The sad state of press freedom in Hong Kong after twenty-five years of Chinese rule

At midnight on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule. A ceremony marking the handover was attended by dignitaries including Prince Charles, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In the months leading up to the event, British officials—ever conscious, as the New York Times wrote at the time, of “maintaining appearances”—bragged that three and a half thousand journalists would be in attendance; in the end, more than double that number showed up in Hong Kong, making the handover, as the Chicago Tribune put it, “one of the biggest media events of the decade.” Some of the media workers present were pressed into action as impromptu extras in a Wayne Wang movie about a dying British journalist played by Jeremy Irons; others received branded trinkets including polo shirts and wristwatches. Chinese officials, meanwhile, promised Hong Kong fifty years of liberties not available on the mainland, including press freedom.

Last week, twenty-five years on from the handover, Xi Jinping, China’s current president, traveled to Hong Kong to mark the anniversary. On Friday, he gave a speech extolling China’s rule over the territory and situating the handover moment as the start of its “true democracy.” Media coverage of Xi’s visit and the broader anniversary celebration was tightly restricted: according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association and various media reports, at least thirteen journalists who requested to cover official ceremonies on July 1—from a combination of local and international outlets including the South China Morning Post, Reuters, and CNN—were denied accreditation on vague security grounds; those who were granted access had to take daily covid tests and quarantine in a hotel. One of the ceremonies in question was the inauguration of John Lee as Hong Kong’s chief executive. In his prior role as a security official, Lee oversaw the arrests of thousands of pro-democracy protesters and the implementation, in 2020, of a draconian national-security law curbing, among other things, press freedom.

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The decline of press freedom in Hong Kong has not traced a perfectly straight line from heady days twenty-five years ago to repression now; fears of coming curbs were often expressed in 1997—not least in Western media coverage of the handover, which sometimes traded in colonial nostalgia—and threats to reporting have been visible for years since then, as Mary Hui wrote for CJR in 2018. Still, the space the territory once afforded vibrant independent journalism has contracted sharply in the two years since the implementation of the security law, which fell on the twenty-third anniversary of the handover to Chinese rule and marked an escalation in Beijing’s control over Hong Kong’s speech climate. Local journalists have been charged under the new law and much older ones, including a British-era sedition statute; the authorities tilted particularly hard at Apple Daily, a long-running pro-democracy paper, arresting its leadership, raiding its newsroom, and forcing it, ultimately, to shutter a little over a year ago. As Rachel Cheung wrote for CJR in September, “Hong Kong media now resembles that of mainland China, where news outlets act like mouthpieces for the government.” Cheung profiled a trio of outlets—Stand News, Citizen News, and HK Feature—that were continuing to operate independently, but as Ronson Chan, an editor at Stand News who also chairs the HKJA, told her, their work risked being “uprooted at any moment.”

Since Cheung wrote, the official crackdown has not let up. In December, the authorities sentenced Jimmy Lai—the founder of Apple Daily, who was already in jail on other charges—to thirteen months behind bars for his involvement in a banned vigil for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. A few weeks later, Stand News was uprooted: hundreds of police officers raided its offices, froze assets worth nearly eight million US dollars, and arrested at least six people connected to the outlet, including Chan and Denise Ho, a pop star who had served on its board and whose home was also searched. Soon afterward, the site shut down. Citizen News soon shuttered, too, citing a need to protect its staff and describing the fate of Stand News as the “trigger” for its decision. Shortly after that, Bloomberg calculated that, in total, 1,115 journalists had lost their jobs in Hong Kong since the security law took effect.

As 2021 drew to a close, Hong Kong appeared for the first time on an annual census of imprisoned reporters compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, jumping from zero behind bars when the survey was conducted in 2020 to eight last year. Then, earlier this year, the territory plummeted sixty-eight places on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index; it now ranks 148th out of a hundred and eighty countries and territories worldwide. In April, the authorities arrested Allan Au, who had been a columnist for Stand News (his friends began to worry after he failed to post his Wordle score to Facebook, a daily ritual); last month, FactWire, a hard-hitting investigative outlet, became the latest newsroom to shut down, citing a “great change” in Hong Kong’s media landscape without getting into specifics.

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Amid the arrests and closures—and with fears mounting among other journalists—the HKJA, which itself had been investigated by the authorities, called an extraordinary meeting to discuss shutting down as well. It ultimately resolved to stay open for the “foreseeable future.” Various smaller independent outlets, including HK Feature, have kept going, too, while staffers from shuttered newsrooms have taken to posting news independently on social media or, in at least one case, opened a physical bookstore as a place for discussion. (Two framed newspaper front pages adorn its walls: the inaugural edition of Apple Daily, and a 1997 issue of the South China Morning Post marking the handover.) Chan started working for Channel C HK, a primarily YouTube-based outlet founded by former staffers at Apple Dailythough he told The Guardian that he now focuses less on policy in his work, and tries to avoid provoking the authorities.

