Francis Moriarty: Hong Kong rejects reporter in free speech controversy

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The Asia editor for a major newspaper has just been unceremoniously booted out of Hong Kong. It's an unprecedented action further damaging the city's already-dented image as a bastion of personal liberty and free speech.

The journalist is Victor Mallet, Asia editor for the Financial Times, who was told by the Hong Kong government that his work visa would not be renewed —effectively ejecting him and his family from the Chinese territory where he's worked on-and-off for more than seven years.

Mallet is being punished for, well, not very much. All he did was stand in as host of a luncheon speech to the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) by the head of a miniscule political party that favors independence from China for Hong Kong's 7.4 million people.

China's Foreign Ministry warned the FCC and urged cancellation. But as a club that supports free speech, free press and human rights, the FCC replied that it takes no view on what speakers say, that Chan's opinions were legal (at the time), and that the topic was of interest members. The lunch went ahead.

The non-renewal of visas is commonly used by Beijing to control correspondents on the Chinese mainland but this has rarely if ever been employed by the Hong Kong government. The move has sparked protest from journalists in Hong Kong and overseas. Thousands of people have signed online petitions opposing Mallet's ouster and urging the government to rescind its action.

SMILING PHOTO

Mallet has not been kicked out because of his work. His "crime" is that (1) he is the vice-president of the FCC, (2) he hosted the lunch because the club's president was away, and (3) he was photographed with the speaker, Andy Chan of the Hong Kong National Party and, perhaps worst of all, (4) both men were smiling.

This was not the first time that the MFA had ever expressed opposition to an FCC speaker. But during this columnist's 20-plus years on the FCC's board, those prior occasions were handled by politely agreeing to disagree.

This time it became clear that from the view of central government and Beijing's local supporters, something — or someone — had to pay. The pressure was on the Hong Kong administration to act, while not making it look like Beijing was calling the shots. The latter would be damaging to the SAR's international image as a semi-autonomous district that largely runs its own affairs.

FREEDOMS IN QUESTION

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China that enjoys constitutional promises of free press and free speech. These freedoms, already under stress, are now further in question.

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It has complicated matters that a former Hong Kong chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, chimed in, charging (wrongly) that the club enjoys a sweetheart lease deal for its historically listed clubhouse. Never mind that the actual rent is more than $74,500 a month, a sum contained in the lease that Leung himself signed when he was Hong Kong's chief executive. Facts are inconvenient when seeking to placate Beijing and anti-foreign sentiment.

(I wrote about the FCC and China in my column on August 14.) https://www.berkshireeagle.com/stories/francis-moriarty-long-arm-of-an-angry-chinareaches-all-the-way-to-berkshires,547602

Mallet is a distinguished journalist with more than three decades in Asia. He's the author of "River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and Modern India," published last year by Oxford University Press.

His employer is a UK-based newspaper owned by Nikkei, Inc., a Japanese media company. Mallet is British. It might be relevant that Hong Kong's promises of free speech and free press are contained in its Basic Law, Chinese legislation predicated on the Sino-British agreement that led to China's retaking of sovereignty from Britain in 1997.

My view is that Mallet is an easy target. His ouster is likely seen by Hong Kong's leaders as a damage-limitation exercise, preferable to punishing the entire FCC, which would have guaranteed worldwide headlines and a shock to financial markets. The non-renewal of visa fends of hardliners while serving, in the Chinese lexicon, to kill a chicken in order to scare the monkeys.

But now the FCC is obliged to contemplate what happens after the lease on its government-owned clubhouse expires in 2023. Does it want another bruising confrontation? Risk unpalatable lease conditions? What would happen to the several millions in its savings account, which by law cannot be redistributed to members?

Ideally, the club should remain where it is without unacceptable restrictions. That's good for the members and good for Hong Kong as a financial center. But the hard truth is, sometimes past is prologue.

The FCC's history is paripatetic. It was born in a tent in wartime China and headquartered by turns in Chongqing, Nanking and Shanghai. When Shanghai fell, it moved to Hong Kong. Perhaps another relocation, not unlike Victor Mallet's, might be in store.

If the SAR should prove unwelcoming, where to go?

One option might be Taiwan, where it would be warmly welcomed. Taipei, the capital, is far from ideal. Flying in and out would be problematic and costly, and it lacks Hong Kong's attraction as an economic center. But everything has its price.

It seems highly unlikely that the president of the Republic of China, Tsai Ing-wen, would ever punish anyone for hosting a speaker on independence.

Francis Moriarty is a columnist specializing in China and Asia-related topics. He is a former senior political correspondent for Radio Television Hong Kong, a public broadcaster, and has reported from across the Asian region.


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