Skip to main content

Unsafe Harbor 不安全港

Each July 1, the Hong Kong government pulls out all the stops to celebrate the city's return to the motherland. The pomp and circumstance on Handover Day—massive pyrotechnics, miles long street parades, and thunderous speeches at a glistening waterfront convention center—serves a singular purpose: to show the world that this former British colony, reincarnated as a semi-autonomous "special administrative region" under Chinese control, is more impressive and successful than ever.

For the rest of Hong Kong, however, July 1 is a day for lamentation, not celebration. Two decades after the Handover, 7.5 million citizens, roughly the population of New York City, can feel the political ground simultaneously shifting and shrinking beneath their feet. Since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, the Communist leadership in Beijing—and the Hong Kong government acting at its behest—has made a concerted effort to roll back freedoms guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" framework. More alarmingly, the pace of regression has accelerated since the Umbrella Movement, a massive pro-democracy protest that paralyzed large sprawls of the city for nearly three months in 2014.

Protest while they still can

Press Freedom

The free press is often the first casualty when authoritarian regimes tighten their grip. Hong Kong has borne out that political truism despite its reputation as a beacon for free expression in China and beyond. The city's ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has plunged from 18th in 2002 (since the index was first launched) to a record low of 73rd in 2017, behind countries such as Haiti, Bosnia, and El Salvador.

Crackdown on the press can be overt and violent. The Hong Kong Journalists Association reported a significant surge in the number of cases of attacks on frontline journalists during and since the Umbrella Movement by pro-Beijing groups and, in some instances, Hong Kong law enforcement. The Apple Daily, a local newspaper critical of Beijing, has been the subject of several fire-bombings and cyber-attacks.

But suppression comes in many shapes. Following marching orders from the Liaison Office—the de facto Chinese embassy in Hong Kong—local and mainland Chinese businesses exert pressure on news media outlets by pulling advertising or gobbling them up altogether. In 2015, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group acquired the 115-year-old South China Morning Post for US$270 million with the stated goal to "improve China's image." Changes in ownership are often followed by management reshuffling in the newsroom and termination of outspoken columnists, as was the case for The SCMP and other local newspapers including Ming Pao, The Sing Tao Daily, and The Hong Kong Economic Journal.

These incidents have had a chilling effect on the press media, creating a climate of self-censorship and so-called "white terror" among journalists. This comes at a time when the traditional news media is already hard hit by the onslaught of social media and other industry disruptors. While these issues are not unique to Hong Kong, their impact is magnified by China's growing economic prowess and its ability to marshal the local business elite to take down the Fourth Estate.

Political Freedom

If the free press is a thorn in the sides of the authorities, so too are opposition politicians who hold them to account. After an unprecedented number of young pro-democracy candidates won the general election in 2016, the Hong Kong government sought a constitutional interpretation from Beijing to unseat a half dozen of these new legislators, on the grounds that they had not properly recited their oath of office. Since the "oathgate" saga, opposition parties calling for different degrees of autonomy from China have been barred from running for office in the first place. These flagrant violations of political freedom have served to discourage civic participation, especially among the youth who question the point of voting when the candidates they support are banned from the ballot and the lawmakers they elected can lose their jobs over a technicality.

Two months ago, the Hong Kong government announced plans to outlaw a small, barely active pro-independence political party in the name of national security. For the first time in the city's history, an organization is being shut down for ideological reasons rather than any actual or imminent illicit act. A police spokesperson justified the government's move as a "preventative measure," while offering little detail on what constitutes a security threat. It is uncertain whether the ban will survive a constitutional challenge, but the incident has started the city down the slippery slope of political censorship on the pretext of national security and left the opposition camp fearing who would be next.

Free-falling press freedom


Academic Freedom

The student-led Umbrella Movement has put academia in the government's crosshairs. Shortly after the movement ended, a former law school dean and prominent human rights scholar was openly criticized for his sympathetic views toward the protesters. He ultimately lost his nomination for the top job at a leading university, despite a unanimous recommendation by an independent selection committee. Another law professor, the architect of an occupation campaign that ultimately led to the Umbrella Movement, has been subject to regular harassment and character assassination on and off campus.

