Speech: Power And Journalism After Umbrella Movement In Hong Kong (English Only)

(This is the full speech presented by Chris Yeung, Chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and Chief Writer of CitizenNews, at the SISAIN Journalism Conference 2018 held in Seoul on December 4, 2018.)

This is a real-life story. Victor Mallet is a career British journalist. He had been sent by The Financial Times to work in Hong Kong twice, first as a correspondent, then Asia news editor in 2016. The Hong Kong Government rejected his application for a renewal of his work visa in October. No reason was given. He left Hong Kong later that month. On November 6, he returned to the city with a list of things he planned to do, including handing over his job to his successor, buying a present for friends, attending a literature festival and saying goodbye to colleagues and long-time friends. He was not given a chance to do so. He was refused entry after hours of questioning by immigration officials at the airport. No reason was given.

Thanks to Facebook, he bade farewell to friends and the city online – with a picture of his press card issued by the Hong Kong Government and an Octopus card, an electronic card for public transport and shopping and a note. Mallet said he will settle down in Europe for his next post. And he will re-read George Orwell’s novel 1984. In a parting shot at the Chinese and Hong Kong Government, he cited some of the wise words in it, “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” “Ignorance is Strength.”

Mallet landed on an unlikely minefield on his path of journalism when he hosted a luncheon talk by a pro-independence Hong Kong activist Andy Chan, in his capacity as First Vice Chairman of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, known to many as FCC, in August. It came at a time when the Government had invoked the Societies Ordinance to consider outlawing the Hong Kong National Party, of which Andy Chan is the founder and the lone public face.

Inaugurated in 2015, the Hong Kong National Party was the first political party to advocate Hong Kong independence. The Foreign Ministry Office in Hong Kong was panic. They talked to the FCC to ask them to rethink, a diplomatic way of saying, “don’t do it.” The city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam gave a more moderate response. She described the FCC event as “regrettable and inappropriate.” FCC stuck to their decision, insisting it was just normal for journalist groups to invite speakers representing a wide spectrum of political views. That does not mean they endorse their views, or in that case, Andy Chan’s pro-independence stance, in one way or another. The event went ahead. Despite lousy protests outside the FCC building, the luncheon talk was largely uneventful. Both the Foreign Ministry’s Office and Mrs Lam reacted again. This time in much stronger and sharper words. That was not unexpected. Journalists and many people had thought the saga was over. It was not.

When Mallet’s application an extension of his work visa in October was rejected, it caused a stir among the media community and society at large. Western governments spoke up and raised their concerns. In the absence of any other reasonable factors for the visa refusal, the only plausible reason is his role and involvement in the Andy Chan talk. Put simply, he has emerged as the convenient target of political reprisal by the Chinese central government with the intention of “scaring the monkey by killing a chicken”. Put plainly, it is seen as an attempt to send a no-nonsense message to journalists and the society at large for them not to cross the “red line” spelled out by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Hong Kong in July last year. The “red line” in the “One Country, Two Systems” constitutional map for post-1997 Hong Kong refers to Hong Kong independence, or more broadly, matters China deems as a threat to national security and the country’s core interests.

2017 and 1984

1984 is a special year for Hong Kong. It marks the beginning of the end of British colonial rule with the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Victor Mallet’s reference to George Orwell’s 1984 has evoked memories about the depth of anxieties and uncertainties engulfing Hong Kong since the 1980s. And worse, the world Orwell had envisaged in his novel has bore striking resemblance to the chain of changes unfolded in Hong Kong since 1997, in particular in the recent years. Hong Kong had boasted to be free and open society featuring Western liberal values and traditional Chinese culture. There are growing fears that it has become “mainlandised,” or put it more clearly, just another city in mainland China, featuring Chinese-style authoritarian rule that puts emphasis on power and control.

The communist authorities’ increasing assertiveness on its sovereign power and ultimate control over Hong Kong is the underlying cause of the 79 days of peaceful occupation at the heart of the city in 2014, also known as Umbrella Movement.

