Attacks and Censorship in Hong Kong
The following originally appeared on PEN’s website in March, 2014, but its questions still ring true almost a year later, as pro-democracy protesters vacate the streets of Hong Kong. Is Hong Kong still a bastion of free expression in a region gripped by censorship?
Is Hong Kong becoming the next Mexico? The next Honduras? In the past month, three journalists were brutally assaulted in broad daylight. They join the six others who were attacked in the last year and a half alone.
These attacks come at a time of increasing censorship and self-censorship in Hong Kong, as media is bought up by mainland Chinese tycoons or others with close ties to the Chinese Central government. Like in Mexico, it is now outside interests who yield undue influence on the discourse, putting pressure on independent voices or voices critical of the status quo.
On February 26, 2014, Kevin Lau Chun-to, former chief editor of the respected Chinese-language Ming Pao Daily, was slashed on his back and legs with a meat cleaver as he stepped from his car in a residential neighborhood on Hong Kong Island. His attackers apparently fled on a motorbike. Lau was in critical condition after the attack and remains hospitalized.
On March 19, two suspects were charged with “wounding” after being caught across the mainland border in Guangdong Province and handed back to Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s police commissioner, Tsang Wai-hung, claims that the suspects were members of organized crime, and suggests that Lau’s journalism may not have been the motive. The Global Times, the international arm of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, ran an editorial in the days after the attack, cautioning against “conspiracy theories” as they relate to the mainland.
Under Lau’s leadership, Ming Pao, a paper with a deep history of investigative journalism, contributed to a report exposing the vast, off-shore wealth of China’s elite, including President Xi Jinping and former Premier Wen Jiabao—a controversy which led to the foreign journalist visa debacle at the end of 2013. In January 2014, just weeks before the attack, Lau was sacked from his post at Ming Pao, which is owned by a Malaysian tycoon with significant business ties to China, and replaced by a Malaysian editor who had previously expressed pro-Beijing views. Lau was apparently a liability.
The same day the suspects in Lau’s attack were brought to court, two media executives with The Hong Kong Morning News, Lei Lun-han and Lam Kin-ming, were attacked in the middle of the day by four masked men with metal bars in the popular Tsim Sha Tsui district. The Hong Kong Morning News had announced plans to begin publication this year. Lei and Lam sustained injuries to their faces, arms, and legs.
These are the very visible tip of a troubling iceberg in a municipality that has had considerably more freedom than the rest of the country since it was handed back to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. In 2011, I met with a journalist who, even then, spoke about the deteriorating climate for free expression in Hong Kong. She told me about editors of newspapers and radio shelving stories that may have upset the Central Chinese government. In 2012, the Hong Kong Journalists Association found that 87% of journalists who had responded to a survey said that access to information had been limited and obstruction of news coverage had risen since 2003, and 79% believed self-censorship had risen as well. And in 2013, the University of Hong Kong conducted a public opinion survey in which more than half of respondents believed that the local media practices self-censorship.
The South China Morning Post, for example, the most well regarded English-language daily, has come under increasing fire over the years, especially since the paper hired its first mainland-born chief editor, Wang Xiangwei, in January 2012. In June of that year, Wang downgraded a breaking story about the suspicious death of a Tiananmen dissident at a hospital in Henan Province from headline news to a news brief in the back pages of the paper, leading many to question whether he was self-censoring to quiet the firestorm that was beginning to surge. After protests that drew more than 25,000 people calling for an investigation into the activist’s death, more than 30 staffers signed a petition protesting Wang’s decision and pro-democracy activists burned newspapers outside the Post’s office.
Hopefully this awareness means that Hong Kong will not fall into the depths of impunity that has allowed places like Mexico and Honduras to be named as the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Thousands of people in Hong Kong also took to the streets to protest Kevin Lau’s attack, carrying banners reading “They Can’t Kill Us All.” But for this to work, authorities in Hong Kong—and the media—need to listen.