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Censorship ‘maybe’? Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam fails to reassure on press freedom

Professor Benny Tai’s recent musings about a possible future democratic China and an independent Hong Kong, have produced a thunderous response from on high. But oddly enough, he has published the same views here in Hong Kong to no adverse effect whatsoever. On the contrary, his musings had passed unnoticed.

Their forerunner appeared months ago in the ever-so-moderate Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal, and online in English. The title: “Ten Possibilities About the Political Future of China.” In contrast, his platform last month was sponsored by an anti-Communist group in Taiwan and the combination sent both mainland and Hong Kong officials into overdrive.

benny tai

Benny Tai. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Democrats everywhere who were following the debate raised the banners of free speech and academic freedom in Benny Tai’s defense. In response, the authorities mocked that defense and declared new boundaries that Hong Kongers had never heard before. The message: “There is no space for so-called academic freedom where it involves so serious and great a political principle as respecting and adhering to the national constitution. Under ‘one-country, two-systems,’ there is no space for so-called academic freedom to allow Hong Kong to violate the national constitution.”

Writing and reporting

Considering the implications of so drastic a declaration, journalists naturally thought to ask whether it would apply to them, too. If Benny Tai and others continue to transgress, how should the press report on what they say? Might there be censorship, or legal liabilities if they continued to report his comments as they had always done? The question was raised at a recent press conference and Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam was not reassuring. She said in effect: maybe.

She said such a question could not be answered now, at this juncture, because no one has a crystal ball, so no one can guarantee that certain actions or behavior “will not be breaching the law — because the law is evolving.” The answer to the question, she continued, will depend on the situation, the law, and the behavior involved.

Equally unnerving for all who care about such things were the comments by Starry Lee Wai-king, the current head of Hong Kong’s largest political party, the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB). She was addressing the issue of free speech and independence in situations of general public discourse.

She said that “constructive criticism” of Chinese Communist Party leadership “will always be allowed”… but that did not mean subverting the mainland party-led political system. She did not elaborate on the parameters of “constructive” or who the arbiters will be, that is, who will “allow” us to present our criticisms however qualified.

Pointing the way

Starry Lee did not elaborate but many others did. Hong Kong is growing accustomed to the arrival of visitors from Beijing who come to admonish and instruct. Three public presentations stand out. Most prominent of the guest political instructors was Qiao Xiaoyang from Beijing. Next was Wang Zhimin, who heads Beijing’s Hong Kong Liaison Office, and lastly Chief Executive Carrie Lam herself.

Each elaborated on the nature of constructive and unconstructive public discourse. Qiao focused on constitutional principles. Wang posed the challenge in hardline national security terms. Carrie Lam tried to soften the prospect.

art basel 2018 hong kong

Carrie Lam. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

So serious is this effort that the Hong Kong government has budgeted an extra HK$5.4 million this year for civil service training in national political study. As part of the program, retired Beijing official Qiao Xiaoyang was invited to lecture Hong Kong’s top-ranked officials and civil servants. Qiao, who headed the Basic Law Committee of the National People’s Congress, was recently succeeded by Li Fei, well-known here as the bearer of tidings that democrats do not want to hear.

Qiao kept his speeches low-key and even-toned throughout his week-long visit, but his message was also one democrats did not relish. On April 20, he spoke to the civil servants, 200 in all, at a closed-door meeting. He focused on constitutional principles to make his point that advocating independence has nothing to do with free expression because independence goes against the Chinese constitution.

Accordingly, Hong Kong is a region under China’s unitary system of government, a principle that extends back throughout Chinese history. Therefore, Hong Kongers are constitutionally bound to uphold the unitary system of Communist Party rule, which means no part of the country can aspire to independence or self-determination. He said that a capitalist system would be maintained in Hong Kong, but it would go against the Chinese constitution to undermine the socialist system led by the communist party.

Qiao Xiaoyang

Qiao Xiaoyang making a speech to Hong Kong civil servants in April 2018. Photo: GovHK.

At a seminar on April 21, held to mark the anniversary of the promulgation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution in 1990, Qiao declared that promoting independence for Hong Kong can never be a matter of free expression. Even an “open-minded gentleman” would not be speaking about independence. He claimed there is no law anywhere in the world that would allow such speech.

Qiao emphasized the importance of mastering constitutional principles since they provide the legal basis for Hong Kong’s one-country, two-systems autonomy. They thus hold the key to Hong Kong’s integral relationship with the rest of the country. The binding power of the Hong Kong and Macau Basic laws derives from China’s constitution.

Wang Zhimin always seems to be out and about. But April 15 was special: National Security Education Day, so designated when China passed a new National Security Law in 2015… Wang gave a hardline mainland-style speech at a symposium held to mark the day and targeted Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists for presuming to challenge national sovereignty.

He scolded Hong Kong for allegedly being the only place in the world without national security legislation. This was a reference to Hong Kong’s abortive 2003 attempt to enact such a law as mandated by Article 23 of its post-1997 Basic Law constitution. Article 23 stipulates that Hong Kong must pass legislation criminalizing treason, secession, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets, and foreign political interference. The government’s bill was shelved over a decade ago, after the half-million-person protest march on July 1, 2003.

Wang Zhimin said independence activists had taken advantage of Hong Kong’s failure to introduce the necessary legislation. Consequently, activists are still free to challenge China’s national sovereignty and security. The point of such legislation would be to outlaw all such talk. Without naming names, he said activists even go outside Hong Kong to collude with anti-China forces elsewhere. He accused them all of engaging in separatism and subversion. He said they attacked China’s socialist system and challenged China’s sovereignty.

Wang Zhimin

Wang Zhimin. Photo: LegCo.

Pressure is obviously mounting for Hong Kong to revive the 2003 legislation. The Security Day symposium organizer was the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute, a think-tank led by veteran pro-Beijing politician Jasper Tsang Yok-sing. He was quoted as saying afterward that he thought Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration would begin preparing for a relaunch during her current 2017-22 term of office.

Answering questions from the press a few days later, the Chief Executive was quizzed about her plans for the feared Article 23 legislation revival. It was at this question-and-answer session that she gave her equivocal answer on the matter of press freedom and censorship.

Responding to questions about Article 23, she gave her stock answer: the time is not yet right, society is not yet prepared. Pressed to elaborate on when conditions would be right, she said it would require a peaceful social atmosphere and public trust in both the central and local governments… a tall order indeed. But she said she is working hard to create these conditions.

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Censorship 'maybe'? Hong Kong's Carrie Lam fails to reassure on press freedom