The erosion of Hong Kong’s free press

Chris Yeung, Chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalist Association, stands next to Foreign Correspondents' Club president Florence de Changy and legislator Claudia Mo in Hong Kong on October 8, 2018. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP)

In early October, the Hong Kong government refused to renew the work visa of Victor Mallet, a British national and the Financial Times’s Asia news editor. To date, the government has not given any reason for the rejection, saying only that it does not comment on individual cases, yet many observers believe it was done in retribution for Mallet’s moderation of a controversial talk with a pro-independence activist at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong, where Mallet was vice president.

In some ways, this development shouldn’t have come as a great surprise: Press freedoms have long been in retreat in Hong Kong—a semi-autonomous region of China since 1997, following a transfer of authority from the United Kingdom, which had ruled the coastal territory for 150 years—but almost no one expected as heavy and explicit a blow as Mallet’s de facto expulsion.

“It was shocking and not surprising,” says Keith Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong and a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post.  

In an editorial, the Financial Times called the government’s decision “highly regrettable,” adding that it sends a “chilling message” to everyone in Hong Kong.

“This is a big turning point,” says Richburg. “This is the first time anybody can remember that a journalist has been told they cannot work in Hong Kong.”

For decades, Hong Kong has been a bastion of press freedom in the region. Foreign media set up operations in the city, enjoying the protections offered by the former British colony’s independent courts and civil liberties. China regularly expels reporters (most recently BuzzFeed’s China bureau chief Megha Rajagopalan), but journalists in Hong Kong were able to work under the assumption that they could remain free from that kind of government intervention.

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Although this illusion has now been shattered, media veterans in Hong Kong note that press freedoms have been slowly deteriorating since the city’s handover to China in 1997. But the decline, they argue, has intensified under Xi Jinping, who took office as the president of China in 2013. Under Xi, China has grown more assertive and authoritarian both at home and abroad.

“I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that it’s a new era for press freedom in Hong Kong, in that we’ve imported the worst elements of censorship from the mainland,” says Tom Grundy, editor in chief of Hong Kong Free Press, a nonprofit news site.

In August, Mallet hosted Andy Chan, the founder and leader of the Hong Kong National Party, which advocates for the territory’s independence from China, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

The Chinese and Hong Kong governments openly condemned the club for advocating separatism and abusing the freedom of expression and press by hosting the talk, and in the aftermath a group of pro-Beijing Hong Kong politicians called for the club’s eviction from its premises. The government-funded broadcaster, RTHK, banned its staff from live-streaming the event, and the club’s website came under what was suspected to be a deliberate malware attack shortly after the talk.

Mallet and the FCC weren’t the only ones to be targeted for apparent retribution. In September, Chan’s party was officially banned by the government, the first time the city has used a colonial-era law aimed at prohibiting groups that pose a threat to national security against a political party since 1997.

By singling out Mallet, the Hong Kong government appears to be sending a clear message: certain topics are now off-limits. But the government has not explained what those limits are, and it is this uncertainty that may result in the stifling of the press, says Grundy.

“We may see the rise, the further rise, of self-censorship as journalists have to guess what is and what isn’t acceptable,” he says. Can journalists interview pro-independence activists? Invite them to forums? Can they be quoted? The government so far has refused to clarify these lingering questions, says Grundy, leaving a “fuzzy red line” that is difficult to navigate.

The Mallet case comes amid other instances of receding media freedoms in Hong Kong. Some recent incidents include a string of attacks against Next Media (now known as Next Digital), Hong Kong’s largest media group and the publisher of a newspaper openly critical of China, and the abduction and detention by Chinese officials of five booksellers at a Hong Kong store known for its gossipy political stock. There’s also been a gradual shift toward greater mainland Chinese ownership of major media companies in Hong Kong, including the South China Morning Post, which was purchased by the Chinese multinational Alibaba Group in 2015, and the local broadcaster, TVB, revealed in 2015 to be secretly owned by a Chinese media tycoon, in a potential violation of Hong Kong media-ownership rules.

This month saw another worrying case: In an interview, Siu Sai-wo, the CEO of Hong Kong’s Sing Tao News Corporation, relayed remarks from Huang Kunming, China’s top propaganda official, in which he allegedly warned Hong Kong’s senior media executives not to allow the city’s newsrooms to “become a base for interfering with mainland politics.” In a move that the Hong Kong Journalists Association called “highly unusual,” several Hong Kong news outlets later retracted the remarks and deleted the quote from their sites under pressure from Chinese government officials.  

“You’ve seen very strict tightening over the past six years under the new leadership, and what you’ve seen in Hong Kong is very much a part of that,” said Shirley Yam, vice chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

Politically, the city has also grown more divided since large-scale protests for democracy in 2014, known as the Umbrella Movement.

“Society itself has become more polarized, and in this scenario, the Chinese government may feel that they really have to take a stance, and they adopted a really hard-line approach,” says Francis Lee, the director of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In spite of everything, some still harbor hope for the future of the free press in Hong Kong.

“Since the Umbrella Movement, there has been a proliferation of digital titles,” most of them published in Chinese but all offering independent news coverage and leading a resistance against receding press freedoms, says Grundy.

Others are less optimistic.  

“This is not the end,” says Richburg. “This is the beginning of the end.”

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Mary Hui is a Hong Kong-based writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Quartz, CityLab, and the South China Morning Post.