Hong Kong was struck by the worst storm in recorded history last month, with Typhoon Mangkhut felling more than 40,000 trees and generally creating havoc. Then, last Friday, the Hong Kong government set off a storm of its own by taking the unprecedented action of rejecting the visa renewal application of a well-known and respected journalist, Victor Mallet of the Financial Times, for clearly political reasons.
On balance, Hong Kong is likely to weather the typhoon better than it will the blow to its reputation as a place where rule of law holds sway, where the civil service is efficient and politically neutral, and where the government upholds such values as freedom of assembly, of speech and of the press.
Instead, the visa denial will be seen as further evidence that Hong Kong has embarked on a downward spiral and there will eventually be little or no difference between it and mainland China, where the media is tightly controlled and freedoms of any sort cannot be taken for granted.
The government refused to explain its decision, saying that it does not comment on individual cases. However, the move came weeks after a high-profile talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club chaired by Mallet, delivered by a controversial figure, Andy Chan, founder of the tiny Hong Kong National Party, which called for Hong Kong’s independence from China.
China’s Foreign Ministry had asked the FCC to rescind its invitation to Chan, but the club, of which Mallet is first vice president, refused. The FCC insisted that the talk was part of a series of speaker events and that hosting such events “does not mean that we either endorse or oppose the views of our speakers”.
On Aug. 14, the day of the talk, the club was packed and there were large numbers of pro-China protesters lining the streets outside, along with a strong police presence.
Chan explained his party’s desire for democracy and its view that genuine democracy would only be possible if Hong Kong was independent. Five minutes after 2 p.m. – the time the talk was supposed to end – Mallet’s phone rang. He picked it up and, after a few seconds, put it down and announced, “That was the police.” The event then ended.
In July, the Hong Kong government had already made known its intention to ban the National Party on the ground that it posed an “imminent threat” to national security. It was officially banned Sept. 24. Mallet’s visa denial was disclosed Oct 5.
The visa denial was unexpected because it was so inconsistent with Hong Kong and what it was believed to stand for. Hong Kong prides itself on its rule of law, its free economy and its free media. But the visa denial was exactly the kind of thing that one expects from Beijing, where foreign correspondents are expected to toe the line, or else.
The Financial Times was stunned when the visa request for its Asia news editor was rejected. As it said, “This is the first time we have encountered this situation in Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong is now well and truly launched on the slippery slope that will end with its reputation in tatters and its image no different from that of mainland China. Acting against the National Party to please China showed that freedom of speech was being limited, since the tiny party clearly did not really pose a security threat, not to say an imminent one.
The British government issued a statement calling for an “urgent explanation” from Hong Kong. It warned that “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and its press freedoms are central to its way of life, and must be fully respected”.
The American consulate-general in Hong Kong said the visa denial “mirrors problems faced by international journalists in the Mainland and appears inconsistent with the principles enshrined in the Basic Law”.
Although under “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy, the limits of such autonomy appear to be shrinking. The visa denial is clearly the work of China, although done in the name of Hong Kong.
China, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to realize that its actions will diminish Hong Kong’s value and what it can contribute to China. After all, China has hundreds of cities but only one with the unique advantages of Hong Kong, with its international outreach, its convertible currency, its position as a major financial center, its free flow of information and its independent judiciary.
Forcing Hong Kong to accept Chinese political correctness will exact a high price, one that China will end up paying.
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