Killing Hong Kong’s Free Press Will Harm Its Economy
Beijing is betting expats will flock to the city despite China’s draconian media crackdown—but they could vote with their feet.
The Chinese government is making a high-stakes bid to force Hong Kong—long an outpost of freedom—into abject political and civic submission while sustaining the territory’s status as a global hub for finance and a gateway to the mainland’s vast markets.
But key features of Hong Kong’s cosmopolitanism—its free press, provisions for access to government data, and international media presence—are facing dire pressure and constraints, interrupting the flow of news and information that commerce and culture depend on. Beijing has concluded Hong Kong’s traditionally diverse, freewheeling, and professional media sector threatens the drive to bring the territory’s venerable legal, political, and educational institutions—and its restive population—to heel.
As corporations weigh their responsibilities in relation to social justice and democracy in the United States, banks and businesses contemplating a future in Hong Kong should consider the moral and practical implications of remaining in a city where press freedom and professional journalism are being systematically snuffed out to enable a determined clampdown on democracy and freedom.
China’s effort to keep Hong Kong’s economic engine firing while its politics are remade in the image of the mainland is meeting mixed success so far. Emigration has spiked to historic levels, with politically active and liberty-minded Hong Kong residents relocating to Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Canada, and elsewhere to secure their personal safety and freedom. The territory faces a potential elite exodus; according to a recent survey, nearly one-fourth of university-educated locals under age 35 plan to work overseas.
Beijing is moving aggressively to shore up the island’s appeal, enacting rich tax incentives to persuade global banks—including Goldman Sachs, Citibank, and Morgan Stanley—to overlook the implications of the draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 and increase their personnel in their territory notwithstanding the political perils.
According to the New York Times, U.S. financial firms are taking the bait, upping their staffing footprints on the island. Hong Kong’s expat community is also shrinking, with a sharp drop in visa requests for foreign nationals and some current expat residents returning home out of concern for how professional and personal life may be affected by Beijing’s tightening hand. The suffocation of Hong Kong’s dynamic media ecosystem and ramifications of the national security law on daily life are impossible to overlook, destroying an important part of what has historically made the island such an appealing place for foreigners to live and work.
Press freedom in Hong Kong has been under fire for some years. Already in 2015, as PEN America documented, the territory’s traditionally robust domestic media landscape was being constricted through a pattern of abuse, including violent attacks on journalists by government-linked thugs, excessive force used by police to thwart coverage of protests, and pressures emanating from Beijing to remove disfavored editors and both international- and Hong Kong-born journalists.
It was obvious at the time those tactics were merely a prelude for what would be a steadily intensifying effort to crush Hong Kong’s democracy movement and force the territory under the Beijing’s heavy hand.
The 2020 national security law criminalizes a series of activities; it outlaws calls for Hong Kong independence, inciting “hatred” against the Chinese government, or leaking “state secrets”—a loose term that has been used in the past to jail journalists on the mainland. In the eyes of an aggressive, Beijing-aligned prosecutor or judge, it could be construed to impinge on the work of journalism.
New enforcement mechanisms, police powers, and surveillance authorities empower the government to crack down on infractions, sending a clear and chilling message to journalists that reporting anything but a pro-Beijing line could be highly risky. The law is staggeringly broad, purporting to apply to anyone whether inside or outside Hong Kong, a local national or a citizen of another country.
Since the law’s passage, a series of developments have drastically reshaped the environment for the press. According to a recent study by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, public perceptions of the media’s independence and credibility dropped 18 percent, reaching the lowest levels recorded since the survey began in 1993. Outspoken Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of leading newspaper Apple Daily, has been subject to harassment for most of the last decade for needling Beijing with his pro-democracy views.
But now the 72-year-old Lai is in jail, convicted for his involvement in peaceful protests and sentenced to 14 months in prison while still facing other charges. After an initial arrest in August 2020 when 200 police officers raided the Apple Daily newsroom, the mogul was charged with fraud, collusion with foreign forces, conspiracy, and other crimes under the national security law. The basis for the conspiracy and collusion charges, according to prosecutors, were Lai’s tweets.
