The Facebook Inc. website is displayed on an Apple Inc. Macbook Air laptop in an arranged photograph taken in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Johannes Berg/Bloomberg)

Facebook Faces Political Hurdle Over Banned Party in China

(Bloomberg) -- Facebook Inc. finds itself entangled in yet another political spat — this time with China, a market the social media giant is seeking to enter.

Police in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous part of China, have asked the company to remove the official page of the pro-independence National Party, which was slapped with an unprecedented government ban this week. The prohibition pledges fines and imprisonment for those aiding the group. Hong Kong officials made their request of Facebook after the measure was announced on Monday, according to the South China Morning Post.

The move to ban the National Party, which the government calls a risk to national security, is fueling concerns that Hong Kong’s administration wants to set a precedent for clamping down on opposition groups, eroding the city’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework in place since Chinese rule began in 1997. The request also puts the Menlo Park, California-based social media company in a difficult position, and refusal could hamper any future efforts to expand in China.

Fewer Curbs

While China censors media outlets and bans Facebook, Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google in the mainland, Hong Kong has relatively fewer restrictions on the press and the internet. The party’s Facebook page remained visible as of Wednesday afternoon Hong Kong time.

The Hong Kong police declined to comment on the South China Morning Post report, but said it will observe and collect evidence in accordance with the law and take appropriate enforcement actions based on the circumstances.

A Facebook spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. It’s not clear whether Hong Kong police asked Twitter or Google’s YouTube to remove the party’s official pages from their sites.

National Party leader Andy Chan declined to comment, adding that he hadn’t used the party’s Facebook page since it was banned. “I am going to call a press conference soon and I will answer all your questions then,” Chan said, and indicated that he’ll use his personal Facebook page to announce the date.

Hong Kong’s request also comes at a fraught moment for Facebook, which has dealt with waves of criticism in the U.S. and Europe over its handling of political content. Following reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, Facebook and other tech companies have faced mounting scrutiny over content moderation decisions. At a recent Senate hearing, lawmakers chastised the social media company and other Silicon Valley giants, including Alphabet’s Google, for their willingness to collaborate with China.

Firm Opposition

Facebook may be keen to avoid inflaming tensions in China. Earlier this year, its attempt to open an “innovation hub” in the country was blocked.

In China, the ruling Communist Party views any comments on Hong Kong’s affairs by foreign governments as an infringement of its own sovereignty. “Certain countries and institutions have made irresponsible remarks on the Hong Kong SAR government’s ban on the operation of the Hong Kong National Party,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday. “We express strong dissatisfaction with and firm opposition to this.”

Hong Kong’s push to ban the National Party immediately drew criticism from U.S. officials, amid an escalating trade dispute between the two countries. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert responded to Geng with a tweet on behalf of Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

“We are concerned by the #HongKong Government’s decision to ban the Hong Kong National Party,” the tweet said. “The U.S. supports the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. These are core values we share with Hong Kong, and that must be vigorously protected.”

Facebook has removed pages and posts that violate its policies on hate speech. In March, it blacklisted U.K. political party Britain First for “repeatedly posted content designed to incite animosity and hatred against minority groups.”

The company does not list a clear policy for how to treat banned political parties. But it could point to inflammatory political speech as a loophole.

In July — the day after Hong Kong’s government first proposed a ban on the National Party — the party wrote a Facebook post encouraging supporters “to fight back and drive out the Chinese colonizers.” Three days before President Xi Jinping arrived in the city in June 2017 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, another post on its official page featured an image of a fist smashing a grasshopper. The accompanying text read: “Crush the Chinese Colonizers!”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.