedom. And I won’t be stopped. 

While Patreon denied sharing user information with the Hong Kong authorities in a written response to Nathan Law on December 17, subscriber privacy has become a real issue for the human rights sector as spelt out by Alex Gladstein from the New York-based Human Rights Foundation: 

However, its not only paid subscribers facing legal threats — unpaid subscribers to social media platforms such as YouTube are also being threatened with legal consequences. 

In a radio program, Ronny Tong, the government’s Executive Committee member, warned that even free subscriptions to video channels run by wanted individuals could be considered “aiding” as such acts would increase their ad income. He urged people to cancel their subscriptions to the NSL violators.

In response to Ronny Tong’s radio talk, current affairs commentator Fung Hei-kin slammed the fear-mongering political tactics: 


If Mr. Ronny Tong's argument makes sense, why haven't the Hong Kong police prosecuted foreign forces like YouTube or Patreon for “aiding criminals”? The enforcement of the law is unclear, but senior barrister [Ronny Tong] said that even watching YouTube videos may be a crime, which will definitely scare foreign investors even more and jeopardize the interests of Hong Kong and the economy of the country, and there is no better way to do this than to do so.

Hong Kong is dubbed ‘a relic’ of an international financial centre as foreign capital has refrained from investing in the city due to political uncertainties.

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