Beijing is also moving swiftly to remake the media landscape. In mid-March, Beijing directed Chinese internet mogul Jack Ma’s Alibaba to divest from the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s highly influential English language news outlet. Despite fears that Ma’s acquisition of the newspaper five years ago would put it under Beijing’s thumb, it sustained its reputation for hard-hitting reporting and benefited from Alibaba’s investments. The expectation is the newspaper’s new owner will more faithfully toe Beijing’s line.
Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK)—long a well-respected independent media outlet—has been muzzled, with a Beijing loyalist lacking in media experience named as the channel’s new director, ousting a respected journalist. The installation of a Beijing lackey in the top slot led to the resignation of several key senior producers. RTHK has now also taken to pulling episodes, firing columnists, and otherwise aggressively remaking itself in an image palatable to its overlords.
RTHK also tried and failed to withdraw its entries for two prestigious regional press awards, including the Human Rights Press Awards, presumably not wanting its work recognized by independent and rights-minded judges lest the accolades rankle Beijing. After the awards program indicated there was no provision for withdrawing works already submitted to its judges, freelance RTHK journalist Choy Yuk-ling won the prestigious Kam Yiu-yu Press Freedom Award for a piece critical of police handling of a 2019 protest.
Within days of the award’s announcement, the journalism for which she was decorated became the basis for a criminal conviction. Choy escaped threatened imprisonment but was fined $773 for false statements after looking up details of a license plate on the Ministry of Transport’s website. She had wanted the information to identify a car owner for an interview. She was prosecuted and fined for making a false statement after doing nothing more than checking a box indicating she was searching the database for “traffic- and transport-related matters,” something journalists had routinely done for years. The net result of these moves is the fortification and expansion of the state-controlled media sector at the expense of independent and credible news sources.
As the national security law is implemented, press freedom protections previously enshrined in Hong Kong’s British-based legal system are being dismantled. Hong Kong’s Justice Department has taken the position that when potential violations of the national security law arise, police do not need a search warrant to seize journalistic materials. This means no source material collected by journalists in the course of their work can reliably be protected, making both the work of reporting and the prospect of a source speaking to a journalist on a sensitive subject far more dangerous.
The withering of press freedom has direct implications for Hong Kong’s business sector. Hong Kong has long maintained a highly transparent system of corporate registration, affording visibility on issues including corruption, links between politically and economically influential mainland families, and even violations of sanctions against Iran. Now the government is invoking privacy concerns as grounds to revive an earlier failed effort to shroud identifying details on corporate owners and directors, impairing the ability of not just journalists but also investors to understand underlying relationships and expose the potential for self-dealing.
Dating back to the Vietnam War, Hong Kong has been a central node for global coverage of Asia, a status that became particularly important over the last two decades as China emerged into a superpower. But the security and freedom long available for foreign journalists in Hong Kong is beginning to disappear, with journalists and their employers experiencing similar constraints to those who have compromised the ability of Western media to operate on the mainland. In 2018, Financial Times reporter Victor Mallet was effectively expelled from the territory when authorities denied the renewal of his work permit.
The move was suspected to be in retaliation for a talk given at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club by a representative of a pro-independence party. Whereas journalists ejected from the mainland for reporting that irked Beijing used to be able to relocate to Hong Kong, it is now clear a ban from the mainland encompasses the territory as well. Within a month of the national security law’s passage, the New York Times announced its Hong Kong-based digital team would decamp to Seoul, citing heightened difficulties in securing work permits and the prospect of tightening strictures on its work in Hong Kong.
Beijing is betting on the idea that economic incentives coupled with the long-standing appeal of life in Hong Kong—including modern conveniences, ready proximity to the rest of Asia, great food, luxury shopping, access to nature, and professional opportunities—will be enough to persuade the island’s best and brightest while making a healthy proportion of expats stay put.
But bankers, consultants, and aspiring CEOs are news junkies. The drying up of credible news sources on topics like pollution, local governance, and the business environment will leave executives and managers feeling deprived and in the dark. Over time, difficulties accessing up-to-the-minute, in-depth, and independent coverage of China will impair Hong Kong’s commercial class’s ability to carry out its work. In time, Beijing may be forced to recognize when it comes to Hong Kong, cutting off the news will spite the place.
Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel