Tea Leaf Nation

Unsheathed

Unsheathed

"They cannot kill us all," read the large banner laid on the ground before a group of more than 100 staff members and students of Chinese University of Hong Kong who had gathered to voice concerns about press freedom in Hong Kong. The demonstration occurred in the wake of a savage attack on the former editor in chief of a major local newspaper, who was beset by knife-wielding assailants on a city street in broad daylight on Feb. 26. This latest — and most gruesome — incident comes in what has been a rocky year for Hong Kong media, one that has shaken Hong Kongers already worried about the erosion of media freedom in this former British colony, now a special administrative region of China.

Kevin Lau Chun-to, the former editor in chief of Ming Pao, one of Hong Kong’s top Chinese-language newspapers, was making a quick stop for breakfast while on his way to work when he was ambushed by two men on a stolen motor scooter. The assailants hacked Lau with a knife at least six times before speeding away. One cut to his back was so deep that Lau’s lungs could be seen. Another two cuts severed major nerves in his legs. Later evaluations of Lau’s wounds indicated that the assailants were aiming to cause permanent injuries. As of Feb. 28, Lau had survived multiple surgeries and was in serious but stable condition.

Lau’s removal from Ming Pao‘s helm in January 2014 stirred controversy at the paper. While management insisted that Lau’s sacking had nothing to do with freedom of the press, many Hong Kong journalists and citizens suspected that it was an attempt to rein in reporting that was unfriendly to China. For his part, Lau never openly disagreed with management’s decision and stood side to side with it in calling for his upset colleagues to "give some space" for the personnel change. He took a job as the new media director at Ming Pao‘s parent company.

According to Ming Pao journalists who spoke to Foreign Policy, the staff suspects that the attack is related to one of the investigative reports of the rich and powerful in mainland China or in Hong Kong, which included Ming Pao‘s collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to expose the hidden wealth of China’s elite in a report released Jan. 21. But no single incident has emerged as the most likely culprit among them. A Feb. 26 Reuters report speculated that the collaboration with ICIJ could have been a factor, but no direct evidence links it to the attack. Also, because Lau had already left his position as Ming Pao‘s editor in chief more than a month ago, the motive behind the attack is "perplexing," said an investigative journalist at Ming Pao who asked not to be named.

Before the attack on Lau, Hong Kong had experienced several cases involving vandalism or minor violence against local media executives who came across as less than pro-Beijing in the past year. In June 2013, two men clubbed Chen Ping, the publisher of iSun Affairs, a respected online news magazine. Only days later, an ax and a machete were left on the doorstep of Jimmy Lai, the owner of Apple Daily, a large local paper critical of the Chinese government. But according to the Ming Pao journalist, the attack on Lau is "in a totally different ballpark" compared with these previous incidents. "Honestly, it has cast a deep shadow in my heart about my work and my profession," the journalist said.

Reporter Jun Mai of Ming Pao‘s China desk told FP that Lau is a "very easygoing" editor who also served as a cautious gatekeeper for the paper’s reports. Mai said he is "unnerved" by the fact that almost all the cases of violence against journalists in Hong Kong have gone cold, even in a city usually known for safe streets and strong rule of law. "I’m not optimistic that the police will solve this one either," said Mai.

Journalists and concerned citizens in Hong Kong are planning a march on March 2 to show solidarity with Lau and put pressure on Hong Kong police to solve the crime. "We are all Kevin Lau," read another banner on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It continued, "Today they silence us, tomorrow they kill us."