If the outlook is particularly bleak for local news organizations in Hong Kong, international outlets with a presence in the territory have not been immune to the deteriorating media climate. Shortly after the security law took effect, the Times announced that it would relocate a large part of its Hong Kong operation to Seoul. Individual foreign correspondents have faced administrative obstacles; late last year, officials refused to renew the visa of Sue-Lin Wong, an Australian reporter working for The Economist, without offering any explanation. More recently, Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club scrapped a human rights award that it had given out annually for fear of violating the security law, a decision that led eight members of the club’s press-freedom committee to resign in protest. At least two among them publicly questioned whether the club was still fit for purpose. Timothy McLaughlin, a writer for The Atlantic, claimed that the board had also vetoed a statement that he’d prepared in support of Au following his arrest, on the grounds that it didn’t want to draw attention to the club. Ming Pao, a Mandarin-language paper, ran a cartoon of the club with a white flag waving above it. (The FCC has said that it will continue to speak out “when we can,” and recently condemned the media restrictions around the handover anniversary.)

McLaughlin accused the FCC of having “capitulated to the new, more repressive regime” in Hong Kong. Notably, he also expanded that critique beyond the media, applying it to local universities, schools, and professional associations in other industries. It’s worth remembering, once again, that while the authorities in Hong Kong have taken aggressive steps to suppress journalism specifically, press freedom everywhere tends to rise and fall with other freedoms and other forms of expression, from the streets to the classroom. Yesterday, five speech therapists went on trial in Hong Kong, charged with sedition. Their supposed crime? Writing children’s books about sheep that draw on allegories about the territory’s pro-democracy movement.

The authorities in Hong Kong have moved recently to rewrite school history textbooks, which will now claim that the pro-democracy movement was driven by “external forces” and, bizarrely, that Hong Kong was never a British colony. Louisa Lim, a longtime journalist in Hong Kong, discussed the latter revision in an episode of WNYC’s On the Media that dropped this morning, situating it in the context of longer-term efforts by both British and Chinese administrators to impose historical narratives on Hong Kong’s people. Lim noted that, when she was growing up, the British didn’t teach schoolchildren about the immoral circumstances of how colonial rule came about, for fear of making them “angry”; the new Chinese plan to dodge teaching this colonial past, Lim said, is a “crazy argument,” but also shows the “mutability of history.” When the British left in 1997, they took historical archives with them, denying Hong Kongers full access to their shared history. China is now at work denying them their present.

Below, more on press freedom around the world:

  • The Baltics: When RSF published its World Press Freedom Index earlier this year, two Baltic countries—Estonia and Lithuania—were ranked in the top ten for the first time, with Latvia just behind in twenty-second place. The index, Karolis Vyšniauskas writes for Nieman Reports, “reminded Baltic journalists how far they’ve come since the days of the Cold War when Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were occupied by the Soviet Union”—but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put that progress at risk. Now journalists in the region “are covering the war in Ukraine as if it’s their own—because in many ways it is.”
  • Malta: In a jailhouse interview with a Reuters reporter, George Degiorgio, who stood accused of detonating the car bomb that killed the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta in 2017, confessed to his role in the murder and said that he would soon implicate other culprits. (His lawyers have reportedly tried to secure him a pardon in exchange for his testimony.) Degiorgio said that he was paid to carry out the assassination, which he saw as “business as usual,” adding that he would have asked for more money if he’d known who Caruana Galizia was.
  • Palestine: Last year, Israeli forces destroyed a building in Gaza that housed a bureau belonging to the Associated Press; Israeli officials said that Hamas was operating out of the building, but have never publicly offered any evidence to support this claim. Yesterday, the AP announced that it has reopened its Gaza bureau in a new permanent location, with Daisy Veerasingham, the AP’s president and CEO, and Julie Pace, its executive editor, visiting to mark the occasion. “AP’s resilient Gaza team has never wavered, even in the moments our bureau collapsed and in the weeks that followed,” Veerasingham said. “The Associated Press has operated in Gaza for more than half a century and remains committed to telling the story of Gaza and its people.”
  • Mexico: According to Natalie Kitroeff and Maria Abi-Habib, of the Times, some Biden administration officials are worried that Ken Salazar, the US ambassador to Mexico, has gone rogue, cozying up to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the country’s president, sometimes in defiance of US wishes. Salazar, Kitroeff and Abi-Habib write, “has rehashed debunked claims of a stolen election used by the Mexican president to fuel distrust in the country’s democracy; questioned the integrity of a US-funded anticorruption nonprofit that had gone up against the president; caused a political storm by appearing to signal support for an energy overhaul the US government opposed; and has stayed silent as Mr. López Obrador relentlessly attacks journalists.”


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Hong Kong's new Chief Executive John Lee, left, walks off the stage with China's President Xi Jinping following a swearing-in ceremony to inaugurate the city's new government in Hong Kong on July 1, 2022, on the 25th anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China. (Selim Chtayti/Pool Photo via AP)