Explainer: American technology, China, and the fall of freedom in Hong Kong

July 9, 2020

It is no secret that the Chinese government has been leveraging technology in order to strengthen its standing throughout the world. Outside of mainland China, companies with deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), such as telecommunications giant Huawei, have been accused of using their technologies to aid the CCP in national security efforts. They do this by sharing private information in order for the country to gain an edge over their international rivals such as Europe and the United States. In recent years, China has become a technology superpower with major advances in artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and other emerging technologies, driven in large part by the state-backed partnerships forged by government leaders.

But inside the country, there have been blatant violations of human rights and religious liberty. Examples include the atrocities committed against minority people groups like the Uighur Muslims and those against Chinese citizens who live in a society without basic freedoms such as freedom of expression, press, and access to information. These freedoms are often blocked by a highly sophisticated censorship operation known as “The Great Firewall of China.” Anything interpreted as against the Chinese state is prohibited and filtered out for the public consumption. This Chinese oppression and control also extends to constant surveillance—especially through the use of facial recognition—as well as promises of widespread deployment of a social credit score system in order to clamp down on dissidents under the heavy hand of President Xi Jinping’s government.

What is the relationship between China and Hong Kong?

As ERLC policy director Chelsea Patterson Sobolik has written, “since the 1997 transition from the United Kingdom to China, Hong Kong has operated under a system of law that guaranteed a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement for the city. Under this system, Hongkongers have enjoyed economic and civil freedoms that people in mainland China do not.” Hong Kong, while residing in mainland China, has operated with a separate government from that of the rest of China, and the people of Hong Kong were guaranteed certain freedoms that the rest of China does not enjoy. But these freedoms have been short lived as Beijing has implemented a drastic new security bill designed to crackdown on dissidents and any foriegn influence on the people of Hong Kong, which in many ways brings Hong Kong under the same level of control and surveillance as the rest of China.

This security bill, which went into full effect on July 1, was drafted in secret by the Beijing government, and the contents of the bill were not even known to the government leaders of Hong Kong until its passage. While certain details are still vague, it seems that under the new law any company doing business in Hong Kong must hand over a wide range of customer information and comply with censorship requests from the Chinese government. This security law will extend the draconian levels of Chinese censorship and digital surveillance to Hong Kong, which has historically enjoyed freedoms that Chinese citizens have not because of the unique “one country, two governments” approach since the 1997 transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China.

What just happened?

In recent days, a number of technology companies have withdrawn or paused operations in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong amidst rising tensions in the city. Companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter have vowed to stop honoring government requests for information in Hong Kong as they push back against this sweeping security bill. Currently it seems that these U.S.-based companies are pausing these requests until they can assess the ramifications of the new law, but there is hope that these companies may use their influence to push for greater freedoms in Hong Kong.

As Vox reports, this pushback “represents a rare moment when big American tech companies are contesting China’s tight grip on information in the country.” Facebook and Twitter have long been barred from mainland China and its 1.4 billion inhabitants over their refusals to abide by the surveillance and censorship rules set by Beijing. Google has operated in a limited capacity in China, but many have questioned the company’s future plans to expand in the Chinese market. All three U.S. firms have operated freely in Hong Kong until this recent move with the new security bill.

Even Chinese-owned Byte-Dance, parent company of the viral TikTok video app, has stated that it will cease operations in Hong Kong over the next few days even though the Hong Kong market is small compared to other markets. Interestingly, this move by TikTok comes days after India banned TikTok over concerns of collusion with the Chinese government, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s indication that the United States may also be considering a similar ban based on similar security concerns.

Why does this matter?

The refusal to hand over user information to government officials by these technology companies may signal a greater willingness to push back against the Chinese abuse of power than we have seen in the past and a massive opportunity to raise awareness of the human rights violations in China and Hong Kong. As these U.S. firms refuse to comply with the stipulations imposed by Beijing—citing basic human rights and freedom of expression for their users—there is a real cost for them financially because they will be cutting themselves off from the entirety of the expansive Chinese market. This tense situation in Hong Kong may lead to real change and lasting efforts to reign in the abuse of power seen by the CCP in Hong Kong and hopefully throughout the rest of China. But the prospect of the CCP losing power is likely bleak.

The stand taken by these U.S. firms is an encouraging sign that the United States, as a whole, may continue to challenge the CCP—both economically and morally—as these companies seem to be standing with the pro-democracy and pro-human rights efforts in Hong Kong. With the sweeping new security law, lawmakers have been debating how the United States and similarly situated nations should respond in the midst of this crisis in Hong Kong. While many technology companies are not honoring government requests for data or shutting down services completely in Hong Kong, there are other ways that the United States and other nations can intervene by putting pressure on the Chinese government to stop this political persecution in Hong Kong, but also provide for those fleeing this persecution. 

The ERLC has been doing considerable work on these issues in Hong Kong and surrounding areas, raising awareness and supporting many efforts like the recently announced Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which is a piece of legislation that allows the U.S., to be a refuge for Hongkongers fleeing political persecution. Other efforts such as activist movements and efforts to raise public awareness have been taking place for months amid major protests in Hong Kong over this security bill and other moves by the Chinese government to exert control over the people in Hong Kong, which is in violation of the 1997 agreement.

As Christians, we are called by God to stand with the oppressed and vulnerable—wherever they may reside throughout the world—because we believe in the dignity of every human life as created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-28). While the fate and freedom of Hongkongers is in peril, it is imperative for the world community to speak out against these injustices and the blatant violations of basic human rights by the Chinese Communist Party, as we stand alongside the people of Hong Kong who seek to exercise their God-given rights of freedom of expression.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24