A Hong Kong judge on Friday denied a government request to ban a popular protest song in a landmark decision after Google had resisted official pressure to alter internet search results for the city's anthem.
The development was a setback for Hong Kong leaders who are trying to crush a pro-democracy movement. They have been embarrassed when “Glory to Hong Kong" - written during mass protests against the government in 2019 - was mistakenly played at international sporting events instead of China's national anthem, “March of the Volunteers.”
Critics have warned that granting the request to prohibit the broadcast or distribution of the song would add to a decline in civil liberties since Beijing launched a crackdown following the 2019 protests. They said that might disrupt internet companies and hurt the city’s appeal as a business centre.
But some analysts cautioned the court’s decision on Friday does not mean that foreign tech giants can from now on let down their guard in Hong Kong, and said that political challenges surrounding their operations in the financial hub still linger.
Judge Anthony Chan said he considered whether a ban on the song would act as a wider deterrence than the city’s criminal law already in place. That includes a National Security Law imposed by Beijing in 2020 under which many of the city's leading activists have been arrested.
“I cannot be satisfied that it is just and convenient to grant the injunction,” he wrote in a ruling.
The government went to court after Google resisted pressure to display China’s national anthem as the top result in searches for the city’s anthem instead of “Glory to Hong Kong.”
Google had asked that a ruling prove the song violated the law before it could be removed, Hong Kong's Secretary for Innovation, Technology and Industry Sun Dong told a local broadcaster earlier. Google did not reply to a request for comment on its earlier exchanges with officials.
The city’s leader, Chief Executive John Lee, told reporters he had asked government lawyers to study the judgment and decide how to respond.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and was promised that it could keep its Western-style civil liberties intact for 50 years after the handover. But the security law and other changes since the 2019 protests have shrunk the openness and freedoms that were once hallmarks of the city.
The city’s secretary for justice sought the injunction last month after the song was mistakenly played as the city’s anthem at international events. And a mix-up in an ice hockey competition in February resulted in the city’s top sports body reprimanding the Hong Kong Ice Hockey Association, which appealed for forgiveness for what it called an “independent and unfortunate” event.
In seeking the court order, the government wanted to target anyone who uses the song to advocate for the separation of Hong Kong from China. It also sought to ban actions that use the song to incite others to commit secession and to insult the national anthem, including online.
However, Friday’s ruling will not mean the end of the controversy for tech giants, said George Chen, former head of public policy for Greater China at Meta.
He said it was a new beginning for the platforms and the government to work together on content-related issues, given there was “zero chance” that the government would just leave all versions of the protest song online.
“Now the ball is back to the government but it doesn’t mean platforms can relax,” said Chen, who now works as a managing director for business advisory firm The Asia Group.
He said the city is now a “highly political place” and many lawmakers were surprised by the ruling, predicting that the political pressure on content removal on tech platforms will remain.
“It may feel more like Season 1 of a long series,” he said.
Eric Lai, visiting researcher of King’s College London’s School of Law, said that the government was trying to abuse the legal system by using an injunction to tackle a political matter when it sought the court order. The ruling reflects that the court still wants to defend the integrity of the city’s legal system, Lai said.
“Had this injunction been granted by the court, it would further create a more restrictive environment for both the internet and the public,” he said.
Lai cautioned that it’s a worrying trend to see that the secretary for justice “is so eager to politicize the court and the legal proceedings” to suppress the opposition camp and dissenting opinions, adding that he would monitor how the government would respond to the decision.
The government earlier said the lyrics contain a slogan that could constitute a call for secession. The song was already banned at schools. It said that it respected freedoms protected by the city’s constitution, “but freedom of speech is not absolute.”
The 2019 protests were sparked by a proposed extradition law that would have allowed Hong Kong criminal suspects to be sent to the mainland for trial. The government withdrew the bill, but the protesters widened their demands to include direct elections for the city’s leaders and police accountability.