The civil disobedience movement did not come out of the blue. It could be dated back to July 2003 in the aftermath of a march by more than half a million people on the first of July in what has been described as a perfect storm. With public discontent over a list of governance fiascos simmering, a plan to enact a law aimed to uphold national security had emerged as the last straw on the back of the camel. Under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, Hong Kong is obliged to enact law to prohibit acts such as subversion and secession, theft of state secrets and links with foreign political organisations. There were prevalent fears that the anti-subversion law would curb freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Opposition grew fiercer following a spate of provocative remarks by the minister in charge of the national security bill and pro-Beijing politicians. The national security bill was suspended after the July 1 rally.

2003 July 1 March

Shocked by the massive show of people power, Beijing has abandoned its hands-off approach to the city after 1997, and resorted to the Communist Party’s control mode. The central government had strengthened its department in charge of Hong Kong affairs and its Liaison Office in the city. United front work was stepped up. In 2007, the then Premier Hu Jintao paid a visit to Hong Kong to mark the 10th anniversary of the 1997 handover. In his speech, he called on the Government to strengthen national education among the youth. 10 years ago, Beijing had lamented that “the hearts of Hong Kong people” have not yet returned to the motherland.

It was followed by an attempt to introduce national education in the curriculum of junior school beginning from September 2012, two months after the then Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying took office. A group comprised of junior students, including Joshua Wong, who had since then emerged as a young democracy fighter, joined parents to stage a protracted boycott of classes and sit-in at the Government Headquarters. The then C Y Leung administration caved in. The national education curriculum was suspended, like the national security bill in 2003. The public furore against national education had again shocked Beijing, and prompted a rethink of their promise of universal suffrage in Hong Kong. The central government has made a commitment in 2007 that Hong Kong could elect its Chief Executive by a “one person, one vote” system by 2017 at the earliest possible time.

Following a rethink on Hong Kong, Beijing had moved to install a political screening mechanism in a universal suffrage system that would ensure the person to be elected would be acceptable to them. Call it election with Chinese characteristics. As a former British colonial official David Akers-Jones had been quoted as having said at a conversation with a journalist before 1997 about his observation of the Chinese thinking about election. Sir David reportedly said: “The Chinese style is not to rig election. But they do like to know the result before they’re held.”

Occupy Central with love and peace

With the earliest possible time of universal suffrage for electing the chief executive in 2017 drawing closer, the idea of a civil disobedience movement aimed to put pressure on the Chinese government for democracy was mooted in March 2013. The mass democratic movement had caused jitters to Beijing not just because it was another show of people power. Also importantly, its nature of civil disobedience was seen as a challenge to the city’s rule of law and a threat to effective governance.

As part of its intensified, multi-pronged tactic to counter the Occupy Central, the Chinese government had tried to rally the traditional mainstream media to support the central government and the SAR administration.

In April 2014, the Chinese government had invited a delegation of senior editors to Beijing. At a meeting with the delegates, the then Vice President Li Yuanchao had showered praises on the media for their contribution in fostering a smooth handover of Hong Kong. Li urged the executives to see the “bigger picture” and lead society in reaping the benefits of China’s strong economic growth. “I hope the media of Hong Kong could consider the collective benefits of the country and Hong Kong society and operate objectively, fairly, and impartially to lead society to grasp the new opportunities that have come with the country’s reforms and developments,” Li said. Li reportedly told the media executives the Occupy Central were an illegal movement.

The message was interpreted as a soft reminder to the media for them to oppose the civil disobedience movement or, at least, not to add fuel to fire by giving prominent coverage to the protests.

It is difficult to tell how effective China’s united front work has been when it comes to the Umbrella Movement. But judging from the editorial stance of newspapers, those who openly supported the civil disobedience movement was in the minority. Most media organisations either took a negative view towards the movement or preferred a wishy-washy editorial stance.

