Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 11 August 2020


Gagging the press will suffocate Hong Kong

The arrest of Apple Daily’s founder Jimmy Lai, centre, on Monday ends any doubt about how Beijing intends to use the new Hong Kong national security law © AFP via Getty Images

Freedom of the press appears to have ended in Hong Kong. The police raid on the newsroom of Apple Daily and the arrest of the paper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, is a sombre moment. Mr Lai, a strong pro-democracy voice, was not the only media figure to be detained — and he is unlikely to be the last.

These arrests end any doubt about how Beijing intends to use the new national security law it has imposed on Hong Kong. When the law was announced, some argued that it was a mere tidying-up exercise. But any hope that China will apply the law with restraint has now vanished.

The assault on Hong Kong’s indigenous press threatens to be followed by an effort to clampdown on the foreign media. Visas for foreign journalists in Hong Kong, which used to be issued as a matter of routine, are now being subject to special scrutiny and delay.

Hong Kong’s status as a media hub, with robust protection for freedom of expression, is an important part of the mix that made the territory one of the great global cities. The implications of an assault on press freedom go well beyond the media industry. It will affect all of the organisations that have found a niche for themselves in Hong Kong — from trade unions to publishers, religious organisations to human-rights activists. The essence of the “one-country, two-systems” formula, agreed when Hong Kong was handed back to China, was that the territory would retain its freedoms, even within authoritarian China. But that understanding is now over.

The instinct of many multinational businesses based in Hong Kong will be to keep their heads down and hope that they can continue to prosper — if they steer clear of politics. That strategy may work in the short term. But it will still be fraught with risk. Will analysts at a Hong Kong financial institution dare a critical assessment of key topics — such as the sustainability of the peg between the Hong Kong dollar and US dollar; or question the business interests of key members of the Chinese governing elite?

The charge of “collusion with foreign forces” — what Mr Lai has been accused of — is so vague that it could cover a meeting with a western diplomat or journalist. Potentially, it carries a sentence of life imprisonment. Trials conducted under the national-security law can be held in secret, without any need to present evidence in public.

The threat is amplified by the growing danger that businesses will be caught between the conflicting demands of Chinese and American law. The US is rapidly widening the scope of the sanctions it is imposing on individuals and corporations for their involvement in repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Banks are now at risk of being shut out of the US market, if they do business with sanctioned people or entities in China. But refusing to do business with senior officials in the Hong Kong or Chinese governments could also be a hazardous choice for companies based in Hong Kong.

As it becomes more difficult for Chinese companies to list on the stock market in the US, so the Hong Kong stock market may see a temporary increase in listing activity. But there can be no guarantee that the new Hong Kong that is emerging will retain the confidence of international investors and regulators. The national security law places a cloud over the independence of all the territory’s institutions — including the regulators and the courts. The Hong Kong brand has always been bound up with the rule of law and freedom of expression. Without those freedoms, Hong Kong will be a sadly diminished place.

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