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Cambodia’s Internet May Soon Be Like China’s: State-Controlled

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The day Kea Sokun was arrested in Cambodia, four men in plainclothes showed up at his photography shop near Angkor Wat and carted him off to the police station. Mr. Kea Sokun, who is also a popular rapper, had released two songs on YouTube, and the men said they needed to know why he’d written them.

“They kept asking me: ‘Who is behind you? What party do you vote for?’” Mr. Kea Sokun said. “I told them, ‘I have never even voted, and no one controls me.’”

The 23-year-old artist, who says his songs are about everyday struggles in Cambodia, was sentenced to 18 months in an overcrowded prison after a judge found him guilty of inciting social unrest with his lyrics. His case is part of a crackdown in which dozens have been sent to jail for posting jokes, poems, pictures, private messages and songs on the internet.

Vietnam to Turkey, and that it will deepen the clash over the future of the web.

National Internet Gateway, set to begin operating on Feb. 16, will send all internet traffic — including from abroad — through a government-run portal. The gateway, which is mandatory for all service providers, gives state regulators the means to “prevent and disconnect all network connections that affect national income, security, social order, morality, culture, traditions and customs.”

Government surveillance is already high in Cambodia. Each ministry has a team that monitors the internet. Offending content is reported to an internet crime unit in the Ministry of Interior, the center of the country’s robust security apparatus. Those responsible can be charged with incitement and sent to prison.

But rights groups say that the new law will make it even easier for the authorities to monitor and punish online content, and that the recent arrests are meant to further intimidate citizens into self-censorship in a country where free speech is enshrined in the Constitution.

“The authorities are emboldened by China as an example of an authoritarian state that gives Cambodia political cover, new technology and financial resources,” said Sophal Ear, a dean at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University whose family escaped the Khmer Rouge, the murderous regime that seized power in Cambodia in 1975.

arrested in October.

In August, a former agriculture professor was sentenced to 18 months in prison for making jokes on Facebook about requiring chickens to wear anti-Covid masks. He was charged with incitement and with defaming the prime minister, as well as the minister of agriculture.

Weeks later, a farmer, frustrated by the government’s failed promise to subsidize longan crops while the pandemic kept borders closed to exports, posted a video of tons of his annual harvest going to rot. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

Of more than 30 arrests made over digital content since 2020, the most publicized one involved an autistic 16-year-old who was released in November. The teenager, Kak Sovann Chhay, had been jailed for comments he made in a chat group on Telegram, the private messaging app.

has more than 13 million followers.

Internet service providers have asked the authorities to provide more clarity about the gateway. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said in a statement that it had “joined with other stakeholders in sharing our feedback on this new law with the Cambodian government, and expressing our strong support for a free and open internet.”

prime minister “Zoom-bombed” an online meeting for members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party. He took to Facebook to explain the intrusion: “This entry was just to give a warning message to the rebel group to be aware that Mr. Hun Sen’s people are everywhere.”

San Mala, a senior advocacy officer with the Cambodian Youth Network, said activists and rights groups were already using coded language to communicate across online messaging platforms, knowing that the authorities had been emboldened by the decree.

“As a civil society organization, we are concerned about this internet gateway law because we fear that our work will be subjected to surveillance or our conversations will be eavesdropped on or they will be able to attend online meetings with us without invitation or permission,” said Mr. San Mala, 28.

Khmer Land,” one of the songs that got him arrested, now has more than 4.4 million views on YouTube, and Mr. Kea Sokun is already working on his next album.

“I’m not angry, but I know what happened to me is unfair,” he said. “The government made an example out of me to scare people who talk about social issues.” He said he could have had his sentence reduced if he had apologized, but he refused.

“I won’t say I’m sorry,” Mr. Kea Sokun said, “and I never will.”

Soth Ban and Meas Molika contributed reporting.

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Hong Kong’s Security Law: One Year Later, a City Remade

HONG KONG — With each passing day, the boundary between Hong Kong and the rest of China fades faster.

The Chinese Communist Party is remaking this city, permeating its once vibrant, irreverent character with ever more overt signs of its authoritarian will. The very texture of daily life is under assault as Beijing molds Hong Kong into something more familiar, more docile.

Residents now swarm police hotlines with reports about disloyal neighbors or colleagues. Teachers have been told to imbue students with patriotic fervor through 48-volume book sets called “My Home Is in China.” Public libraries have removed dozens of books from circulation, including one about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

when antigovernment protests erupted.

Now, armed with the expansive national security law it imposed on the city one year ago, Beijing is pushing to turn Hong Kong into another of its mainland megacities: economic engines where dissent is immediately smothered.

goose-step in the Chinese military fashion, replacing decades of British-style marching. City leaders regularly denounce “external elements” bent on undermining the country’s stability.

