The 31st day of the Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong, October 28, 2014. CREDIT: <A HREF="">Studio Incendo</a> (<a href="">CC</a>)
The 31st day of the Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong, October 28, 2014. CREDIT: Studio Incendo (CC)

Unsafe Harbor: Shrinking Space of Free Expression in Hong Kong

Sep 12, 2018

Each July 1, the Hong Kong government pulls out all the stops to celebrate the city's return to the motherland. The pomp and circumstance on Handover Daymassive pyrotechnics, miles long street parades, and thunderous speeches at a glistening waterfront convention centerserves a singular purpose: to show the world that this former British colony, reincarnated as a semi-autonomous "special administrative region" under Chinese control, is more impressive and successful than ever.

For the rest of Hong Kong, however, July 1 is a day for lamentation, not celebration. Two decades after the Handover, 7.5 million citizens, roughly the population of New York City, can feel the political ground simultaneously shifting and shrinking beneath their feet. Since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, the Communist leadership in Beijingand the Hong Kong government acting at its behesthas made a concerted effort to roll back freedoms guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" framework. More alarmingly, the pace of regression has accelerated since the Umbrella Movement, a massive pro-democracy protest that paralyzed large sprawls of the city for nearly three months in 2014.

Press Freedom

The free press is often the first casualty when authoritarian regimes tighten their grip. Hong Kong has borne out that political truism despite its reputation as a beacon for free expression in China and beyond. The city's ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has plunged from 18th in 2002 (since the index was first launched) to a record low of 73rd in 2017, behind countries such as Haiti, Bosnia, and El Salvador.

Crackdown on the press can be overt and violent. The Hong Kong Journalists Association reported a significant surge in the number of cases of attacks on frontline journalists during and since the Umbrella Movement by pro-Beijing groups and, in some instances, Hong Kong law enforcement. The Apple Daily, a local newspaper critical of Beijing, has been the subject of several fire-bombings and cyber-attacks.

But suppression comes in many shapes. Following marching orders from the Liaison Office-the de facto Chinese embassy in Hong Kong-local and mainland Chinese businesses exert pressure on news media outlets by pulling advertising or gobbling them up altogether. In 2015, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group acquired the 115-year-old South China Morning Post for US$270 million with the stated goal to "improve China's image." Changes in ownership are often followed by management reshuffling in the newsroom and termination of outspoken columnists, as was the case for The SCMP and other local newspapers including Ming Pao, The Sing Tao Daily, and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

These incidents have had a chilling effect on the press media, creating a climate of self-censorship and so-called "white terror" among journalists. This comes at a time when the traditional news media is already hard hit by the onslaught of social media and other industry disruptors. While these issues are not unique to Hong Kong, their impact is magnified by China's growing economic prowess and its ability to marshal the local business elite to take down the Fourth Estate.

Political Freedom

If the free press is a thorn in the sides of the authorities, so too are opposition politicians who hold them to account. After an unprecedented number of young pro-democracy candidates won the general election in 2016, the Hong Kong government sought a constitutional interpretation from Beijing to unseat a half dozen of these new legislators, on the grounds that they had not properly recited their oath of office. Since the "oathgate" saga, opposition parties calling for different degrees of autonomy from China have been barred from running for office in the first place. These flagrant violations of political freedom have served to discourage civic participation, especially among the youth who question the point of voting when the candidates they support are banned from the ballot and the lawmakers they elected can lose their jobs over a technicality.

Two months ago, the Hong Kong government announced plans to outlaw a small, barely active pro-independence political party in the name of national security. For the first time in the city's history, an organization is being shut down for ideological reasons rather than any actual or imminent illicit act. A police spokesperson justified the government's move as a "preventative measure," while offering little detail on what constitutes a security threat. It is uncertain whether the ban will survive a constitutional challenge, but the incident has started the city down the slippery slope of political censorship on the pretext of national security and left the opposition camp fearing who would be next.

Academic Freedom

The student-led Umbrella Movement has put academia in the government's crosshairs. Shortly after the movement ended, a former law school dean and prominent human rights scholar was openly criticized for his sympathetic views toward the protesters. He ultimately lost his nomination for the top job at a leading university, despite a unanimous recommendation by an independent selection committee. Another law professor, the architect of an occupation campaign that ultimately led to the Umbrella Movement, has been subject to regular harassment and character assassination on and off campus.

