Hong Kong’s sta­tus as free-speech zone seems to be slip­ping away

Waf­fling on ap­pear­ances of Bei­jing critic is fresh ex­am­ple of crack­down

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY GERRY SHIH

hong kong — Years ago, the ques­tion of whether a writer crit­i­cal of the Bei­jing gov­ern­ment could speak pub­licly at a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val would be con­sid­ered moot in this city, one of Asia’s premier po­lit­i­cal havens.

This week, how­ever, a days­long drama sur­round­ing Bri­tish Chi­nese writer Ma Jian only added to a grow­ing sense that the old Hong Kong — and the free­doms once en­joyed here — are fad­ing fast.

The con­tro­versy be­gan Thurs­day when the Tai Kwun Cen­ter for Her­itage and Arts, a prom­i­nent cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion, abruptly an­nounced it would can­cel two Hong Kong In­ter­na­tional Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val events planned for Ma — whose works have long been banned in main­land China — be­cause the cen­ter did not want to pro­vide a plat­form for “po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests.”

Tai Kwun, a gov­ern­ment­backed in­sti­tu­tion, ul­ti­mately re­versed its de­ci­sion less than 24 hours be­fore Ma was to speak, but not be­fore its ear­lier can­cel­la­tion had prompted an out­cry and an un­suc­cess­ful ef­fort by fes­ti­val or­ga­niz­ers to find an­other venue will­ing to host him.

Ma is the lat­est dis­si­dent to re­cently en­counter hur­dles in Hong Kong. Last week, a car­toon­ist can­celed a solo ex­hi­bi­tion fol­low­ing what he said were threats from main­land au­thor­i­ties. And on Thurs­day, Hong Kong im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials de­nied en­try to Fi­nan­cial Times jour­nal­ist Vic­tor Mal­let, whom it had ex­pelled in an un­prece­dented move a month ear­lier.

Taken to­gether, the in­ci­dents have re­in­forced con­cerns by prodemoc­racy ac­tivists, hu­man rights ob­servers and West­ern diplo­mats that Hong Kong’s sta­tus as a free-speech haven is swiftly erod­ing, ei­ther un­der di­rect pres­sure from Bei­jing or from the sub­tler ef­fects of self-cen­sor­ship.

Ma, 65, has been a thorn in Bei­jing’s side for decades. He re­cently pub­lished a new novel in Bri­tain, “China Dream,” ex­co­ri­at­ing Chi­nese to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism and Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s vi­sion for na­tional great­ness.

Speak­ing by tele­phone be­fore de­part­ing Lon­don, Ma, 65, said he was puz­zled by the last-minute un­cer­tainty over his en­gage­ments, given that the fes­ti­val’s agenda — and the rooms he was sched­uled to speak in — had long been de­cided.

Ma said he was de­ter­mined to fly to Hong Kong to find out if he could en­ter the ter­ri­tory at all and, if he could, de­mand an ex­pla­na­tion.

“I want to know if this was an in­stance of self-cen­sor­ship, or if there were greater po­lit­i­cal forces at play,” he said. “I need to know the truth.”

Tai Kwun said late Fri­day that it would host Ma af­ter all be­cause fes­ti­val or­ga­niz­ers could not find an al­ter­nate venue. The cen­ter’s di­rec­tor, Ti­mothy Cal­nin, had said ear­lier that Tai Kwun did not want to “pro­mote the po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests of any in­di­vid­ual.”

Hong Kong was guar­an­teed a de­gree of po­lit­i­cal au­ton­omy and free­dom as part of a 1997 han­dover agree­ment be­tween China and Bri­tain that ended Bri­tish colo­nial rule in the ter­ri­tory. But Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties, deeply alarmed by the erup­tion of prodemoc­racy protests in 2014 known as “the Um­brella Move­ment,” have tried to in­still a sense of pa­tri­o­tism and have tight­ened po­lit­i­cal con­trols in ways large and small.