Senior officials in Hong Kong have assembled, right hands raised, to pledge fealty to the country, just as mainland bureaucrats are regularly called on to “biao tai,” Mandarin for “declaring your stance.”

also warn of termination or other vague consequences if violated. Mr. Li had heard some supervisors nagging his colleagues to fill out the form right away, he said, and employees competing to say how quickly they had complied.

“The rules that were to protect everyone — as employees and also as citizens — are being weakened,” Mr. Li said.

purge candidates it deemed disloyal, Beijing called the change “perfecting Hong Kong’s electoral system.” When Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to close after the police arrested its top executives, the party said the publication had abused “so-called freedom of the press.” When dozens of opposition politicians organized an informal election primary, Chinese officials accused them of subversion and arrested them.

helped lead an operation that smuggled students and academics out of the mainland.

But Beijing is more sophisticated now than in 1989, Mr. Chan said. It had cowed Hong Kong even without sending in troops; that demanded respect.

end of an era.

The rush of mainland money has brought some new conditions.

declaring that those who do not go risk missing opportunities.

Growing up in Hong Kong, Toby Wong, 23, had never considered working on the mainland. Her mother came from the mainland decades earlier for work. Salaries there were considerably lower.

promising to subsidize nearly $1,300 of a $2,300 monthly wage — higher than that of many entry-level positions at home. A high-speed rail between the two cities meant she could return on weekends to see her mother, whom Ms. Wong must financially support.

Ms. Wong applied to two Chinese technology companies.

“This isn’t a political question,” she said. “It’s a practical question.”

many signals were missed.

  • Mapping Out China’s Post-Covid Path: Xi Jinping, China’s leader, is seeking to balance confidence and caution as his country strides ahead while other places continue to grapple with the pandemic.
  • A Challenge to U.S. Global Leadership: As President Biden predicts a struggle between democracies and their opponents, Beijing is eager to champion the other side.
  • ‘Red Tourism’ Flourishes: New and improved attractions dedicated to the Communist Party’s history, or a sanitized version of it, are drawing crowds ahead of the party’s centennial.
  • The Hong Kong government has issued hundreds of pages of new curriculum guidelines designed to instill “affection for the Chinese people.” Geography classes must affirm China’s control over disputed areas of the South China Sea. Students as young as 6 will learn the offenses under the security law.

    Lo Kit Ling, who teaches a high school civics course, is now careful to say only positive things about China in class. While she had always tried to offer multiple perspectives on any topic, she said, she worries that a critical view could be quoted out of context by a student or parent.

    accused it of poisoning Hong Kong’s youth. The course had encouraged students to analyze China critically, teaching the country’s economic successes alongside topics such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

    Officials have ordered the subject replaced with a truncated version that emphasizes the positive.

    “It’s not teaching,” Ms. Lo said. “It’s just like a kind of brainwashing.” She will teach an elective on hospitality studies instead.

    Schoolchildren are not the only ones being asked to watch for dissent. In November, the Hong Kong police opened a hotline for reporting suspected violations of the security law. An official recently applauded residents for leaving more than 100,000 messages in six months. This week, the police arrested a 37-year-old man and accused him of sedition, after receiving reports that stickers pasted on the gate of an apartment unit potentially violated the security law.

    most effective tools of social control on the mainland. It is designed to deter people like Johnny Yui Siu Lau, a radio host in Hong Kong, from being quite so free in his criticisms of China.

    Mr. Lau said a producer recently told him that a listener had reported him to the broadcast authority.

    “It will be a competition or a struggle, how the Hong Kong people can protect the freedom of speech,” Mr. Lau said.

    censor films deemed a danger to national security. Some officials have demanded that artwork by dissidents like Ai Weiwei be barred from museums.

    Still, Hong Kong is not yet just another mainland metropolis. Residents have proved fiercely unwilling to relinquish freedom, and some have rushed to preserve totems of a discrete Hong Kong identity.

    font of hope and pride amid a resurgence in interest in Canto-pop.

    Last summer, Herbert Chow, who owns Chickeeduck, a children’s clothing chain, installed a seven-foot figurine of a protester — a woman wearing a gas mask and thrusting a protest flag — and other protest art in his stores.

    But Mr. Chow, 57, has come under pressure from his landlords, several of whom have refused to renew his leases. There were 13 Chickeeduck stores in Hong Kong last year; now there are five. He said he was uncertain how long his city could keep resisting Beijing’s inroads.

    “Fear — it can make you stronger, because you don’t want to live under fear,” he said. Or “it can kill your desire to fight.”

    Joy Dong contributed research.

