The 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China this July 1st, comes at a time of deep concern for the future of freedoms in the former British colony. Despite China’s previous commitments, the Beijing regime is attempting to impose a national security law allowing it to intervene in the territory and crack down on anything deemed as “terrorism,” “secession,” “subversion” or “foreign interference”, all under the semblance of legality. In other words, any thought or action that contradicts the interests of the Chinese Communist Party will become prosecutable.
If this project succeeds, it will not only deal a fatal blow to press freedom in Hong Kong, it will also mark a decisive step for the Chinese regime on its path towards the “new world media order” it pursues. Hong Kong, a former bastion of press freedom in Asia, has fallen from 18th place in the World Press Freedom Index in 2002 when the Index was first created, to its current positioning in 80th place; the People’s Republic of China remains near the bottom of the index, ranking 177th out of 180 countries and territories.
This period of decline for Hong Kong’s press freedom can in large part be attributed to the discrete accession of the majority of Hong Kong’s media by Beijing, either through direct acquisition or through pressuring the advertisers that fund them.
Press freedom violations have increased since the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, including knife attacks coordinated by pro-Beijing groups and incessant police violence at anti-government demonstrations. Despite her soothing statements, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has clearly shown that she puts Beijing’s interests before respect for press freedom, despite it being guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
The concern of Hong Kongers for democracy and free public debate is legitimate and deserves our support. In 2003, half a million Hong Kong residents took to the streets in protest of a similar proposed national security law that was subsequently rejected. In July last year, two million residents, half of the active population, were part of protests that succeeded in the rejection of a proposed law that would have allowed extradition to China. According to a recent poll, the overwhelming majority (98%) of Hong Kong journalists, fear that the future national security law will be used against them. In the rest of China, crimes against “national security” are punishable by death and are being used as a premise for the detention of most of the 114 journalists currently imprisoned in China.
If the national security law is given the go ahead, the extensive and systematic measures that suppress press freedom in the rest of China will be expanded to Hong Kong, which so far has largely been spared. All the Chinese people will suffer, as the level of freedom in the former British colony has so far represented the maximum to which China can aspire. Therefore, any regression of press freedom in Hong Kong can’t but undermine hope of improvement in the rest of the country.
Under the legally binding “one country, two systems” principle guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration and registered with the United Nations, Hong Kong should enjoy “a high degree of autonomy” until 2047. If the world decides to abandon Hong Kong in its time of need, it will not only endanger the system that has allowed this international finance centre to prosper for so many years, it will also be giving Beijing free reign to ignore its other signed commitments and continue expanding its authoritarian and repressive practices throughout the world unchecked.
Hong Kong is more than just a symbol that must be preserved. It is a region and a population whose freedom counts for the future of human rights all over the world. Regardless of the short-term cost, the world’s democracies must ensure respect for the principles of international law regarding freedom of opinion and expression. One never wins by yielding, by allowing others to trample over international promises and laws. History is rich with cases of weakness in upholding principles that have turned into tragedy. Let’s not allow history to repeat itself.
Let’s not allow Beijing to stifle press freedom in Hong Kong.
This Op-Ed was published in Apple Daily Hong Kong: