While the world is busy trying to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus, Chinese authorities last week pulled credentials from journalists at three major media outlets: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Post. What is particularly shocking about this retaliatory move, after the Trump administration took action against several Chinese Communist Party-controlled outlets, is that for the first time, those foreign correspondents are also barred from reporting from Hong Kong and Macau.
This is an unprecedented decision. For decades, Hong Kong has long been known as a bastion of press freedom in the region. With protections by independent courts and civil liberties enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law (equivalent to its Constitution), foreign media have been able to operate free from intervention from autocratic China. Last week’s move is yet another sign that this bastion no longer fully exists, as China's claws have sunk deeper into local affairs.
The decision deals a deadly blow to the city’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework. Article 22 of the Basic Law stipulates that the Hong Kong government will maintain full autonomy of its immigration controls, while Article 27 guarantees full protection on freedom of speech. But the city’s ability to determine its immigration policy has been undermined multiple times in recent years, with the entry denials of Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet, Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth and Hong Kong Watch chair Benedict Rogers.
Another worrying sign is the utter failure of Beijing-handpicked chief executive Carrie Lam to stand up for the city’s autonomy. Days after China’s expulsion order, the city’s government has not given a clear and definitive answer on the visa status of foreign journalists in Hong Kong. Together with its hard-line policy to crack down on the public call for democracy last year, the city leader’s compliance with Beijing’s decision has deepened concerns about civil liberties in Hong Kong.
Beijing’s decision to wage war on press freedom shows that Chinese authorities still have not learned the lessons of the past few months. The tragic global spread of the coronavirus stems in part from its lack of transparency in early stages. Media restrictions could limit transparency and accountability further and open the door for future catastrophes. That would mean other countries could once again be forced to pay the price for China's opaqueness.
Worse still, Beijing’s decision is just one piece in a bigger puzzle of its political ambitions, particularly in Hong Kong. Since the end of last year, Beijing has been calling for speeding up the passage of a controversial national security law in the city. Weeks ago, Beijing also installed a hard-liner, who was notorious for the demolition of Christian crosses, as the new head of China’s office in Hong Kong, and scaled up the city’s budget on its police force, which has been violently suppressing protesters. Reuters has confirmed that up to 4,000 Chinese national security forces have been taking part in the crackdowns on the Hong Kong movement since last year. The director of the liaison office in Hong Kong even dubbed Hong Kong protesters a “political coronavirus” and called for squashing democratic aspirations in the city.
According to a recent poll, Hongkongers’ net confidence in “one country, two systems” stands at negative 41 percentage points, while the confidence in the city’s future has dropped to a record-tying low of negative 44 percentage points. People are unsure whether Hong Kong can still retain its status as an open, free and global metropolis. This will have profound impacts on not just Hong Kong residents but also international investors and expatriates.
While Beijing flexes its muscles in Hong Kong under the shadow of a global pandemic, we hope the world keeps a close watch on the situation in our city. As the State Department prepares to publish a report on Hong Kong’s autonomy, we call upon the U.S. government to list out effective sanction mechanisms on human rights violators. Sending a warning signal to China is the only way to ensure that Hong Kong can remain an oasis of liberty as we continue our fight for democracy on this soil.
Joshua Wong is the secretary general of Demosisto, a political activist group in Hong Kong. Amon Yiu is a member and researcher for Demosisto.