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    In a Charged Environment, France Tackles Its Model of Secularism

    PARIS — The French government on Tuesday initiated a wide-ranging public debate on France’s model of secularism, seeking to gain the upper hand on a contentious topic that has roiled the nation in recent months and is likely to be a battleground in a presidential election next year.

    Marlène Schiappa, the minister of citizenship, assembled a small group of intellectuals at a gathering in Paris, kicking off what is expected to be a monthslong series of discussions that she described as the “Estates-General on laïcité’’ — referring to the historic assemblies held in France to debate the fundamentals of French society.

    Known as laïcité, the French secularism separating church and state has served as the bedrock of the country’s political system for more than a century.

    “In every country, there are words that are important, that can’t be overlooked,’’ Ms. Schiappa said, describing laïcité as an idea in which “French destiny is found.’’

    announced to a French newspaper over the weekend, caught many by surprise because of its timing and its intentions. It is starting just as lawmakers are wrapping up work on a bill that is intended to reinforce the country’s principles of secularism and to combat Islamism.

    Led by Ms. Schiappa — a high-profile minister who has espoused a strict view on secularism — the debate comes as President Emmanuel Macron tries to fend off an increasing threat from the right and far right ahead of next year’s presidential election.

    As Mr. Macron tries to burnish his credentials as a defender of a strict vision of laïcité, he has also moved to seize another issue important to right-wing voters: crime.

    Following months of attention on the government’s stumbling coronavirus vaccination campaign, Mr. Macron pledged on Monday to be tough on crime, to crack down on recreational drugs and to recruit 10,000 additional police officers by the end of his current five-year term. The promises were made in a long, tough-talking interview he gave to a conservative newspaper, Le Figaro, that another publication described as reminiscent of Rudolph Giuliani, the combative former mayor of New York.

    On Monday, Mr. Macron visited drug-dealing spots in the southern city of Montpellier, talking to police officers and riding along inside a police car. Even as Ms. Schiappa inaugurated the debate on secularism, Mr. Macron’s prime minister and justice minister visited a prison under construction in eastern France to announce details of the government’s expansion of the prison system.

    Laïcité Observatory, a government watchdog that supporters of a strict laïcité long criticized as being soft. The government’s bill against Islamism also intends to enforce the country’s principles of secularism by gaining greater control over Muslim and other religious organizations, and by restricting home and private schooling.

    Appearing inside a church that had been converted into a government building, Ms. Schiappa spoke about the need for a “calm’’ discussion on laïcité. But the heated nature of the debate could be seen as some of the six invited intellectuals — four in favor of a strict laïcité and two against — took barely concealed swipes at one another.

    Conservative intellectuals said that laïcité was a universalist principle and a useful tool to fight against Islamism and an identity-driven fragmentation of society.

    Raphaël Enthoven, a philosopher, criticized those who, in the name of tolerance toward religions, favor a liberal version of laïcité, saying it plays into the hands of Islamists. “Laïcité is the object of prosecution and despicable propaganda which consists in presenting it almost as racism,” Mr. Enthoven said.

    French Democratic Confederation of Labor, said it was a bad idea to initiate these discussions while the separatism bill had yet to become law.

    “We must stop making laïcité a permanent object of media agitation,’’ he said in a tweet.

    Mr. Macron’s two-pronged efforts on laïcité and crime this week come as polls show him neck-and-neck with Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally, in next year’s presidential election. With voters moving to the right and France’s left-leaning parties in shambles, Mr. Macron’s electoral strategy rests on winning over right-leaning voters who might be tempted to migrate to the extreme right.

    Polls show that while support for Macron has remained steady overall, he has lost support among right-wing voters over the past four months. While 48 percent of conservative voters and 20 percent of far-right supporters said they were satisfied with him in December, according to an IFOP study, that proportion fell to 30 percent and 13 percent in April, according to the same polling firm.

    Mr. Macron has also been under pressure from the right-controlled Senate, which last week passed a toughened version of his bill against Islamism, adding a series of amendments that critics said risked discriminating against Muslims.

    Many of the new measures stem from debates over the wearing of the Muslim veil. They include a ban on ostentatious religious symbols or clothing for minors in the public space and in sport tournaments, as well as for parents accompanying children on school outings. They also enable local authorities to ban the full-body swimsuit that some Muslim women wear at swimming pools and empower mayors to ban foreign flags in and around city hall buildings during wedding celebrations.

    The bill, which was approved earlier by the National Assembly, will now be examined by a cross-party parliamentary commission. If the commission fails to come to an agreement, the National Assembly, which is controlled by Mr. Macron’s party, will have the final say. The Constitutional Council could also revoke some of the new measures.

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