In recent years, pro-Beijing Oriental Daily have sued forums in Hong Kong for using a defamatory epithet of the newspaper, which is about the founders’ dark past. The once obscure epithet has become a “household name” across the internet, and netizens have been exploring every creative way just to mention it indirectly.
On June 13th, HKGolden, a forum of great cultural and political influence, banned several hundred members, many of whom strongly advocate for social activism, anti-Chinese Communist Party, and even Hong Kong independence. The CEO of HKGolden, Joe Lam, quickly denied that the ban was a political suppression and stated that he just wanted to stop defamatory comments against Oriental Daily, as the newspaper sued the forum for libel and won the court case.
However, many members conjecture that avoiding libel is just an excuse to conceal political suppression.
“The Great Purge” broke out in HKGolden! Recently, the forum has banned several hundred members, many of whom always make provocative political statements. The ban quickly fuelled the speculation on “political censorship”. Some “Golden Boys” lamented that even “the last paradise of free speech”, HKGolden, has fallen.
I contacted many HKGolden members and found the situation was quite serious. Many banned members insisted that they are innocent. Meanwhile, scholars think that the internet is an effective tool to mobilise support. If it loses freedom, social activism will also be hampered.
HKGolden began operation in 2000. At first, it was a site discussing PC news. Later, as members (commonly known as “Golden Boys”) gathered at the site’s “blow water channel” (“blow water” means “chat” in Cantonese), photoshopping pictures and rewriting lyrics of pop songs, the site evolved into a chatting platform for everything. The recognition of the site grew as well.
Politically, Golden Boys are obviously pan-democratic. Inheriting the outspoken and radical characteristics of HKGolden, Golden Boys have become an important force of recent political incidents and exerted considerable influence. For example, last year, Golden Boys initiated a fundraising campaign for the anti-“double negatives” (anchor babies) advertisement, and they successfully published “Hongkongers have had enough!” on two newspapers, pushing the anti-“double negatives” atmosphere to the climax. In May 2013, Golden Boys were unhappy that the Legislative Council appropriated funds to Sichuan earthquake relive effort, so they bought the advertisement “Hong Kong citizens were forced to donate 100M to corrupted officials’, earning applause across the Internet. Besides, in 2011 district board electoral fraud scandal, Golden Boys were the first to reveal that the government stored up voter notification cards. The incident was escalated after media coverage. Legislative Council member Gary Fan, whose political ideology is congenial to Golden Boys, bluntly admitted right after his election victory that had he get no support from them, he would lose.
As the mainstream media is tightening censorship, Golden Boys actively use the Internet, making the impossible possible. However, exactly because Golden Boys are that “provocative”, some people don’t want the phenomenon to continue. Recently, they have started to “rectify” Golden Boys.
On June 13th, several hundred members were suddenly banned. Many of them frequently criticise Hong Kong and China governments. The ban quickly leaded to protest. HKGolden’s management issued a statement next day that the site had accumulated some defamatory contents. Therefore, following legal advice, the forum decided to remove related contents. The statement even accused that members who guided others to make defamatory comments are the real “culprits”, so they were banned as well. When the CEO of HKGolden, Joe Lam, gave interviews to the media, he refused to reveal the number of banned members. He didn’t agree that the ban was “sudden”, and he emphasised that the forum has always banned members according to regulations.
I have learnt from many Golden Boys that the ban is more serious than what we think. According to a Google document created by a Golden Boy, before the deadline of submitting this article, more than 350 members were banned! Many of the banned members have never left comments in those defamatory threads. Another suspicious thing is that some banned members are the initiator and participants of the fundraising campaign for the advertisement “Hong Kong citizens were forced to donate to corrupted officials”; another “victim” is netizen 朗思 (*a Facebook blogger), who is famous for protesting against Mainlandisation; the Facebook page “HKGolden June 13th Incident” was suddenly disappeared from Facebook.
Why did HKGolden carry out this “great purge”? Many Golden Boys pointed their fingers at Joe Lam, the CEO of HKgolden. There is no smoke without fire. I found that Lam is a founding member of the Online Service Providers Alliance, which belongs to the Internet Professional Association (iProA), whose founder and the former chairman is DAB’s Elizabeth Quat. The present chairman, Hung Wai Man, is a CPPCC member and the honorary chairman of Y. Elites Association. Other members Gary Yeung Man-yui and Gary Chao Yuk-ming have represented DAB in elections. In 2010, as Joe Lam leaded HKGolden to join pro-Beijing IProA, the act quickly drew criticism from Golden Boys. Unfortunately, Lam only replied, “I have no intentions to censor comments”.
What I worry is, behind the storm is a gigantic change of the online environment. The internet has always been the freest place for speech. In recent years, many big political incidents also started out from the internet. Forums should be frontiers of speech, deepening understanding of issues and mobilising support at the same time. However, Hong Kong internet forums show signs of being censored.
Hong Kong has 4 major forums. According to Alexa, the traffic ranking of Hong Kong major forums in descending order is Discuss, Uwants, HKGolden, and Baby Kingdom. Among them, Baby Kingdom is the most censored. In 2008, Baby Kingdom expanded into the Mainland Chinese market and established “Baby Kingdom Shenzhen: Gugu Baby”, wishing to promote communications between parents of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. However, since then, (Hong Kong) netizens have complained that their comments were censored. According to Hong Kong Daily last year, Baby Kingdom removed “Hot Issues” board for no reason. When senior members inquired about the removal, an admin answered, “The board is to let parents discuss politics conveniently. I don’t want it… to become to a place of political wrestling. Therefore, I removed the short cut to the board…” Later, members found that the forum hired a Shenzhen editor, whose duties include “maintaining and guiding the community’s order and opinion”. The employment quickly drew criticism from lots of members. I found that members have been complaining that comments criticising Mainland Chinese are banned. It is also saddening that some members were banned because they had criticised the forum.
I consulted Baptist University Social Work Professor Shiu Ka-chun… “HKGolden is a bellwether of the society; a utopia of internet freedom…” He stated that if the situation worsens, vitality of future social activism will be weakened.
(*If you want to learn what the derogatory epithet is, please refer to line 26S of the court document.)