Hong Kong Watch, a London-based watchdog, released a report earlier this year warning about regressions in the city's academic freedom. The report cited incidents of outspoken professors being removed from their posts, political banners taken down from campuses, and pro-government figures appointed to key management roles. It does not help matters that the chief executive, the highest office in Hong Kong handpicked by and answerable to Beijing, is the de jure chancellor of all Hong Kong universities vested with broad decision-making powers.

Freedom to Publish

No discussion of Hong Kong's shrinking space for free expression is complete without mentioning the bookseller disappearances. In 2015, five members of a local publishing house known for printing political "tell all" books about the Communist leadership went missing, believed to have been abducted and detained by mainland Chinese agents. One of the abductees made it back to Hong Kong and held a press conference with harrowing revelations about his eight-month captivity in mainland China until his release on condition of confession to crimes he did not commit.

The abductions were believed to be part of a larger state-sponsored initiative to crack down on Hong Kong's freewheeling publishing industry. It is an industry already in distress as the Liaison Office holds a firm grip on the city's book distribution, having acquired major local bookstore chains in Hong Kong over the years. The bookseller incident has dealt a devastating blow not only to the publishing industry, but it has also shattered any illusion that citizens still enjoy unfettered freedom of expression under the "one country, two systems" promise.

Perhaps less politically-motivated but no less disconcerting, the Hong Kong government is bent on singling out the LGBT community for literary censorship and imposing its antiquated views on sexuality when adjudicating obscenity. Last year, the local authorities banned nine LGBT-themed books from the Hong Kong Book Fair, the city's largest literary event, on the grounds that they were obscene. This past June, the Home Affairs Bureau ordered a number of children's books featuring same-sex parents to be removed from public library shelves. In July, the Obscene Articles Tribunal classified Killing Commendatore, the latest novel by the renowned Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, as indecent materials for its explicit depiction of sex. Many fear that these seemingly isolated incidents of censorship, if left unchecked, may turn into a troubling pattern and eventually into a new normal.

China Says "Jump" and They Say "How High?"

From the press media and academia to politics and civil society at large, violations of free expression in Hong Kong are showing no signs of easing. It begs the question as to why the central and local authorities appear so prepared to abrogate the city's freedoms and put at risk its hard-earned reputation as a free harbor.

The answer lies on both sides of the border.

Under President Xi Jinping's strongman leadership, China has grown more assertive abroad and autocratic at home. On the mainland, human rights lawyers continue to be rounded up, religious minorities suppressed, and the Great Firewall doubled down. As for Hong Kong, where citizens still enjoy freedoms that are unthinkable anywhere else on Chinese soil, the Communist leadership is increasingly leery that the special administrative region is becoming an incubator for political dissent that may fester and spread to the mainland. That, coupled with Hong Kong's diminishing strategic importance to the motherland as her affluence and influence rise, leads to one ominous conclusion: free expression and other special privileges in Hong Kong can and must be curtained and eventually revoked to preserve one-party rule.

While it is true that Beijing will always put self-preservation above Hong Kong's long-term prosperity, much of the blame falls on the ruling elite in Hong Kong. Self-interested politicians and bureaucrats read the political tea leaves up north and willingly hand the city's freedoms over on a silver platter as the ultimate proof of loyalty. Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last colonial governor, famously predicted that the city's autonomy would not be taken away by Beijing, but instead given away bit by bit by citizens in exchange for personal gains. Two decades since Patten signed off from the Governor's House, his prophecy has already played out many times over.

