China escalates its threats to Hong Kong’s free press

A little over a week ago, China unveiled and immediately implemented a draconian new law cracking down on dissent in Hong Kong. Its first full day in effect—July 1, which marked the twenty-third anniversary of Britain restoring Hong Kong to Chinese control—ought to have been marked by massive pro-democracy protests; thousands of people did take to the streets, but faced water cannons, pepper spray, and mass arrests, including under the new law. (Among those detained: a 15-year-old with a pro-independence flag.) As Vivian Wang and Alexandra Stevenson reported for the New York Times last week, the enacting of the law also led to self-censorship: activists deleted social-media accounts; writers asked at least one news website to remove their old posts. “We are being paranoid,” Albert Wan, who owns an independent bookstore, told the Times. “I don’t know how else to put it.” Since Wan said that, books by pro-democracy leaders have been pulled from public libraries, pending a “review.”

As is often the case with speech restrictions, the new law is broad and vague. Nominally, it criminalizes “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism,” and “collusion” with foreign powers; in practice, observers fear that it gives China’s ruling Communist Party a pretext to ban activity that it doesn’t like. On the mainland, one such activity is independent journalism; Hong Kong, by contrast, has traditionally been a beachhead for free reporting, with a vibrant local press and a heavy presence of international news organizations. Now journalists in the territory fear a retrenchment. Before the law was enacted, almost all of the respondents to a poll conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association said that they expected it to affect press freedom, and a strong majority said that it made them either very or somewhat afraid for their personal safety. Sure enough, the law as enacted contains provisions that will regulate news outlets and impose limits on their reporting, including their access to court proceedings. Technically, Reporters Without Borders writes, the law can be used to threaten journalists writing about Hong Kong from anywhere in the world. According to The Guardian, foreign freelancers who have been covering the protests in Hong Kong are thinking about leaving, and local outlets are seeking to clarify whether they’re still allowed to quote pro-independence slogans; in a tweet last week, RTHK, a public broadcaster, rendered “Liberate Hong Kong” as “L*******#HongKong.” According to the Financial Times, one unnamed outlet already started rejecting sensitive content.

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The law contains provisions specific to foreign media working in Hong Kong. (This comes, of course, in the context of a tit-for-tat between the US and China over press registration and access; in March, China expelled American journalists working for the Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal from the mainland, and banned their employers from reassigning them to Hong Kong.) China has established a new national-security bureau in Hong Kong which, among other things, will oversee “the management of and services for” foreign news agencies. On Friday, we learned that the bureau will be headed by Zheng Yanxiong, a Party official from Guangdong province, which neighbors Hong Kong, who has a background in propaganda and crushing dissent. In 2011, during a local uprising which garnered significant international attention, Zheng was recorded saying that “foreign media can be trusted when pigs can climb trees.” The Journal’s Chun Han Wong reports that Zheng was involved in suppressing critical newspapers in Guangdong. Wu Qiang, an expert in Chinese politics, told the Journal that Zheng is expected to “impose stricter controls over press and speech freedoms in Hong Kong.”

What might that look like? Jodi Schneider, a Bloomberg editor who heads the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, told the Post recently that she expects Beijing to place limits on the number of Western correspondents allowed to work in the territory. Bill Bishop, who writes the newsletter Sinocism, says he expects visa accreditation to become more complicated. Gady Epstein, China affairs editor at The Economist, even speculated, to Axios, that international outlets that use Hong Kong as a regional hub might decamp for Tokyo, Singapore, or Taiwan.

Journalists working in Hong Kong are no strangers to restrictions on press freedom. The territory’s media climate has deteriorated in recent years—in 2002, it ranked 18th on Reporters Without Borders’s World Press Freedom Index; now it ranks 80th. (The 2020 index lists 180 countries and territories worldwide. The US ranks 45th; China ranks 177th.) Figures linked to the Chinese government have expanded their ownership of local outlets, allowing Beijing to manipulate coverage from afar. In 2018, Victor Mallet, then Asia news editor at the Financial Times, was expelled from Hong Kong, after he chaired an event with a pro-independence activist. Journalists faced official harassment while covering pro-democracy protests in 2014, then again last summer; a year ago, Clarence Leung wrote for CJR that police routinely assaulted reporters at the protests, and that 2019 was shaping up to be the worst year for Hong Kong media since the territory was returned to China, in 1997. In February this year, police arrested Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media mogul, on charges including “illegal assembly”; last month, officials charged two reporters, Ma Kai-chung and Wong Ka-ho, with “rioting” after they covered the occupation of a legislative building.

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Still, the new law marks a clear escalation of these trends, and could be a grim turning point for journalism in Hong Kong. Yesterday, Charles Ho, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference who also owns a media company in Hong Kong, told the Financial Times that foreign reporters could be expelled from the territory should they “cross the line” in their coverage of the independence movement. (“If you promote Hong Kong independence of course they will kick you out,” Ho said. “Don’t do any fake news, that’s the most important.”) Stevenson, of the New York Times, shared the interview on Twitter. Ho’s warning, she wrote, “doesn’t mean it will happen. But [the] fact that it’s acceptable to talk about curbs on free speech says a lot about how things are changing.”

Below, more on China, Hong Kong, and international press freedom:

  • A reckoning for big tech: On Monday, Facebook, Twitter, and Google all said they would halt compliance with government requests for data on users in Hong Kong while they assess the implications of the new law. (TikTok, a video app which is owned by a Chinese company but is not available in mainland China, said it would remove its app from use in Hong Kong completely.) Authorities in Hong Kong have threatened that tech companies’ staffers could be imprisoned should data requests go unfulfilled. Paul Mozur writes, for the Times, that tech giants are on “the front line in a global fight between the United States and China over censorship, surveillance and the future of the internet.”
  • A growth area: Sara Fischer reports, for Axios, that outlets in the US are increasingly looking to invest in coverage of China, its economy, and its relationship with the US, despite mounting restrictions such as the Hong Kong security law. In May, Politico launched a new China newsletter that the site says has established itself as a top-performing product. And The Information is launching a Chinese-language tech newsletter that will be anchored by Yunan Zhang, a reporter based in Hong Kong.
  • Stifling dissent: On Monday, police in Beijing arrested Xu Zhangrun, a law professor who has sharply criticized the Chinese government, on charges that he solicited prostitutes. In a series of essays that he started in 2018, Xu condemned Chinese President Xi Jinping’s moves to consolidate power.
  • Meanwhile, in Russia: Yesterday, officials in Russia arrested Ivan Safronov, a former journalist who was advising the country’s space agency, on treason charges; he stands accused of leaking classified intelligence to another country. Throughout the day, journalists held single-person demonstrations in Moscow to express solidarity with Safronov. At least eight of them—including Elena Chernenko and Kristina Dyuryagina, of Kommersant, and Olga Churakova, of Proekt—were arrested. Meduza has more.
  • Meanwhile, in Poland: Voters in Poland will elect a new president on Sunday. In recent days, the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, who is running for reelection, has waged public attacks against German media companies, including Axel Springer, and accused them of trying to interfere in the election. On Monday, Duda and his opponent, Rafał Trzaskowski, appeared on separate TV networks after they failed to reach agreement on a presidential debate. Jan Cienski has more for Politico.


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Update: This post has been updated to clarify the positions of Victor Mallet and Charles Ho.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.