by Pete Engardio, OPC Governor
Just days ago, it appeared that press freedom was hurtling toward one of its most crushing blows yet. Despite a massive peaceful protest march by some one million Hong Kong residents—roughly one-seventh of the territory’s population—all signs suggested that the government of the Special Administrative Region was poised to ram a bill through the Legislative Council that would have allowed fugitives wanted by Chinese authorities to be extradited to the mainland. In a display of force not seen in memory in Hong Kong, riot police on June 12 started turning on peaceful protesters and journalists alike with tear gas, batons, water cannons, and volleys of plastic bullets. The Hong Kong Journalists Association has documented 26 cases of police abuse against press covering the protests.
In a breathtaking turn of events, disaster turned into what could be a stunning victory for press freedom at a time of seemingly relentless assaults against civil liberties by authoritarian governments around the world. Yielding to enormous pressure, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on June 16 that she was suspending consideration of the controversial bill. Massive protests have continued, however, amid demands that the government withdraw the bill entirely. Long-time Hong Kong journalist Philip Bowring, former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and a past president of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, shared his account of the recent events.
The OPC calls on the Hong Kong government to end consideration of the extradition bill, for the threat against press freedom is by no means over. The extradition bill could be reintroduced, and swiftly passed by Hong Kong’s rubber-stamp legislature, at any time. The law not only would shatter the independence of Hong Kong’s legal system and the promise of “one country, two systems,” which is critical to preserving press freedom and for the SAR to remain a viable regional base for hundreds of reporters and editors representing international media organizations. But as Hong Kong pro-democracy leader Martin Lee warned at the OPC’s May 9 event, Tiananmen Square Thirty Years Later, the law would also expose virtually anyone who says or publishes legitimate criticism of Beijing to be detained and sent to China for trial based merely on an affidavit or witness statement alleging a crime under Chinese law, however trumped-up the charge. “In other words,” Lee said, “Hong Kong cannot guarantee the safety of anybody in Hong Kong, not just us but any one of you.”
What’s more, the extradition bill would likely be followed by another attempt to pass a national security law provided for under Article 23 of the Basic Law to “prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets.” Such a law was introduced in 2003 and withdrawn, again after vehement public protest. The Chinese government has expressed strong support for reintroducing the national security law.
These legislative actions are occurring in the context of other attacks on press freedom in Hong Kong, including abduction and detention of book sellers, physical attacks against staff and facilities of Next Media, and denial of a work visa for the Financial Times’s Asia news editor, apparently in retaliation for hosting a talk at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club by the leader of the Hong Kong National Party.
Hong Kong civil society is maintaining its vigilance. So must the global journalism community. The world has a lot to lose if Hong Kong ceases to be a global hub of information, especially for Asia and China. Once press freedom is gone, it will be very difficult to rebuild, and the world will lose its most important window on China.
Pete Engardio was Asia correspondent for BusinessWeek based in Hong Kong from 1990 to 1996.