As the clock ticks down to 2047, the year when the "one country, two systems" framework expires, the harmonization of Hong Kong with mainland China has reached a fever pitch. Freedom of expression—a bedrock for the city's economic success and the singular characteristic that differentiates it from the rest of China—becomes a necessary roadkill on the path to full integration. While some in Hong Kong have resigned to the mindset that resistance is futile, others choose to flee the city if they have the means. Still others continue the spirit of the Umbrella Movement and do what they can to slow down the regression. It remains to be seen whether the efforts of this last group are a mere last gasp for air, or the key to delivering the Fragrant Harbor from the doom of becoming a second-tier mainland city.
___________________________
This article was commissioned and published by the U.S.-based Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs under the title "Unsafe Harbor: Shrinking Space of Free Expression in Hong Kong."

As published in Carnegie Ethics

Popular Posts

Book Review: "Generation HK" 書評:《香港世代》

Unpacking the young generation in Hong Kong is a tall order, not least because a singular, archetypical “Hong Kong youth” does not exist. The cohort is as diverse and divergent as it comes, from socioeconomic background and upbringing to education and exposure to the wider world, to values, ideals and aspirations. It defies stereotypes and generalisations.

Ben Bland, a British correspondent for The Financial Times, is in a unique position to take on that ambitious project. Whereas Bland’s extensive experience reporting in Asia—including stints in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar—has given him a broad field of view, his relatively short tenure in Hong Kong—just over two years—allows him to look at its people through a long-range lens.
It is that unadulterated objectivity and his unquenched curiosity that make Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow a discerning and refreshing read. Released last summer under Penguin Book’s inaugural “Hong Kong series” to mark the 20…

About the Author 關於作者

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a globetrotter who spent his entire adult life in Italy, the United States and Canada before returning to his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a lawyer, published author, and contributor to The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press and EJInsight. His social commentary blog As I See It and restaurant/movie review site The Real Deal have attracted a cult following in Asia and beyond. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a music critic for Time Out (HK).

Jason is the bestselling author of Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), No City for Slow Men (2013) and HONG KONG State of Mind (2010). Together, the three books form a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city's post-colonial development. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies. In 2017, Jason co-edited and contributed to Hong Kong 20/20, an anthology that marks the 20th anniversary of the handover. In July 2017, he was appointed Advising Editor for the Los Angeles Revie…

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice.
The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin-starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants, serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds.

While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents and visitors alike. Whatever your budget and palate…

Media Attention + Upcoming Events 媒體關注 + 最新動向

Upcoming events and speaking engagements in 2018

Launch of new website: jasonyng.com
Date: November

Deliver legal workshop for foreign domestic workers organized by Philippine Consulate General HK and Wimler Foundation
Topic: Know your rights
Venue: Philippine Consulate General HK, Admiralty
Date: November

Book launch of Hong Kong Noir published by Akashic Books
Venue: TBD
Date: November

Release of Hong Kong Highs and Lows (2018 anthology by Hong Kong Writers Circle)
Short story: “Points of Inflexion”
Date: December



2018

Shooting of British documentary about Hong Kong’s political development since Umbrella Movement
Venue: Centennial Campus, University of Hong Kong
Date: 21 October
Release date: summer 2019

Panelist at Pink Dot Hong Kong 2018
Topic: Choice of jurisdiction for same-sex marriage
Venue: West Kowloon Cultural District
Date: 21 October

Speaker/panelist on BNP Paribas diversity & inclusion panels
Topic 1: What is an LGBT ally?
Venue: BNP Paribas, IFC Two
Date: 8 October
Topics: …

Past Events: 2017年活動

Media coverage and speaking engagements in 2017


Interview with Apple Daily 蘋果日報
Title: "下月8日提訊 料親身上庭 [Patrick Ho] to be arraigned on 8 January, expected to appear in person"
Publication date: 22 December

Interview with Ming Pao Daily 明報
Title: "依法限提訊後70日開審 律師指變數仍多 [Patrick Ho to be tried within 70 days of indictment, but timing is subject to change" Publication date: 21 December

Interview with Ming Pao Daily 明報 Title: "何志平案1月8日提訊 或3月中開審 料獄中過農曆年 Patrick Ho to be arraigned on 8 January pending trial in March, expected to spend Chinese New Year in prison" Publication date: 21 December

