Posts resurface old report alongside claim 'Hong Kong tops Human Freedom Index'

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Facebook users in Hong Kong share a news report about the city topping a world ranking of "human freedom", including pro-Beijing groups touting it as evidence of the semi-autonomous city's "freedom" under growing Chinese influence. The ranking was in fact published in 2015, using data from 2012. Hong Kong ranked 34th in the latest Human Freedom Index published in January 2023.

"I am now in Hong Kong, China -- I am really free. Probably because those BNOers and rioters have left Hong Kong, Hong Kong is now truly free," reads a Facebook post from January 28 written in traditional Chinese characters.

"Thank you Central Government for helping Hong Kong introduce the National Security Law," adds the post, which was shared in a pro-Beijing Facebook group with more than 45,000 members.

"BNOers" refers to Hong Kongers with a British National (Overseas) (BNO) passport -- a legacy of Hong Kong's handover to China by Britain in 1997 -- many of whom emigrated following Beijing's crackdown on often violent pro-democracy protests in the semi-autonomous city in 2019.

After Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city in 2020, the UK government began offering a pathway to British citizenship for BNO passport holders and their families.

More than 144,000 people have moved to the UK under the scheme since, according to the British government.

The Facebook post shows a screenshot of an article that appears to report that Hong Kong ranks first on the Human Freedom Index, which it says was compiled by think tanks including the Canada-based Fraser Institute, Swiss-based Liberales Institut and US-based Cato Institute.

The report says: "Out of the 152 countries and territories in the survey, Hong Kong ranked first".

Screengrab of the misleading post taken on February 2, 2023.

The posts circulated after the Fraser Institute released the Human Freedom Index 2022 on January 26, 2023.

The index presents a broad measure of human freedom, understood as the "absence of coercive constraint", including factors such as the rule of law, security and safety and freedom of association and assembly, the Institute said.

The same screenshot was shared in similar Facebook posts and in a pro-Beijing Facebook group.

While some Facebook users questioned whether the report was new, others seemed to believe it was released following the introduction of the BNO scheme in January 2021.

"So strange? People who moved to the UK did so because they thought there was no freedom in Hong Kong," one user said.

"Those who have migrated would definitely say this is fake news," said another.

However, the article was shared in a misleading context -- it was in fact published in August 2015.

Old report

A keyword search found the original article published in Hong Kong-based current affairs weekly Yazhou Zhoukan in August 2015.

The article's title reads: "Human Freedom Index released; Hong Kong ranks first globally" -- corresponding to the one in the screenshot.

A search on the Fraser Institute's website shows this ranking corresponds to the result of the 2012 index, which it published on August 18, 2015.

This was the Fraser Institute's first Human Freedom Index.

The Cato Institute, which co-publishes the index, said the report used data from 2012 as it was the most recent year for which sufficient data was available.

An archive of past years' reports on the Cato Institute's website shows each has a different cover. The 2015 cover matches the one in the misleading screenshot.

Below is a comparison between the report's cover as seen in the misleading posts (left) and the one on the institute's website (right).

Comparison between the report's cover as seen in the misleading posts (left) and the one on the institute's website (right)

In the latest index released in January 2023, Hong Kong ranked 34th out of 165 countries and territories.

"Hong Kong's descent into tyranny is a tragedy," the report said of Hong Kong.

"But the territory will continue to provide important lessons about the value of freedom, as its fate is now tightly tied to that of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party)."

The Hong Kong government said it firmly opposed the "incorrect description of the levels of freedoms and human rights" in the city.

"Since Hong Kong's handover, human rights have been under solid constitutional protection under the Chinese constitution and Hong Kong Basic Law," it told AFP in a statement responding to the index.