Hong Kong’s expulsion of a British journalist after he led a foreign correspondents’ meeting with a pro-independence activist is, first and foremost, an attempt by Beijing to tamp down any dissent in the former British colony.
Hong Kong officials have not given a reason for rejecting a journalist visa for Victor Mallet, the Asia news editor for The Financial Times. China’s only comment has been that Hong Kong authorities are within their right to do so. But that’s the typical legalistic evasiveness of authoritarian regimes when they do something they know is hard and embarrassing to defend.
The authorities have never criticised Mallet’s reporting. But he was the main spokesman for the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club in August when it hosted a talk by Andy Chan, head of a political party that called for Hong Kong’s independence from China. Hong Kong and Beijing officials blasted the event in advance and subsequently banned the party.
Beijing took back control of Hong Kong from the British in 1997 after nearly a century of colonial rule, and agitation toward independence has never pleased China’s leadership. Hong Kong as an “inalienable” part of China is written into the territory’s Basic Law.
But Mallet did not advocate independence or endorse Chan; he moderated a talk on a critical political issue, which is what correspondents’ associations do.
And the bigger issue at hand is that Beijing and its supporters in the Hong Kong administration are clamping down on the freedoms granted the territory under the “one country, two systems” formula that has made it an island of prosperity and openness off the authoritarian mainland.
Expelling a foreign reporter is sadly normal on the mainland. The New York Times is among news organisations whose applications for journalist visas have been blocked, in The Times’s case over reports in 2012 on the wealth accumulated by the families of Chinese leaders. But in Hong Kong, a large and lively cadre of foreign journalists has enjoyed the freedom of expression, and human rights groups could not recall any expulsions.
The ouster of Mallet thus represents a serious and worrisome escalation in Beijing’s campaign to crack down on any dissonant voices in Hong Kong, especially in the wake of the “Occupy Central” movement for universal suffrage that locked down parts of the city four years ago. President Xi Jinping, whose growing authoritarianism has been watched with trepidation in Hong Kong, warned on a visit to the territory last year that challenges to Beijing’s authority would not be tolerated.
To the many international businesses that operate out of Hong Kong, the treatment of Mallet is in effect a threat to Hong Kong’s identity and role. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong warned in a statement on Monday that curtailing press freedoms in Hong Kong could damage its “competitiveness as a leading financial and trading centre.” The United States, Britain and the European Union have likewise sounded alarms. These should continue, loudly and clearly.
©2018 The New York Times News Service