Interview with Apple Daily 蘋果日報 Title: "起訴書:何志平倘罪成須充公財產 Indictment says Patrick Ho's assets to be seized upon conviction" Publication date: 20 December
Radio Interview with BBC Radio Title: "Censorship and freedom of expression in China and Hong Kong" Show: The Cultural Frontline Presenter: Tina Daheley Broadcast date: 11 December
Moderator at Enrich HK panel …

Let the Tanhua Bloom 曇花再現

When I moderated Kevin Kwan’s book talk for China Rich Girlfriend at a Hong Kong literary event in 2015, the Singaporean-American author was in the process of casting for the Hollywood adaptation of his first book.
Three years later, Crazy Rich Asians the movie—a cross between Cinderella, Pride and Prejudice and The Bachelor—is a runaway hit in North America. The romantic comedy topped the U.S. weekend box office in its opening week and proved to Hollywood studios that a film featuring an all-Asian cast can be just as bankable. 

For Asian audiences everywhere, CRA is more than a feel-good summer blockbuster. It is the coming out party a long time coming. If the people we see on the big screen look cool and sassy, we feel we all do. But god forbid if they come off as dorky or lame, we all do too.
It’s not just the moviegoers who get the jitters. The same is true for actors, directors, screenwriters, and novelists of Asian descent. Whether CRA is a hit or a flop may jumpstart or cut sh…

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

Who is Agnes Chow? 誰是周庭?

It was roughly six months ago when Nathan Law, chairman of Demosisto, lost his job. He and five other pro-democracy lawmakers had strayed from the prescribed oath during the swearing-in ceremony, and were ousted from the Legislative Council (LegCo) after Beijing issued a reinterpretation of the oath-taking provisions in the Basic Law. Many saw the unseating of six democratically-elected lawmakers, dubbed “Oathgate” in the local press, as a calculated political move to purge the legislature of the opposition.

The time to fill some of these vacated seats is finally upon us. Four by-elections will be held simultaneously on March 11, in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, New Territories East and for the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape sector.
Barely old enough to run, 21-year-old Agnes Chow (周庭) of pro-democracy party Demosisto has thrown her hat into the ring hoping to win back Law’s Hong Kong Island seat. Her decision to run has not come without a price: she has deferred …

As You LIKE It 人人讚好

Social media are the greatest invention of the 21st Century, not least because they provide ready fillers for life’s many dull moments. The virtual world is the perfect antidote to our real life drudgery. Bring on the mile-long taxi line, the interminable Monday morning meeting and even the deadly silent treatment from an upset spouse. All we need to do is whip out our phones, drop our heads and, with a flick of the thumb, wade through stream after mind-numbing stream of news feeds and tweets. In the parallel universe of restaurant check-ins, vacation selfies and baby videos, we are the celebrities and we are the groupies. No one wants to admit it, but many of us have started to reorganize our lives based on how the status update would look on our carefully manicured timeline.

It is therefore all the more important to observe proper online decorum and protect our virtual image. The idea that anything goes in Cyberspace, or that a random post is as consequence-free as tossing a bottl…

The Hundredth Post 第一百篇

This month marks the third birthday of my blog As I See It, a social commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in Hong Kong. The occasion coincides with the 100th article I have written under the banner. Having reached a personal milestone, I decided to take the opportunity to reflect on my still-young writing career and wallow in, dare we say, self-congratulatory indulgence.

It all started in November 2008 on the heels of the last U.S. presidential election. I was getting ready to create a personal website as a platform to consolidate my interests and pursuits. To do that I needed content. That’s how my blog – or my “online op-ed column” as I prefer to call it – came into being. 
Before I knew it, I was banging it out in front of my iMac every night, going on and off the tangent and in and out of my stream of consciousness about the odd things I experienced in the city, the endless parade of pink elephants I saw everyday that no one seemed to bat an eyelid at. Though singi…