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Listening to Hong Kong: China surveillance like law forces real-identity registration for all cell phone use

BEIJING – As of Friday, all SIM cards in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region have to be real-name registered. Phone numbers not linked to a person’s identity will be deactivated. The new measure that was first announced in June 2021, less than one year after the implementation of the National Security Law, is thought of as the latest attempt of the Chinese mainland to tighten its control on the citizens of Hong Kong.

There are two types of SIM cards in Hong Kong. One is a monthly fee card signed with an operator, comparable to a phone plan. According to the Communications Authority of Hong Kong, these cards are currently used by more than 9 million Hong Kongers, making up 44% of all mobile users in the region. These cards are a required a form of identity.

The latest measure targets the majority of mobile phone users, namely the telephone-stored value cards. These SIM cards never required any form or registration. Telecom activity could never be traced back to the user. By the end of January 2023, 12 million people were using the so-called space cards, making up 56% of all mobile users. As of Friday all the services of these cards will be suspended. 


A mobile phone store in Hong Kong. (Fox Business / Fox News)

To facilitate this transition, the Hong Kong government has offered real-name registration support services for telephone cards at 25 subway stations and 18 designated post offices throughout the city. Although people seemed very much aware of the new measure and the consequences of non-compliance, in the weeks leading up to Friday people did not seem eager to register. 

Most people on the streets of Hong Kong who spoke with Fox Business seemed skeptical about the added value of the new measures. 

“I’m assuming it’s much like the China policy where you have to register everything … that would be one of the concerns,” one man said. 

Another man said it was “simply just annoying me.”

One woman said that it would be an inconvenience for travelers visiting Hong Kong. “For international travelers coming to Hong Kong … whoever need to use mobile service here is going to be experiencing some inconvenience since they don’t have any local contacts or ID’s or registration for them.”

Hong Kong sim registration

As of Friday, all SIM cards in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region have to be real-name registered. (Fox Business / Fox News)


“If they would need the information, they probably have it already … we have registered our personal information and telephone numbers for years during COVID,” another man added. Most people acknowledged that it would limit their privacy and that if they were involved in “politically controversial” activities, they would refrain from using their phones or most of the internet.

Telecom regulation in mainland China is strongly linked to internet security. Many internet services, applications and websites require telephone number registration and verification, indirectly connecting online accounts to one’s identity.

People are critical of the alleged arguments for mandatory registration. Authorities have stated that by linking real identities to mobile SIM cards, they aim to combat telephone and internet fraud. However, people are disputing this. The same safety argument was used by the government in Beijing when they started strictly enforcing real-name mobile registration in 2016. Telecom fraud continues to rise despite tightened control, according to the Chinese government Xinhua News Agency. 

Most recent statistics from the Chinese ministry of public security showed that in 2020, 927 million telecom and internet fraud cases were filled in mainland China. Only about one in three cases were solved. Three years of COVID-19 restrictions and the induced economic slowdown have only caused an increase in telecom fraud. 

Hong Kong SIM cards

All SIM cards Hong Kong will have to be real-name registered. (Fox Business / Fox News)

So, when looking at Hong Kong’s big brother and the one many believe behind the privacy-depriving measure, mainland China, there seems no proof that the registration will discourage criminals from engaging in telecom or internet fraud. 


Hong Kong Sim cards

Hong Kongers will have to register SIM cards under a new law. (Fox Business)

Instead, many believe the real-name registration will allow Hong Kong authorities, and indirectly China mainland authorities, to tighten surveillance on Hong Kong citizens. With the implementation of the heavily disputed National Security Law (NSL) in 2020, undermining the power or authority of the central government became a criminal act. In addition to that, Beijing can intervene when national security is “at risk.” 

Provisions in the NSL include the right to wire-tapping, putting people under surveillance when suspected of breaking the law and holding trials behind closed doors. With real-name registration, the authorities have created yet another tool to more efficiently target those opposing central leadership in Beijing.  

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