Financial and political pressures from mainland China have gradually eroded Hong Kong’s historically free media over the past decade, according to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report. The trend has grown worse in tandem with deteriorating conditions on the mainland itself, where an already repressive environment for freedom of expression has become even more restrictive since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013. “In the end, Hong Kong’s media environment will be more like the mainland,” Hong Kong–based publisher and political commentator Bao Pu told Freedom House. “More censorship, and more self-censorship.”
Two events illustrated the deterioration in 2015. The Alibaba Group, a major Chinese e-commerce company with close ties to the Beijing government, moved into the territory’s information market by purchasing the South China Morning Post newspaper in December. Meanwhile, five people affiliated with an outspoken Hong Kong publishing house were effectively moved in the other direction, to mainland China, in a series of disappearances. They later reemerged, said they were cooperating with Chinese police, and denied being abducted in statements to the media that many observers believe to have been coerced. Chinese authorities have detained domestic critics and forced them to participate in stage-managed, often televised “confessions” since Xi assumed the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But the past year saw that practice extend far beyond China’s legal jurisdiction.
Hong Kong residents are, in theory, still shielded from the worst mainland abuses by the “one country, two systems” principle laid down in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which preserves Hong Kong’s freedoms for a 50-year period after its transfer from British to Chinese rule in 1997. But every year, that protection seems less robust.
The five men associated with the Hong Kong publishing house, Mighty Current Media, and its affiliated Causeway Bay Bookstore went missing between October and December 2015. They subsequently contacted their families from China and denied being detained or coerced. But international news reports say the publisher had been preparing to release a book about Xi’s alleged romantic liaisons, the latest in a long line of salacious, superficially researched books about CCP leaders that have found an audience among tourists visiting from the mainland. Pressure on local booksellers who peddle such volumes has mounted in recent years. In 2014, a Chinese court sentenced Hong Kong publisher Yao Wentian to 10 years’ imprisonment on smuggling charges that were seen as politically motivated. (Yao had also been preparing a publication on Xi, according to international news reports.) In that light, the 2015 disappearances looked like a warning against disseminating information that is perceived as undermining CCP rule.
Both the purchase of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and the Mighty Current cases should be considered “part of the Chinese government’s ongoing war against the media in Hong Kong that are not under its direct control,” Bao Pu, the founder of New Century Press, explained by e-mail from Hong Kong. But the Mighty Current disappearances are a particularly “extreme example” of the campaign, he said.
Lokman Tsui, assistant professor of journalism and communications at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, agreed. “The purchase of the SCMP group is a structural change,” he told Freedom House via e-mail. “You can argue that those [publishers] are just a few people, and that the SCMP is the major English-language newspaper in Hong Kong and therefore more important. But SCMP has already been very pro-Beijing. The ‘disappearance’ of the publishers has more serious long-term implications.”
Chief among them are the implications for critics living outside Chinese jurisdiction, who appear increasingly vulnerable to reprisal. Mighty Current co-owner Lu Bo and two of the publisher’s employees, Zhang Zhiping and Lin Rongji, were visiting southern China from Hong Kong when they lost touch with their families. However, Gui Minhai, another Mighty Current co-owner, went missing from a holiday apartment he owns in Thailand in mid-October, while accompanied by an unidentified Chinese-speaking man, according to the Guardian. Chinese dissidents have viewed Thailand as a haven in the past, but the military junta that took power in 2014 has sent dozens of individuals fleeing unrest or mistreatment in China back to the mainland, according to international news reports.
Gui has a Swedish passport, but it doesn’t appear to have helped him. Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs told the South China Morning Post in January 2016 that although Swedish embassies in Beijing and Bangkok were investigating Gui’s whereabouts through local authorities, they had been given “no reliable information.” That same month, a Swedish human rights activist, Peter Jesper Dahlin, became the first foreign national to be detained by Chinese police in Beijing as part of an ongoing crackdown on public-interest lawyers and other human rights workers; he was expelled from the country on January 26.
The last of the five to vanish, editor Lee Bo, was at the company’s warehouse in Hong Kong when he disappeared on December 30. Hong Kong police opened a missing-persons investigation, according to local news reports. Lee is a British passport holder, but British foreign secretary Philip Hammond told the Guardian in early 2016 that there was “no hard information available” about what had happened to him.
On January 4, 2016, the Central News Agency in Taiwan published a handwritten note faxed to Lee’s colleagues, saying he had traveled to China voluntarily to cooperate with police. But there was no record of him crossing the border, and he did not take a travel document, the Washington Post reported. On February 11, Hammond’s office reported that “our current information indicates that Mr. Lee was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process,” an incident it characterized as the first “serious breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Though significant, the impact for Lee of this condemnation is unclear. On February 29, Lee told reporters he was smuggled into China by friends, and that the United Kingdom’s interpretation of events was mistaken. He said he had decided to give up his right of abode in the United Kingdom, language which may indicate intent to renounce his British passport. “I have never enjoyed the rights or benefits of a British citizen,” Lee said. “I’ve always considered myself a Hong Kong person, a Chinese person.”
In addition to Lee’s public comments, Gui Minhai, Lu Bo, Zhang Zhiping, and Lin Rongji “confessed” on Chinese television to illegal book trading in February 2016, joining a long list of journalists, financiers, and celebrities who have publicly admitted guilt to a range of criminal and social infractions, likely under duress, since 2013. As of April 2016, the investigations against the men were reportedly ongoing.
“This is a difference in kind, not just in degree,” Professor Tsui said of their treatment. “For the first time, Beijing has been willing to go outside their borders to control speech, and they’re willing to do this in broad daylight, as it were, with the television ‘confessions.’”
Besides pursuing critics beyond China’s legal jurisdiction, Xi Jinping has targeted domestic journalists in the mainstream of their profession. In December 2012, under President Hu Jintao, 19 of the 32 journalists known to be behind bars in China were members of ethnic minorities accused of crimes like inciting separatism; the remaining 13 had published articles on overseas websites, not in the professional Chinese media, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). As of December 1, 2015, however, there were 49 journalists jailed, including 18 professionals. Thirteen worked for print publications, according to a Freedom House analysis of CPJ data.
This context helps explain how a gossipy book publisher came to symbolize Hong Kong’s threatened press freedom situation in the public imagination. The five men associated with Mighty Current represent the new targets of CCP repression in 2015, targets with residences, passports, and personal networks outside mainland China. Small wonder that “the middle class, the professionals, the accountants” of Hong Kong are “freaked out,” as one resident told the Guardian. The sale of the South China Morning Post illustrates the changing dynamics of the information marketplace, and augurs more Freedom of the Press declines to come. But the case of the booksellers, by showing the impact of such dynamics on individuals at work and on vacation, demonstrates what personal freedoms have already been lost. More censorship, and more self-censorship, seem likely to follow.
Madeline Earp is the Asia Research Analyst for Freedom on the Net at Freedom House.