China move on US reporters sparks questions over HK autonomy

March 19, 2020 15:06
China’s move to include Hong Kong under a work ban order for some US journalists is further proof of the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy, observers say.  Photo: HKEJ

Pan-democratic lawmakers on Wednesday slammed Beijing's decision to bar several American journalists being expelled from China from even working in Hong Kong and Macau, saying the order amounts to flagrant breach of Hong Kong's autonomy and "one country, two systems".

Reacting to China's move to expel around a dozen US journalists from three top US newspapers and prohibit them from even working in Hong Kong and Macau, lawmakers questioned whether Beijing has the right to include Hong Kong in the work ban order.

Given that Hong Kong guarantees press freedoms and the local authorities are entitled to make decisions on their own with regard to work visas for foreign journalists, Beijing's ban order marks a violation of the Basic Law -- Hong Kong's mini-constitution -- and freedom of press in the city, they said. 

Lawmaker Charles Mok Nai-kwong said he had sought an urgent Legislative Council discussion over the matter, putting a proposal to Legco President Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, but was turned down.

The Legco chief rejected the request, arguing that the matter was not urgent.

Calling the Chinese foreign ministry’s move in relation to the US journalists unprecedented, Claudia Mo Man-ching, another pro-democracy lawmaker, said it shows that the “one country, two systems” principle is dead.

Mo pointed out that, under the “two systems”, Hong Kong can deal with its immigration matters by itself, but now Beijing clearly does not care about Hong Kong’s rights, as evident from the move to arbitrarily include Hong Kong in the retaliatory act against Washington.

In the early hours of Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry announced that it is revoking the press credentials of American journalists working for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, in retaliation for recent US restrictions on Chinese journalists.

As per the order, US citizens who work as journalists for the three organizations and whose press credentials expire by the end of this year must hand back their press cards within 10 days and would not be permitted to work in mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau.

The announcement left observers and the global media fraternity aghast, as the order meant that the journalists being expelled from mainland China won't be allowed to operate from Hong Kong either, despite the different jurisdictions. 

In a statement Wednesday night, the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong (FCCHK) said it “is alarmed at the decision of the Chinese government to expel U.S. journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post”, and that it is even more concerned that the persons are also banned from working as journalists in Hong Kong, despite the fact that Hong Kong "has its own system under which press freedom is a right according to the law.”

The FCCHK noted that under “the Basic Law, all decisions about employment visas for foreign nationals in Hong Kong, including journalists, have been made independently by the [Hong Kong] Immigration Department.”

“If that system has changed, it would represent a serious erosion of the One Country, Two Systems principle,” the FCCHK said, adding that authorities “must immediately clarify the situation and must immediately and without reservation provide assurances that foreign journalists working in Hong Kong and those applying to work in Hong Kong will continue to be issued employment visas without interference from the Chinese government.”

The matter came up during a Legco meeting held later on Wednesday, with senior officials who attended the session facing questions on how the government would respond.

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah did not give a straight answer, only saying that questions have to be directed at relevant government departments.

But he said authorities will deal with the matter in line with “one country, two systems” principle.

Pro-establishment lawmakers, meanwhile, were generally supportive of Beijing's decision. 

In response to the FCCHK’s statement, a spokesperson for China's Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong lashed out at the club for pointing the finger at the ministry’s countermeasure against Washington.

Expressing strong disapproval, the spokesperson emphasized that Hong Kong is part of China, and added that some external forces are abusing freedom of press and trying to interfere in internal affairs of China and Hong Kong.

Beijing's expulsion of US journalists came after Washington recently cut the number of Chinese nationals permitted to work at the US offices of top Chinese state-owned media organizations.

Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, Pro-establishment lawmaker from the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong, said the US should take the blame for inviting trouble on itself.

The issue is now beyond the Hong Kong government and the local courts, as it has escalated into a matter of China's foreign diplomacy, she said. 

A Hong Kong government spokesman on Wednesday night said in response to media inquiries that the foreign ministry statement indicated that the expulsions were deemed as countermeasures in light of Washington's "unwarranted restrictions on the Chinese media agencies and personnel in the US.”

The spokesman dismissed criticism that Hong Kong's rights and press freedoms had been undermined.

"Hong Kong enjoys press freedom. The HKSAR government has been facilitating media organizations and journalists from other countries to cover news in Hong Kong. This policy is in compliance with the Basic Law and the "one country, two systems" principle,” the spokesman said.

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