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YouTube shuts down channel of future Hong Kong leader, citing sanctions

Former chief secretary John Lee on April 11 in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

HONG KONG — Video-sharing platform YouTube terminated a campaign channel of Hong Kong’s likely next chief executive, John Lee, in compliance with U.S. sanctions, his office was told Wednesday.

“Google complies with applicable US sanctions laws and enforces related policies under its Terms of Service,” a Google spokesperson said in response to an inquiry from The Washington Post. (Google and YouTube are part of parent company Alphabet.) After a “review and consistent with these policies,” the company “terminated the Johnlee2022 YouTube channel.”

Google’s termination would impede Lee’s team from disseminating campaign materials and broadcasting his meetings with industry representatives, business executives and politicians, who are predominantly pro-Beijing members of a committee that picks the city’s chief executive.

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The U.S. sanctions date from August 2020 and relate to the role of Lee and others in suppressing the pro-democracy protests in the city.

The move probably will not affect Lee’s chances, because he is the only candidate approved by China to run for the office on May 8.

As former top security officer, he oversaw the crackdown against pro-democracy protesters in 2019, and he helped roll out the new national security law a year later. In June, Beijing appointed Lee as chief secretary, Hong Kong’s second-highest political position, and he became the first police officer to assume the role.

Lee called the sanctions “unreasonable,” a “bullying act” and a means to “exert pressure to make him have hesitations” regarding the upcoming election.

“Any country’s official should strive for the best to defend their country’s national security,” he said. “Their unreasonable act will just strengthen my belief that what I am doing is right.”

While Lee said he is disappointed at not being able to access some social media platforms, he stressed that he had other channels to explain his policy vision to citizens. As of Wednesday, Lee’s Facebook and Instagram campaign accounts were still operational.

According to a spokesperson from Meta, the parent company of Facebook, the company has “taken steps to prevent the use of payments services” to comply with the U.S. law, but Lee can “maintain a demonetized presence on Facebook and Instagram.”

“If we identify accounts maintained by or on behalf of people on the U.S. government’s list of specially designated nationals, we have a legal obligation to take certain action,” the spokesperson said.

Julian Ku, an international law expert at Hofstra University, said Google’s move is “not surprising” because Lee faces serious sanctions, and violations would subject Google to “potential criminal penalties if they don’t comply.”

“To the extent YouTube is generating funds from ads from Lee’s YouTube page, they would clearly be in violation of the sanctions,” Ku said.

Ku said it is common for technological firms to “discontinue all connections with a sanctioned individual” in case of retaliation. He cited the example of Google halting the use of the Android software in smartphones manufactured by Chinese tech giant Huawei in July to comply with sanctions.

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and a key member of Lee’s campaign team, said Lee’s team received a notification from Google on Wednesday morning informing them about a violation of the sanctions policy.

Tam said it was regrettable but would not affect Lee’s campaign.

In August 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Lee, then Hong Kong’s top security officer, along with Chief Executive Carrie Lam and nine other Hong Kong and mainland officials for “restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong.”

The sanctions blocked all U.S.-based assets belonging to those individuals and prohibited businesses from providing services to them.

The chief executive will be selected in May by a handpicked panel of about 1,500 members of the political and business elite known as the Election Committee.