If the media as a whole had mostly taken an ambivalent position on Umbrella Movement before it broke out and in its early days, it was because the notion of civil disobedience had been novel in the city. On the surface of it, it goes against the city’s rule of law, which has always been seen as one of the pillars of the society. So, the idea of breaching the law deliberately to fight for democracy had been seen as unimaginable in the Hong Kong society. Media organisations found difficulty in gauging public opinion on the civil disobedience movement before it happened. Many preferred a wait-and-see attitude. With the events of the Occupation began to unfold, media and society at large were caught by surprise. Thanks to the peaceful and orderly manner the protests were held at the early stage of the movement, the coverage of the protests by both traditional and new media had been mostly positive. Opinion surveys showed a surprisingly sizeable support for the civil disobedience movement. The initial positive public opinion on the movement had in turn been reflected in media’s stance on Occupy Central, at least in the initial stage. Some critics have blasted the media for having “romanticised” the unlawful protest.

First mooted by the so-called “Occupy Trio”, or three co-organisers, namely two university professors in law and sociology respectively and one clergyman, the 79-day movement was largely a self-spontaneous event joined by people from different walks of life. It has gained its own life after the power of civil society was unleashed. Online media and social media played a big part in the movement by connecting people, forming groups and telling people what happened at the occupied areas. International media coverage gave a boost to the morale of the protestors, but also made Beijing more worried about what they deemed as foreign influence in the city’s democratic movement.

The rest of the Umbrella Movement is history. The “Occupy Trio”, together with six other pro-democracy activists named by the Government as the organisers, if not troublemakers, are now being put on trial in court. The charges mainly cover conspiracy to cause public nuisance, inciting others to cause public nuisance and inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance. It is difficult to forecast the verdict.

Moreover, the jury of the Umbrella Movement is out. True, the movement has failed when it comes to the demand for genuine universal suffrage for electing the chief executive in 2017. Last year, Carrie Lam was elected by a 1,200-member Election Committee, which is mainly comprised of people seen as friendlier to the central government. There is no longer a new timetable of universal suffrage for the chief executive, not to mention half of the seats of the legislature, which are still chosen by what we call functional constituencies such as doctors and accountants. On the domestic front, the movement has brought about profound changes in the city’s social and political landscape. On the mainland-Hong Kong front, it has caused further strain to their relations. Put together, it has ushered a new phase of uncertainties in Hong Kong under the policy of “One Country, Two Systems.”

Rise of localism, self-determination and independence calls

Start with the domestic scene. Inspired by the spontaneous participation of ordinary people in the movement, new civil groups had sprouted during and after the Umbrella Movement. There is a long list of “post-Umbrella” groups formed by professionals and ordinary people with the hope of keeping the flame of the movement burning. They have given fresh impetus to the civil society. Of them, some have championed the notion of “localism”, which is primary a political movement that promotes the city’s autonomy and local culture and lifestyles. They emerged as a new faction in the pro-democracy camp, which has gained considerable support because of growing unease among people, in particular youngsters, about the increasing encroachment of the Chinese central government on the city’s domestic affairs ranging from political, economic and social affairs.

Despite its failure in fighting for universal suffrage, the Umbrella Movement has been hailed as landmark in the growth of the sense of awakening of Hong Kong people. It has come about the same time with the surfacing of activism in the advocacy of localism, self-determination and Hong Kong independence. The growth of the feeling of resistance against nationhood, in particularly among young people, has reflected the growing distrust in the “one country, two systems” policy and the central government.

To Beijing, those notions of localism self-determination are in essence separatism and splittist thinking. Against that background, it has come as no surprise that the theme of national security has become dominant during the visit of President Xi Jinping to the city during the 20th anniversary of the reversion Chinese sovereignty last year.

Xi Jinping sets out ‘red line’

In his speech delivered at the inauguration ceremony of the administration led by Carrie Lam, Xi reiterated that the central authorities would unswerving adhere to the policy of “One Country, Two Systems”. Second, he said they would stick to the correct direction of fully and accurately implementing the policy in Hong Kong to ensure it has not “deformed”. Xi’s speech has laid down the “bottom-line” and “red-line” in the “One Country, Two Systems” political framework.

