Hong Kong’s Free Media Forced To Self-Censor; First National Security Trial Held

Hong Kong’s National Security Law has been used to cudgel the city’s free media within an inch of its life. What began with a slow effort to pare Hong Kong’s premier broadcast television network RTHK of its investigative teeth escalated into this past month’s blitzkrieg against pro-democracy paper Apple Daily. Five of the paper’s executives were arrested on National Security charges (owner Jimmy Lai is in prison awaiting trail on similar charges). A week later, the paper shut down. On Sunday, June 27, Hong Kong police arrested one of Apple Daily’s top editors at the airport as he was attempting to fly out of Hong Kong. At Reuters, Jessie Pang and James Pomfret:

Hong Kong police arrested a former senior journalist with the now-closed Apple Daily newspaper on Sunday night on a suspected national security offence as he was trying to catch a flight out of the city, media reported.

Police, who typically do not identify arrested people, said in a statement that a 57-year-old man had been arrested at the airport for “conspiring to collude with foreign countries or foreign forces to endanger national security”. The man had been detained and investigations were continuing, police said.

Hong Kong media identified the man as Fung Wai-kong, an editor and columnist at the now-closed newspaper. If confirmed, he would be the seventh staffer at the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper to be arrested on national security grounds in recent weeks. [Source]

Fung was released on bail after having his passport confiscated, and is to report to police in July. In a preface to part two of his translations of essayist Lee Yee’s reflections on Apple Daily’s demise, Geremie R. Barmé wrote: “With the forced closure of Apple Daily, Hong Kong has finally caught up with the fate of Mainland Chinese journalism from the early 1950s. It has taken just over seventy years for the Mainland’s past and present to become the future of the foundering metropole.”

The NSL has been used to smother Hong Kong’s civil society. Organizers for the annual July 1 Handover Day protest did not apply for a license this year—police banned last year’s march but demonstrators took to the streets nonetheless. Watsons, a popular brand of mineral water, pulled bottles off the shelves in fear that labels reading “Hong Kong is really beautiful” and featuring images of Lion Rock might fall afoul of the NSL. Other newspapers have not been spared. At The Guardian, Helen Davidson reported on Stand News’ attempt to insulate itself from Hong Kong’s “literary inquisition”:

The measures were taken to protect the website’s supporters, writers and editorial staffers in the “literary inquisition” of Hong Kong, Stand News said in a statement. Stand News is a popular online news outlet that formed in the wake of the 2014 Umbrella movement.

Six of the company’s directors also stepped down, including the former legislator Margaret Ng and the celebrity Denise Ho, both prominent pro-democracy figures. Stand News also terminated contracts of staff who had served more than six months to protect them and pay them more, Hong Kong Free Press reported. Most were re-employed under a new contract, the report said.

Stand News also said it would stop accepting new subscriptions, and would no longer take money from donors or subscribers, in case the money went to waste – the national security law allows accounts and assets to be frozen if authorities believe the funds are related to crime, as which occurred with Apple Daily.

“We have enough money to run for another nine to 12 months. If necessary, we will seek help again from Hongkongers in future,” the outlet said. [Source]

At The Hong Kong Free Press, Selina Cheng reported that Stand’s decisions might have been motivated by anonymous threats, some containing privileged information about personnel, that have been sent to Hong Kong’s remaining free media:

Apple Daily and some other independent news outlets had received threatening anonymous messages in the past few days, veteran independent journalist Oiwan Lam said on her Patreon page. One she saw contained a full list of directors and staffers of the company concerned, including those working part-time.

“While it is comparatively easy to dig up the list of a company’s board of directors through the company registry, to obtain the list of a company’s staff members, one needs to get access to either the tax authorities or the Mandatory Provident Fund,” Lam wrote, referring to Hong Kong’s employees’ pension scheme.

“I believe Stand News took the risk control measures against such threats – to minimize the collateral damage to individuals and the financial loss once the security police takes action against it,” Lam added. [Source]

A number of shows at RTHK were also axed. From Kelly Ho of The Hong Kong Free Press:

Speaking on Commercial Radio on Tuesday morning, [Allan Au, the host of Open Line Open View] said he was told by the department head 30 minutes before the radio programme began that it would be his last day owing to “staffing changes.”

[…] It is the second time in two weeks that RTHK has removed a radio host. On June 18, popular pro-democracy presenter Tsang Chi-ho was told he was sacked from a radio talk show after he came off air. Tsang’s co-host Jackie Chan was also dismissed.

[…] On Monday, RTHK Talk Show – an evening television programme covering topics such as philosophy, history and literature – was axed, according one of its hosts Leung Kai-chi.