Hong Kong lead­ers, who an­swer ul­ti­mately to Bei­jing, have taken steps to block op­po­si­tion can­di­dates from as­sum­ing of­fice in re­cent years, banned a proin­de­pen­dence po­lit­i­cal party out­right this sum­mer and have taken a markedly tougher line against sep­a­ratist ad­vo­cacy. This month, pros­e­cu­tors are set to try nine lead­ers of the 2014 protests on “pub­lic nui­sance” charges.

Me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions, busi­ness groups and West­ern gov­ern­ments were taken aback in Oc­to­ber when Hong Kong ex­pelled Mal­let of the Fi­nan­cial Times, who had hosted a talk at the For­eign Cor­re­spon­dents Club with proin­de­pen­dence ac­tivist Andy Chan de­spite de­mands by Hong Kong and Bei­jing of­fi­cials to call off the event.

Mal­let left Hong Kong last month, and he was ques­tioned by im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials for hours Thurs­day when he sought to reen­ter as a tourist. He was even­tu­ally de­nied en­try, the Fi­nan­cial Times said Fri­day.

In an emailed state­ment, a Bri­tish con­sulate-gen­eral spokesman said the For­eign Of­fice was “very con­cerned by the au­thor­i­ties’ un­prece­dented re­jec­tion of a visa for a se­nior Bri­tish jour­nal­ist, which un­der­mines Hong Kong’s free­dom of speech and free­dom of the press.”

Mark Field, Bri­tain’s min­is­ter of state for Asia, was in Hong Kong this week and would raise Mal­let’s case with lo­cal au­thor­i­ties “as a mat­ter of ur­gency,” the state­ment added.

Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers in Hong Kong say that al­though the gov­ern­ment never ac­knowl­edged that Mal­let’s ejec­tion was ret­ri­bu­tion for host­ing the talk with Chan — whom a for­mer Hong Kong leader equated with a crim­i­nal — it sent a clear mes­sage to all busi­nesses and in­sti­tu­tions to step back from con­tro­ver­sial ac­tiv­i­ties.

“This is ex­actly how cen­sor­ship and self-cen­sor­ship foster each other,” said Maya Wang, China re­searcher for Hu­man Rights Watch. “Ev­ery­one col­lec­tively moves back, far be­hind the red line, out of a sense of self-preser­va­tion.”

Af­ter sev­eral Hong Kong book­sell­ers were widely be­lieved to have been ab­ducted by Chi­nese se­cu­rity agents in 2016, the city’s free­wheel­ing po­lit­i­cal pub­lish­ing in­dus­try sim­i­larly with­ered, as stores vol­un­tar­ily folded and writ­ers shied away from dig­ging into Chi­nese pol­i­tics.

Ma, the Bri­tish nov­el­ist, said on Twit­ter last week that he has not been able to find a Hong Kong pub­lisher for “China Dream” be­cause they were “too afraid.” Pub­lish­ers in Hong Kong, he told lo­cal me­dia, in­sisted that he re­name a char­ac­ter he had called “Xi Jin­ping.”

Pen­guin, his Bri­tish pub­lisher, has been bolder, de­scrib­ing Ma’s new novel on its web­site as “an ar­row at Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s ‘China Dream’ pro­pa­ganda” and “a bit­ing satire of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism.”

Ma, who pub­lished a book early in his ca­reer about Ti­bet — an­other third rail of Chi­nese pol­i­tics — re­mains per­sona non grata in the coun­try of his birth and has not been back in decades. He was de­nied en­try when he last at­tempted to cross the south­ern bor­der from Hong Kong in 2011.

He lived for years in Hong Kong, where he holds per­ma­nent res­i­dency. He moved to Bri­tain in 1997 when the ter­ri­tory was handed back to China.

“Af­ter 1997, I thought Hong Kong would have at least an­other 50 years of free­dom,” he said. “I did not ex­pect in­tel­lec­tual cen­sor­ship to grow step by step this bad, this fast.”

JEROME FAVRE/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

Author Ma Jian speaks to re­porters af­ter ar­riv­ing in Hong Kong for speak­ing en­gage­ments. His ap­pear­ances at a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val were abruptly can­celed, then just as sud­denly re­in­stated.

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