Xi maintained matters relating to central-SAR relations must be correctly handled firmly under the principle of “one country”. The thinking of “one country” should be firmly established, he said. Any activities that endanger national security, challenge the power of the central authorities, the authority of the Basic Law and use Hong Kong to infiltrate the mainland are seemed to be a challenge to Beijing’s “bottom-line”. “They must not be allowed.”

In 2015, China has promulgated a new law on national security. One major difference of the new law from its version in 1993 is that it has covered more areas, in addition to crimes including treason, secession, subversion against the central government. The new areas include finance and economy, food, energy, internet and information and religion. It also covers outer s pace, the international seabed and the polar regions. When promulgating the new national security law, the central government designated April 15 as China’s National Security Education Day. Hong Kong and Macau are incorporated into the new National Security Law, but the law will not be directly applied in Hong Kong. But on April 15 this year, a think-tank, founded by a former minister, held a symposium on national security. Speakers include a list of top officials from the Government and the Chinese Government.

The symposium is just one of the cases of the central government and the Hong Kong SAR government doubling their efforts to promote the sense of nationhood, or the overriding principle of “one country,” among Hong Kong people. Beijing’s obsession with fears about threats to national security has given rise to conspiracy theory about the Umbrella Movement. Former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has said publicly foreign political forces were behind the Umbrella Movement. He has said the Government would give evidence at an appropriate time. The Government has not yet given any evidence to substantiate Leung’s allegation.

Fears of Hong Kong becoming a subversive base

Flashed back to 1989, university students in Beijing had staged demonstrations since the middle of April to fight for democracy, free press and a clean government, among other things. Hong Kong people were inspired. Many believed Hong Kong would never have democracy if China is not a democracy. Many took to the streets in Hong Kong. They donated money to support the Beijing students. The movement was suppressed by Chinese troops. In the aftermath of it, the central government warned Hong Kong people not to turn the city into a base to topple China.

29 years on, China is still not a democracy, but its political and economic power is no longer what it was. Ironically, the stronger it has become the more worried their leaders are about what they perceived as threats to their national interests. Their fears grew with the election of Donald Trump to become the US President. Amid fears of a new Cold War, the Chinese leaders are getting more worried about hostile forces outside China seeking to turn Hong Kong into a subversive base against the central government. Confronted with an increasingly precarious and complex global environment, Xi is also faced with a far more complicated Chinese society with conflicts of various kinds surfacing.

It is against the broader background of China under Xi Jinping tightening their political and social control across the nation that Hong Kong under “one country, two systems” is under growing strain. Media is not immune to the climate change.

Last month, a delegation of senior editors was invited to visit Beijing. They were met by the Communist Party’s propaganda minister, whose portfolio covers media. He reportedly said the Party the Hong Kong press to “prevent external forces from turning the city into a base for interfering with the mainland.” He also said at the meeting that he expected Hong Kong media to report more about the mainland to improve the younger generation’s knowledge.

Press freedom declines in China and Hong Kong

China’s economy and society saw increasing openness; but control over political dissent and media remains tight. Under Xi’s rule, China’s control over the media, in particular the state-run media, has been tightened. In short, press freedom in China has moved backwards after Xi took power. There were more journalists being locked up. A series of measures aimed to curtail thoughts and undermine press and speech freedoms have been introduced since 2012. These include a list of “seven banned topics” for state media and universities such as freedom of speech and universal values. According to the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, China’s ranking has dropped further from the 174th place (5th from the bottom) in 2012 to 176th (4th from the bottom) in 2017. Hong Kong also saw a rapid decline from the 54th place to the 73rd place over the past five years. When the press index was first published in 2002, Hong Kong was ranked 18th.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association published our annual Press Freedom Index in April. Of the maximum of 100, the general public gave an average 47.1 points to the city’s press freedom in the last 12 months, down by 0.9 points from the previous year. It is the lowest score since the survey was launched in 2013. 73 per cent of journalists who responded said press freedom had gone backwards. The survey shows most journalists and members of the public said pressure from the central government is the major factor that undermines press freedom. Other factors are self-censorship and pressure from media proprietors.