[…] Another RTHK programme – RTHK31 This Week appeared to have disappeared from the station’s timetable. The scheduled timeslot was replaced by an episode of Hall of Wisdom, which featured an interview with local cyclist Sarah Lee and boxer Rex Tso that was first aired in 2016. [Source]

A prominent Hong Kong journalist put it plainly to Bloomberg’s Natalie Lung, Iain Marlow, and Chloe Lo:

“The future looks grim,” said Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and a deputy assignment editor at Stand News. “The government is placing restrictions everywhere. As a journalist, you can’t write freely, or you lose your job or you get prosecuted as a criminal.” [Source]

Hong Kong’s first National Security Law trial took place amidst the backdrop of media closures. Although dozens upon dozens of people have been arrested under the law, Tong Ying-kit’s trial on terrorism charges will be the first test of Hong Kong’s legal independence under the NSL. In 2020, Tong, a 23-year-old ramen cook, drove a motorcycle flying a “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” flag into a group of policeman. He has been charged with terrorism. The authors of a briefing by Georgetown Law’s Center for Asian Law wrote that Tong’s trial will have serious implications for Hong Kong’s rule of law: “How can the charge, which seeks to criminally punish Tong merely for carrying an allegedly pro-independence banner, be reconciled with the Basic Law’s guarantee of the right to free speech?” From Austin Ramzy at The New York Times, a report on Tong Ying-kit’s terrorism trail and the future of Hong Kong’s judicial independence:

Mr. Tong stood trial on Wednesday, the first among the more than 100 people in Hong Kong who have been arrested under the sweeping new rules. His case is a test of how the city’s vaunted judicial system, based on British common law principles of fairness and independence, will interpret and enforce Beijing’s far-reaching security law, in which political crimes are vaguely defined. China says the law is necessary to root out threats to Beijing’s sovereignty, but human rights activists, opposition leaders and scholars have said the law puts the city’s judicial independence in peril.

[…] One significant change under the new law is that defendants like Mr. Tong have been denied bail and held in police custody for months. The law requires defendants to convince judges that they will not endanger national security, a vague standard that is hard to meet. Only around a dozen out of the more than 50 people charged under the law have been released on bail.

Mr. Tong is also being denied a trial by jury, which has been standard practice when defendants face serious punishments. Teresa Cheng, Hong Kong’s justice secretary, ordered a bench trial for Mr. Tong, citing a clause in the security law that allows her to do so if she thinks jurors’ safety is at risk. The three judges hearing his case are among a group chosen by Hong Kong’s chief executive, whose power to do so under the new law has been seen by critics as eroding the autonomy of the courts. [Source]

At The AFP, Xinqi Su interviewed four Hong Kong defense counsels, who told her that Hong Kong’s legal system is under attack from an “unstoppable sandstorm sweeping from the north”:

“When (the court) gives up a fundamental right without any rigorous scrutiny, it is also providing an intellectual rationalisation for a draconian regime,” Johannes Chan, the University of Hong Kong’s chair professor of public law, wrote in a journal article in May

[…] “Our judicial independence and rule of law are now like a piece of glass with a crack,” the first defence lawyer said.

“The crack will continue to grow and eventually break the glass.” [Source]

The law is likely working precisely as Beijing intended. The Chinese scholars who provided the intellectual undermining for Beijing’s assault on Hong Kong were China’s authoritarian turn in Hong Kong were inspired by the legal theorist Carl Schmitt, famed for his conservative views and membership in the Nazi Party. Chen Duanhong, a Peking University professor who long advocated for a National Security Law for Hong Kong, argued in 2018: “The survival of the state comes first, and constitutional law must serve this fundamental objective.” At The New York Times, Chris Buckley, Vivian Wang, and Austin Ramzy reported on Beijing’s hiding-in-plain-sight designs on Hong Kong’s freedom:

Threats to “national sovereignty and security,” or challenges to the central government’s authority in Hong Kong, “would cross a red line and will never be permitted,” Mr. Xi said [in 2017].

In China’s top-down system, Mr. Xi’s words galvanized policymakers to look for new ways to defend that “red line.”

[…] The clearest sign of how Beijing would respond came in October 2019. State television showed hundreds of top officials at a closed-door meeting, raising their hands to endorse a move to tighten law and order across China. The plan, published days later, proposed a “legal system and enforcement mechanism for national security” in Hong Kong.

[…] But China’s leaders had already reached beyond the offices that usually dealt with Hong Kong — their credibility wounded by the months of protest — and quietly recruited experts to prepare for the security intervention, said two people who were told about the deliberations by participants. Top Communist Party agencies steered the preparations, said both people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the matter. [Source]

Human Rights Watch published a detailed report on Hong Kong’s changing freedoms ahead of the one year anniversary of the NSL’s passage on June 30, 2020. The report found speech muzzled, websites blocked, films pulled, books censored, newspapers shuttered, businesses harassed, protests banned, education politicized, and activists arrested—among a litany of other violations of Hong Kong citizens’ rights under the Basic Law.


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