If there’s one thing to know about Hong Kong’s internet users, it’s that they love sharing their secrets on Facebook pages. Parents Secrets is full of complaints about irresponsible school teachers. In CUHK Secrets, students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong recount how they spotted cockroaches at a campus canteen. And inside Civil Servant Secrets, government workers vent about outdated typewriters and how colleagues were cooking soup in the office.

Those pages are now gone, along with thousands of anonymous posts sharing gossip, seeking advice, and protesting against government policies. In August, police in Hong Kong arrested two administrators of the Facebook page Civil Servant Secrets on suspicion of sedition, without specifying what content they found problematic. Shortly after the arrests, many other popular pages each with tens of thousands of followers shut down, as people feared becoming the next targets of Hong Kong’s crackdown on dissent.

“We don’t know where the red line is,” the administrator of the CityU Secrets page told Rest of World. Requesting anonymity to avoid being targeted by the authorities, they said that the page, founded in 2013, used to be a popular place for City University of Hong Kong students to criticize the school management, including its lack of support for students participating in the massive pro-democracy protest movement in 2019. But in recent years, the page had grown quieter as the school stepped up punishing students for criticizing the school in public, said the administrator. In 2020, for example, City University disciplined a student for making a song satirizing the university president.

After learning about the arrests this month, the moderators decided to take down the nearly decade-old page, along with about 80,000 posts. “If many people dare to speak up on ‘secrets,’ we might be able to risk running the page,” the administrator told Rest of World. “But now everyone is worried. Even speaking anonymously might not be safe.”

Following the anti-government movement in 2019, Hong Kong authorities have been steadily silencing opposition voices under a national security law imposed by Chinese leadership. Although the former British colony doesn’t have a formal censorship apparatus like the Great Firewall in mainland China, the law has opened the door for a crackdown on independent media outlets and arrests for social media posts that authorities deem problematic. As a result, it has led to a rise in self-censorship among residents of Hong Kong, leaving people with fewer avenues to hold authorities accountable. 

“Free speech continues to be further repressed, and government criticism will go even more underground,” Lokman Tsui, a fellow at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, told Rest of World, adding that it will make it harder for whistleblowers. Tsui, who taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, studies the city’s digital rights and freedom of speech.

Facebook pages that publish anonymous submissions recounting inside stories of government or private institutions first became popular in Hong Kong around 2013. Popular pages dedicated to local universities, secondary schools, airlines, and public institutions have allowed users to trade gossip, vent personal grievances, and, occasionally, reveal politicians’ wrongdoings. In 2016, an anonymous post on HA Secrets — HA is the shorthand for Hospital Authority, which manages all public hospitals in Hong Kong — accused pro-Beijing politician Tam Yiu-chung of jumping the queue for undergoing surgery at a public hospital. Tam eventually apologized

Not all pages deal with whistleblowing or wrongdoing. Some are focused on labor rights, allowing people to anonymously share salary details, so others know the right level of compensation to demand from employers. Others are filled with teenagers sharing their sexual experiences. Many of these pages became vibrant forums for political debates and advocacy during the 2019 protest movement. 

Facebook

After Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong in 2020, which led to the arrests of opposition leaders and the shutdown of pro-democracy media outlets, these pages were among the few outlets where people could express dissent anonymously in the form of organizational gossip and institutional secrets. In recent years, users have criticized Hong Kong’s harsh pandemic control measures and posted allegations about police misconduct.

About a week before the two administrators of Civil Servant Secrets were arrested on August 9, a video published to the page showed a police officer sleeping with his gun unattended. The officer was later put under a disciplinary investigation and prevented from carrying guns. It’s unclear if the incident is related to the recent arrests. The Hong Kong Police Force told Rest of World it would not comment on individual cases. When asked by Rest of World about how the police were able to identify Facebook page administrators, a Meta spokesperson said only that the company had paused the disclosure of user data to Hong Kong authorities following the passing of the 2020 national security law and that position hasn’t changed. 

Addressing the arrests, Hong Kong Secretary of Security Chris Tang said that people were allowed to criticize the government, but they could have breached the law if they were trying to provoke hatred or violence. But social media users are struggling to tell where the line is. Since 2020, several people have been arrested for publishing what the police have suspected to be seditious messages aimed at inciting violence or resisting the government’s Covid-19 measures. And the arrest of the administrators of these Facebook pages, without specifying exactly why, is increasing the fear that even mild expressions of discontent could carry a serious risk.

Chung Ching Kwong, a Hong Kong activist who works for the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a global coalition of legislators that seeks to counter Beijing’s influence, told Rest of World that a fear of national security charges had deterred many Hong Kongers from expressing themselves on social media. “What does it mean that I can criticize the government,” she said, “but I can’t make people upset about the government?”

Despite the crackdown, some Hong Kongers based overseas are trying to help bring back the Facebook pages. In recent weeks, two new pages — called Civil Servant Secrets 2.0 and Civil Servant Secrets 3.0 — have together gathered nearly 20,000 likes. Graduates from the Chinese University of Hong Kong have set up a New CUHK Secrets page for students to discuss issues such as school projects, sexual assaults, and mental health, the administrators wrote in a post this month.

The founder of Civil Servant Secrets 2.0, a former civil servant who now lives abroad, told Rest of World that he set up the page to defend free speech in Hong Kong. “The Hong Kong government has gone from cracking down on political organizations to cracking down on citizens’ interest groups,” said the person, who requested anonymity to avoid being targeted by the national security law. “Someone has to step up and take the risk.”