Hong Kong Watch, a London-based watchdog, released a report earlier this year warning about regressions in the city's academic freedom. The report cited incidents of outspoken professors being removed from their posts, political banners taken down from campuses, and pro-government figures appointed to key management roles. It does not help matters that the chief executive, the highest office in Hong Kong handpicked by and answerable to Beijing, is the de jure chancellor of all Hong Kong universities vested with broad decision-making powers.

Freedom to Publish

No discussion of Hong Kong's shrinking space for free expression is complete without mentioning the bookseller disappearances. In 2015, five members of a local publishing house known for printing political "tell all" books about the Communist leadership went missing, believed to have been abducted and detained by mainland Chinese agents. One of the abductees made it back to Hong Kong and held a press conference with harrowing revelations about his eight-month captivity in mainland China until his release on condition of confession to crimes he did not commit.

The abductions were believed to be part of a larger state-sponsored initiative to crack down on Hong Kong's freewheeling publishing industry. It is an industry already in distress as the Liaison Office holds a firm grip on the city's book distribution, having acquired major local bookstore chains in Hong Kong over the years. The bookseller incident has dealt a devastating blow not only to the publishing industry, but it has also shattered any illusion that citizens still enjoy unfettered freedom of expression under the "one country, two systems" promise.

Perhaps less politically-motivated but no less disconcerting, the Hong Kong government is bent on singling out the LGBT community for literary censorship and imposing its antiquated views on sexuality when adjudicating obscenity. Last year, the local authorities banned nine LGBT-themed books from the Hong Kong Book Fair, the city's largest literary event, on the grounds that they were obscene. This past June, the Home Affairs Bureau ordered a number of children's books featuring same-sex parents to be removed from public library shelves. In July, the Obscene Articles Tribunal classified Killing Commendatore, the latest novel by the renowned Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, as indecent materials for its explicit depiction of sex. Many fear that these seemingly isolated incidents of censorship, if left unchecked, may turn into a troubling pattern and eventually into a new normal.

China Says "Jump" and They Say "How High?"

From the press media and academia to politics and civil society at large, violations of free expression in Hong Kong are showing no signs of easing. It begs the question as to why the central and local authorities appear so prepared to abrogate the city's freedoms and put at risk its hard-earned reputation as a free harbor.

The answer lies on both sides of the border.

Under President Xi Jinping's strongman leadership, China has grown more assertive abroad and autocratic at home. On the mainland, human rights lawyers continue to be rounded up, religious minorities suppressed, and the Great Firewall doubled down. As for Hong Kong, where citizens still enjoy freedoms that are unthinkable anywhere else on Chinese soil, the Communist leadership is increasingly leery that the special administrative region is becoming an incubator for political dissent that may fester and spread to the mainland. That, coupled with Hong Kong's diminishing strategic importance to the motherland as her affluence and influence rise, leads to one ominous conclusion: free expression and other special privileges in Hong Kong can and must be curtained and eventually revoked to preserve one-party rule.

While it is true that Beijing will always put self-preservation above Hong Kong's long-term prosperity, much of the blame falls on the ruling elite in Hong Kong. Self-interested politicians and bureaucrats read the political tea leaves up north and willingly hand the city's freedoms over on a silver platter as the ultimate proof of loyalty. Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last colonial governor, famously predicted that the city's autonomy would not be taken away by Beijing, but instead given away bit by bit by citizens in exchange for personal gains. Two decades since Patten signed off from the Governor's House, his prophecy has already played out many times over.

As the clock ticks down to 2047, the year when the "one country, two systems" framework expires, the harmonization of Hong Kong with mainland China has reached a fever pitch. Freedom of expressiona bedrock for the city's economic success and the singular characteristic that differentiates it from the rest of Chinabecomes a necessary roadkill on the path to full integration. While some in Hong Kong have resigned to the mindset that resistance is futile, others choose to flee the city if they have the means. Still others continue the spirit of the Umbrella Movement and do what they can to slow down the regression. It remains to be seen whether the efforts of this last group are a mere last gasp for air, or the key to delivering the Fragrant Harbor1 from the doom of becoming a second-tier mainland city.

NOTES 1 In Chinese, Hong Kong means Fragrant Harbor.

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