True, cases of Hong Kong journalists being sent to jail in Hong Kong and the mainland were rare in the past decades. But the room for press freedom and speech freedom is shrinking as China under Xi Jinping has become more assertive of its power and influence in view of growing paranoid about threats to his leadership and the nation’s interests. That is manifested clearly in a spate of recent controversies, including the Victor Mallet’s visa case and another case that involved a Chinese writer-in-exile Ma Jian. Ma was invited to attend two talks at an annual international literature festival at Tai Kwun art space in November. One was about his new book, China Dream, which is a satire echoing Xi’s talk of “China Dream.” On the eve of the talks, the organisers were told the Tai Kwun art space was no longer available because its senior management said they did not want to provide a place for people to promote their political interests. No elaboration was given. The cancellation cause a stir in the society. Arts and journalists groups fear it was a blatant case of self-censorship. The venue provider later reversed their decision on the ground that Ma Jian has said on his arrival he has no plan to talk about politics.

The Ma Jian case says a lot about the growing fears about the problem of self-censorship within some circles such as media and arts and society at large in view of the China factor. Media in Hong Kong is more vulnerable because of their ownership. On its face, most of the media outlets are owned by private investors. They are run on commercial rules. But there is concern that owners of half of the current media outlets have close political and business ties with the mainland Chinese authorities. They are more vulnerable to pressure from Beijing behind the scenes and may give orders on what their editorial staff should or should not cover.

The growth of China’s so-called “sharp power” has become a growing concern in Western countries. In Hong Kong, cases of merger and acquisitions of Hong Kong media by Beijing and its followers have caused concerns. Through merger and acquisitions, the new media bosses may decide on the business practices, resources allocations and personnel appointments, which would affect manpower resources and coverage of stories and priority of content. Journalists fear the media sector will become increasingly “dyed in red colour,” which means influence by red communist China.

Independent media struggling

The China factor is also behind the shrinking surviving space of independent media deemed unfriendly by Beijing. The Apple Daily and Next Magazine owned by businessman Jimmy Lai’s Next Digital Limited is a case in point. They have faced advertising boycotts by big local and mainland companies for years. Rumour has it been that some independent online media, including CitizenNews, of which I am a co-founder, are on the list of targets of online advertising ban by businesses friendly to China. CitizenNews was founded by a group of veteran journalists in 2017. We were driven by a sense of unease, verging on crisis, about the media scene and the broader shrinking freedom environment. We rely on public donations and subscription to fund our operation. Like a few other online media outlets founded by journalists, we are facing a string of difficulties similar to those independent media outlets in South Korea and Japa. One major difficulty is to find a sustainable source of revenue. The culture of readers paying for content has not yet established firmly and broadly in our society. The overall picture is gloomy. One sign of hope is that people cherish and understand the vital importance of independent media in exercising checks and balances on the power and the rich. They cherish Hong Kong as a free and clean society with rule of law and adherence to the truth. We firmly believe a free and independent Hong Kong media is also good for China.

That is also the source of strength and inspiration for journalists in Hong Kong for us to brace against the wind, which is the theme slogan of our Association’ 50th anniversary this year.

I started with George Orwell. Let me close by also quoting from 1984. “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” Journalists cannot agree more with the importance of truth. The truth, however, is that the business of seeking truth, telling truth from half-truth and lies, in journalism is getting more tough. Some say those who go for journalism these days must be mad. But let’s stay mad, and hold on to seeking the truth and telling it without fear, without favour.


Chris Yeung speaks at the SISAIN Korea Journalism Conference in Seoul.

香港記者協會主席楊健興 記協51周年晚宴致辭
香港記者協會主席楊健興 記協50周年晚宴致辭