As an increasingly uneasy Hong Kong has watched mainland officials dramatically erode the territory’s independence over the past month, the government has issued a murky opinion that appears to eat into the autonomy of the international press working in the city.
While the decision cites Hong Kong’s authority to maintain a free press and free speech under the basic law granting 50 years of autonomy agreed by China and the United Kingdom prior to the 1997 handover, it endorses China’s action in kicking out foreign correspondents who are now working in Hong Kong, calling a US tit-for-tat expulsion of Chinese news personnel “unwarranted,” and it makes no specific guarantee that they can continue to work from the territory.
The decision was made by Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, now the Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, on advice of the “Security Bureau,” according to the release, but it doesn’t say whether it’s the Chinese Security Bureau or Hong Kong’s.
Tsang earlier this month was promoted from his position as immigration director to replace Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who was sacked at Beijing’s orders. In his previous position as immigration director, Tsang was responsible for the decision not to renew the visa of Victor Mallet, then the Financial Times Asia news editor, after Mallet, as acting president of the Foreign Correspondents Club, allowed Andy Chan, a pro-independence advocate, to speak at the club.
The decision on Mallet’s visa shocked both the press fraternity and the multinational business community for its heavy-handedness in interfering with the affairs of the Foreign Correspondents Club. There is widespread conjecture that the club (above) will lose its coveted government-granted location, which it leases, in the Old Dairy Farm Depot, an iconic colonial building at the top of Ice House Street in the Central Business District.
The controversy over the immigration status of the US journalists began in March, when Beijing ousted reporters working in China for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post in retaliation for a move by the Trump administration in Washington, DC to cut back several Chinese news organizations, charging they were instruments of the Chinese state. The American journalists retreated to Hong Kong, where for decades western news organizations previously watched China from afar during the years of Mao Zedong’s sway as the country’s leader.
However, in the demand by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the US journalists hand in their press credentials within 10 days and quit working in the People’s Republic of China was a bombshell – that for the purposes of the journalists’ visas, the People’s Republic of China includes the Hong Kong and Macau administrative regions, a stunning destruction of Hong Kong’s independence.
With the January arrival of new hardline Central Liaison Office director Luo Huining, the pace of China’s erosion of the SAR’s independence has picked up sharply. The liaison office website recently carried an article by Chinese state news agency Xinhua, saying the Hong Kong government “stressed” that the Liaison Office doesn’t come under Article 22 of the Basic Law, which forbids interference by Beijing.
That amounts to an announcement that Beijing, or at least Luo, has decreed the original agreement between the UK and China to be worthless. By throwing out Article 22, the Liaison Office now has given itself the right to interfere in Hong Kong government affairs any time it chooses.
Later, the Hong Kong Justice Secretary, Teresa Cheng, said the liaison office also has the power to intervene in legal affairs and isn’t bound by the non-interference clause of the Basic Law. Later that weekend, Hong Kong police arrested 15 of the territory’s most respected independent political figures including Martin Lee, a QC and co-founder of the Democratic Party; Margaret Ng, the former legal sector lawmaker; labor leader and former legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, and Jimmy Lai, the publisher of the opposition newspaper Apple Daily.
It was against that backdrop that the question came up of whether the ousted international reporters could continue their jobs from Hong Kong. It appears to say yes. The press release states that “Foreign media organizations and journalists who cover stories in accordance with laws and regulations are always welcome in China, and will get continued facilitation and assistance. The HKSAR Government is firmly committed to protecting and respecting the freedom of the press, which is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Basic Law.”
The Hong Kong government, according to the release, “does not exercise any censorship in traditional media or over the internet. Some 80 foreign media organizations have offices in Hong Kong and run their business freely as usual here, as in the case of local media. The countermeasures announced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 18 were to reciprocate the US Government’s unwarranted restrictions on the Chinese media agencies and personnel in the US.
“In taking these countermeasures against the US, the central government is exercising its diplomatic authority in accordance with the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and the Basic Law. The HKSAR has been implementing ‘Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong’ and a high degree of autonomy in strict accordance with the Basic Law, fully reflecting the implementation of the “one country, two systems” principle. “
Under Article 154(2) of the Basic Law, the notice continued, “the HKSAR Government applies immigration controls on entry into, stay in and departure from Hong Kong by persons from foreign states and regions.”
The entire document, regardless of its shout-out to freedom of the press, nonetheless leaves open the question of how long it will continue to do so.
“There’s a fundamental illogic in saying, on the one hand, that Hong Kong manages its own immigration affairs and observes freedom of the press while, on the other hand, defending the Ministry of Foreign Affairs countermeasures that extend to banning foreign correspondents from working in Hong Kong,” said Steven Butler, Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We won’t know what that really means unless one of the correspondents expelled from China tries to work in Hong Kong. But the murkiness of the response is not a good sign for freedom of the press in Hong Kong and instead appears to be another marker in the gradual erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
With the central government “exercising its diplomatic authority” in accordance with the Basic Law, and with the Liaison Office now saying the basic law doesn’t apply, it may not be long before the question of how long it continues to do so will be answered.
“At face value, whoever wrote this is saying the Hong Kong government makes decisions on who to allow into Hong Kong,” said a journalist who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of his position. “But he also justifies CCP actions in kicking US journalists out from mainland China. So should we believe the Hong Kong official that these US journalists will be allowed to work in Hong Kong?”