Since its handover to China in 1997, Hong Kong’s civil society has expressed growing concern over the state of its press freedoms. Local media constantly surrender their freedom of expression by practicing self-censorship for fear of sanctions from the Chinese government. As Beijing seeks to expand the scope of its influence beyond its borders and further promote its relations with the Western world, Hong Kong serves as a reminder that China remains an authoritarian state and closer political and economic ties must be combined with a firm and consistent stand on human rights.
“Article 27 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution guarantees Hong Kong residents freedom of speech, of the press, and of publication.” Yet, the current situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) is clearly one of declining press freedoms. The “one country, two systems” status, which legally defines Hong Kong as independent from China, has so far prevented Hong Kong’s media from being fully subject to China’s draconian censorship system, the so-called Great Firewall. Yet, in 2015, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong 70th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, a sharp decline from its ranking of 18th in 2002. The international community should be concerned as increasing press censorship violates not only internationally held norms but also hampers the ability of the Hong Kong press to provide an independent perspective on China to the world.
Hong Kong newspapers have in the past provided independent coverage of China, thereby filling the gap left by the tightly restricted mainland press and playing a unique and important watchdog role. Where Beijing attempts to manipulate the information, Hong Kong provides an alternative and critical stream of reporting, which denounced, for example, the Chinese Central Propaganda Department’s removal of online images, comments, and reports on the explosion at South Urumqi Railway Station in April 2014, and later condemned the cyber attacks and online bullying against journalists and key figures of the Occupy Central movement during the student strikes of fall 2014. However, recent political developments and several protests in the SAR have confirmed the worrying trend that Hong Kong’s press freedoms are in jeopardy. The International Federation of Journalists’ most recent report, China’s Media War: Censorship, Corruption and Control, declared 2014 a watershed year for the press in Hong Kong and denounced the “invisible black hands” of increasing Chinese influence in the city over the past year.
Of particular concern is the sharp increase in violent threats and physical attacks against journalists, which forces newspapers to adopt a softer stance vis-à-vis the SAR’s and mainland China’s policies. In July 2014, the editors of the critical newspaper Ming Pao deliberately removed headlines deemed politically sensitive because they related to the pro-democracy movements, for fear that “an invisible hand” could reprimand them. This came only a few months after the sudden stabbing of Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of Ming Pao and a prominent critic of Hong Kong and Chinese governments. More recently, the home and office of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai were firebombed, an attack the Hong Kong press largely interpreted as a warning message given Lai’s vocal criticism of Beijing.
While threats to press freedom are of global concern, the battle in Hong Kong takes a unique shape. The close ties between Hong Kong and China has meant that political and business concerns often prevail over media freedom. More than half of the media owners in Hong Kong have been appointed to national political bodies in China, and the owners of most media organizations have significant mainland business interests. Thus, fear frequently dictates editorial decisions: the fear of losing political influence and the fear of loosing the financial and commercial privileges gained from conducting business with Chinese companies.
Despite the pressure on the media elite, Hong Kong’s civil society remains defiant. Civil society’s struggle for media freedom recently found an echo in the current demands for direct elections for the territory’s leader in 2017. Occupy Central, a civil disobedience movement that began in September 2014 to call for democratic reform, is part of a renewed push for democracy and the respect of fundamental liberties. It is no coincidence that even as press freedoms disappeared, the so-called Umbrella Revolution took to Hong Kong’s streets in autumn last year, shedding light on the wide gap between democracy defenders and the Chinese government’s tightening grip on Hong Kong’s political, economic, and cultural life.
Although Hong Kong has remained a relatively free and open territory endowed with a vibrant civil society, Beijing’s worrying encroachment on traditional press freedoms means that Hong Kong will eventually be unable to fulfil its watchdog role, leaving the world without an independent, inside voice reporting on China. Yet, the world’s democracies have remained largely silent on the issue of freedom of the press and democracy in Hong Kong. In an increasingly multipolar and interconnected world, the West should certainly pay more attention to Beijing’s influence on the SAR’s political and cultural landscape. As Chinese influence grows and expands beyond Asia (as illustrated by the large-scale project One Belt, One Road, which connects China with Europe and every country in-between), one must not forget that China remains an authoritarian state. Hong Kong provides a clear example of China’s violations of freedom of speech and of the press.
Western countries, notably those in the European Union (EU) and the United States, have a long record of promoting fundamental rights beyond their national borders, yet the overriding preoccupation with trade seems to have side-lined the difficult question of how to cope with persistent human rights abuses in the rising Asian giant. The promotion of trade and human rights do not need to be mutually exclusive: both the EU and the United States must adopt a more robust approach to human rights in China, and closer economic ties must be combined with a strong, consistent, and coherent stand on human rights. China’s growing economic clout will perhaps determine the course of inter-state relations in the 21st century, but that does not justify China’s continued oppression of its people, including its efforts to control the media in Hong Kong and censor the free expression of its citizens.
Elodie Sellier holds a Masters’ degree in European Public Affairs from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Over the past few years, she has conducted extensive research on European Union-Asia relations and has worked for worked for various international organizations, including the European Delegation to Hong Kong and Macao and the Brussels-based think tank Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).