27 January 2020
Exiled mainland writer Ma Jian was able to attend the recent Hong Kong Literary Festival after the management of Tai Kwun arts center reversed an earlier decision not to host the event.  Photo: AFP
Exiled mainland writer Ma Jian was able to attend the recent Hong Kong Literary Festival after the management of Tai Kwun arts center reversed an earlier decision not to host the event. Photo: AFP

The far-reaching consequences of the Ma Jian saga

It is hard to tell what lies behind the farce that surrounded the appearance of exiled mainland writer Ma Jian at the recent Hong Kong Literary Festival. Unfortunately, all possible explanations of what happened are pretty dismal not just for Ma but for Hong Kong as a whole.

It is, of course, possible that the management of the Tai Kwun complex acted entirely on their own initiative in initially barring the writer from the premises. If this is the case it speaks volumes about the poisonous atmosphere that prevails in which self-censorship is the reflex response to anything that might upset the mainland authorities.

It is equally possible that the Jockey Club, which runs this complex, was subject to pressure from either the Hong Kong government or from mainland officials stationed in Hong Kong who keep an eagle eye on public events. This possibility suggests that Hong Kong has traveled so far down the role of suppressing freedom of expression that even an author, who is not a political activist but is indeed a critic of the Communist regime, will find it hard to gain a platform.

Were it the case that this kind of thing was happening in isolation it would be inadvisable to draw any generalized conclusions but there is now a relentless series of events demonstrating that the squeeze is most definitely on.

The first but almost certainly not the last ban on a political organization has now been enacted, a senior foreign journalist has been expelled from Hong Kong for no reason other than having chaired a meeting at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (now facing a possible threat of eviction) where the leader of the Hong Kong National Party spoke prior to the ban. (The government refuses to comment on the reasons for this expulsion but there is no other evident cause for this action.) 

Then there is the chain of candidates who have been disqualified from standing for election. Meanwhile, the senior management of some of the SAR’s biggest media groups volunteered to go to Beijing for instructions on how they should behave. Printers will no longer print books that might be considered as likely to offend Beijing and distributors will not touch them with a barge pole and on it goes.

The irony in the ham-fisted attempt to silence Mr. Ma is that the government – even if it initiated this action – may well have suddenly realized that things were getting out of hand. The Chief Executive Carrie Lam was clearly taken aback when visiting Japan and found herself being intensely questioned over freedom of expression issues.

Meanwhile, the Chief Secretary was dispatched to Geneva as part of the Chinese delegation to answer an unprecedented number of questions about Hong Kong at a session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

It is therefore possible that the government actually intervened to get the Jockey Club to allow Ma to speak, fearing that this barrage of international criticism was getting to be too much. Whether this was so is mere speculation, but the fact is that the Jockey Club made a sudden U-turn using the intensely lame excuse that it had discovered that the writer was not intending to use the literary festival as part of a political platform. Given that he has never done this in the past this explanation smacked of desperation.

Mrs. Lam and her team have been so intent on garnering the approval of their bosses in Beijing for cracking down on dissent in Hong Kong that they appear not to have noticed the impact this was having elsewhere in the world. As ever they were focused on the belief that as long as the world of commerce was going about its business unhindered, there would be no adverse consequences for the SAR as a whole. Now they are learning that this is not the case.

A recent US Congressional report has said that in the light of Hong Kong’s human rights record it should be treated like any other Chinese city when it comes to trading relations and investment ties. Less noticed was an Australian government decision to bar one of the Li Ka-shing group of companies from taking over a key utility on the grounds of “national interest”.

In other words, the desperate attempts of the Lam administration to stress integration with the mainland are most definitely being noticed but not in a good way.

The only good thing to have come out of this saga is that it has raised the profile of this very worthwhile literary festival and sparked greater interest in Ma Jian’s work. Thankfully, the enemies of freedom of expression can also be their own worst enemies.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author