Date: November 24, 2018
By: Michael Bociurkiw
(CNN)When the last British governor of Hong Kong sailed out of Victoria Harbor on July 1,1997, many expected the Chinese government to honor pledges to maintain the colony’s basic freedoms, enshrined in the so-called Basic Law — in effect, the territory’s mini-Constitution.
After all, the thinking went, Beijing would have nothing to gain by tinkering with the rule of law in one of the world’s premier trade and business hubs. It wouldn’t dare pluck the feathers of what had traditionally been known as the goose that lays China’s golden eggs — a freewheeling, capitalist enclave that served as China’s gateway to the world for trade and investment. And freedom of the press would be tolerated on the assumption that the Chinese understood the need for business to have unfettered access to information.
Moreover, the British had installed a world class legal and physical infrastructure that was expected to endure far into the future. That included such institutional safeguards as the powerful and feared Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), designed to keep the noses of the civil service squeaky clean.
But almost half way into the mandate of the “one country, two systems” experiment, Beijing appears to be accelerating Hong Kong’s absorption into China at a pace no British foreign office official might have expected in the heady run-up to the handover.
That includes a hard crackdown on dissent, especially on anyone who advocates independence of Hong Kong from the mainland. The situation was brought into focus Monday when three of the territory’s most high-profile pro-democracy protesters appeared in court on charges of fomenting unrest during 2014 street protests that brought the central business district to a standstill for almost three months. (They have pleaded not guilty but face up to seven years in prison if convicted.)
China’s media enables tyranny and corruption
Local pro-democracy protesters are not the only ones to feel the clampdown on freedom of expression. Last month, the Asia editor of the Financial Times, Victor Mallet, was declared persona non grata in Hong Kong after chairing a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club ((FCC) with Hong Kong independence advocate Andy Chan. A few weeks ago, Mallet, who was also the correspondents club’s vice president, was denied entryinto Hong Kong as a tourist — a move of such severity it would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
While Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed chief executive, Carrie Lam, has refused to comment on the reasoning behind the expulsion, it is widely seen to be a signal to others of a red line that should not be crossed. It may also foreshadow more troubles ahead for the FCC: in 2023, its lease comes up for renewal by the Hong Kong government. And, with a three-month cancellation clause, which allows the government to terminate the lease even sooner, more missteps could shutter an institution that has traditionally served as not only a venue for free speech, but as a haven, exhibit space and workplace for foreign journalists and diplomats.
Even before the exclusion of Mallet, there has been creeping self-censorship in Hong Kong. The territory’s major English language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, owned since 2015 by Alibaba’s Jack Ma, tends to give Chinese authorities velvet glove treatment. The Chinese-language media in the territory has long-since fallen into line and stays clear of criticism of Beijing. [FULL STORY]