Hong Kong’s rare rejection of a UK journalist’s visa was about far more than the fringe political ideology he was accused of promoting. The move has been viewed as the latest escalation in a methodical campaign to tame dissent in the former British colony.
The push, which took shape after the Occupy Central movement locked down swaths of the city four years ago, has seen the Beijing-backed government expand the zone of national security threats to include pro-independence activists and journalists who give them a platform. The ultimate goal, say China’s supporters and critics, is passage of long-dormant legislation giving Hong Kong expansive powers to limit speech, protest and the activities of foreign groups.
Calls to enact the legislation—known as Article 23, for the section of local law requiring its passage—have reached their loudest level since 2003, when half a million protesters persuaded the government to abandon its last attempt. The day after the Foreign Correspondents’ Club hosted a pro-independence activist’s speech in August, China’s top minister overseeing the city, Zhang Xiaoming, blamed “Hong Kong’s inadequacies in protecting national security.”
After that, the government approved an unprecedented ban against activist Andy Chan’s Hong Kong National Party. The city also took the unusual step of denying a work visa renewal to Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet, who presided over Chan’s talk as the FCC’s acting president. On Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam dismissed as “pure speculation” efforts to link the visa decision to Chan’s address.
Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.
The incidents have fanned concern that Chinese President Xi Jinping—emboldened by economic might and political turmoil in the West—is less committed to Hong Kong’s colonial-era guarantees of free speech, independent courts and capitalist markets. They come amid international criticism over Xi’s efforts to consolidate power on the mainland, including jailing rights lawyers, holding tens of thousands of ethnic Uighurs in “re-education camps” and expanding online censorship.
The US and UK governments, as well as organisations representing almost 1,400 multinational companies with regional headquarters in Hong Kong, have demanded an explanation for Mallet’s visa denial. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Tuesday he was “ very concerned” about the move, which he could “only conclude is politically motivated.”
“These incidents cannot be brushed off as individual, isolated events every time they happen,” the American Chamber of Commerce, the largest international business chamber in Hong Kong, said in a statement Monday. “Any efforts to curtail press freedom in Hong Kong could damage Hong Kong’s competitiveness as a leading financial and trading center.”