Is China forcing friendly nations to suppress free speech in HK?

May 27, 2015 14:39
Joshua Wong returns to Hong Kong after he was barred from Malaysia. He said no reason was given for the decision except that it was a "government order". Photo: RTHK

China this week showed its political influence in the region, albeit indirectly, with profound implications for Hong Kong.

Malaysia, a former British colony, was at the center of the tour de force.

On Tuesday, Malaysian authorities barred student activist Joshua Wong from entering the country where he was to discuss Beijing's June 4 crackdown and last year's democracy protests in Hong Kong at a student forum.

Wong said no reason was given for the decision except that it was a "government order" but he suspected the move was politically motivated.

When he asked Hong Kong authorities to make inquiries with their Malaysian counterparts, he was told to "respect the decision".

The decision caught many people in Hong Kong by surprise and some critics speculated that Wong might be on a Malaysian blacklist.

Granted it's all speculation, it has not stopped people from thinking China might have had a hand in the incident and that it might have talked to other countries about people like Wong.    

But why Malaysia?

The country is not a close Beijing ally, although it has its own issues about political dissent and youth disaffection.

Still, Wong could not have upended the status quo with his presence at the forum. It's likely Chinese officials in the country told their Malaysian counterparts how they would prefer to deal with Wong.

Some Malaysian observers said the government was trying to preempt whatever influence Wong might have on the country's disaffected youths who have been demonstrating against corruption and social inequality since the beginning of the year.

China insists it does not meddle in the domestic affairs of other countries but the Malaysia incident looks like a template for dealing with visiting Chinese activists.

Whether or not there's direct intervention from Beijing, governments are mindful of what China might say.

It is Beijing's invisible hand that is moving the needle in this kind of diplomacy.     

On Wednesday, several news reports said some pro-Beijing Malaysian businessmen pressed Kuala Lumpur about Wong.

Beijing, of course, won't admit any meddling, but it can exert political influence simply by leveraging its economic clout.

Being friendly to China does Malaysia no harm. The question is whether other countries friendly to China feels the same way. 

This is important because the issue goes to the heart of Hong Kong's right of free speech.

The Basic Law guarantees that right and other freedoms for 50 years after the 1997 change of sovereignty to China.

"One country, two systems", under which Hong Kong functions as a free society in a communist country, is the basis of international recognition of its existence and way of life.

It would be the end of Hong Kong as we know it, if foreign nations make exceptions to that principle just because they value good relations with China above all else.

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EJ Insight writer