HONG KONG — YouTube has taken down the campaign channel of John Lee, Hong Kong’s only candidate for its top leadership position, citing sanctions imposed on him by the U.S.
The rare move by the platform, which is run by Google, comes after Washington announced sanctions against Lee and other Hong Kong and Chinese officials in 2020 over what it said were their roles in eroding the Chinese territory’s freedoms under a national security law that Beijing imposed earlier that year in response to months of anti-government protests.
“Google complies with applicable U.S. sanctions laws and enforces related policies under its Terms of Service,” a company spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday. “After review and consistent with these policies, we terminated the Johnlee2022 YouTube channel.”
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Separately, Facebook owner Meta, also citing U.S. sanctions, said Lee could maintain “demonetized presences” on Facebook and Instagram and that it had taken steps to prevent the use of payment services.
The YouTube channel’s termination was first reported by The South China Morning Post.
Lee’s campaign office said it was “disappointed” by the decision.
“The termination reflects the flagrant hegemonic tactics employed by the U.S. government,” it said in a statement. “Imposing the so-called sanction on Mr. Lee so as to intimidate him will not in any way affect his strong determination to continue to safeguard national security.”
The statement added that the channel’s termination would not affect the campaign.
“Mr. Lee will continue to use his best efforts to reach out to the public to explain his platform and to hear their views through many different means and channels,” it said.
While services such as YouTube, Facebook and Instagram are banned in mainland China, they are available in Hong Kong, which was promised a period of greater freedoms under the “one country, two systems” principle when the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Critics say those freedoms have been greatly curbed under the national security law, which was imposed in June 2020 and makes the crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces punishable by up to life in prison.
Government officials have defended the law as necessary to restore stability after the 2019 protests, which were sometimes violent.
In August 2020, when Lee was Hong Kong’s security secretary, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on him and 10 other people, including the territory’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, “for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy and restricting the freedom of expression or assembly of the citizens of Hong Kong.” It said Lee was being sanctioned over his role in implementing and enforcing the national security law.
The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets held by the officials and bar Americans from doing business with them.
Lee was later promoted to chief secretary, the city’s No. 2 position. He resigned this month to run for chief executive after Lam said she would not seek a second term.
Hong Kong’s chief executive is chosen by a 1,500-member Election Committee, the composition of which is now further controlled by Beijing after electoral reforms last year designed to ensure that only “patriots” loyal to China could run.
Since the crackdown on dissent, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers are mostly in prison or self-exile or have resigned from politics, and a legislative election in December drew record low turnout in what some said was an expression of voter antipathy. This week, two people accused of sharing a Facebook post urging voters to spoil their ballots in that election received suspended sentences of two months in prison.
Lee, 64, a former career police officer, has not yet released his manifesto for the chief executive election, which will be held May 8 after it was postponed from March because of a coronavirus outbreak. He is expected to emphasize security issues and has said one of his top priorities will be to enact local national security legislation known as Article 23.