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For more than two decades, citizens and residents in the former British colony of Hong Kong have enjoyed a wide range of freedoms and legal protections unthinkable in any other part of the People’s Republic of China. These protections, guaranteed by the territory’s tradition of judicial independence, are the bedrock of the city’s extraordinary success as a regional entrepôt. It is precisely because of these legal safeguards that many international companies, including most global media organisations, have chosen to base their regional headquarters in Hong Kong.
Last week, the Hong Kong authorities rejected the visa renewal application of Victor Mallet, the Financial Times’ Asia news editor responsible for coverage throughout the region. No reason was given for this decision, the first time a foreign journalist has been effectively expelled from Hong Kong since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
This weekend, the Chinese foreign ministry said merely that visa matters fall “within a country’s sovereignty”.
The Hong Kong government had the power of visa approval, in accordance with the principle of “ one country, two systems” and the Basic Law governing Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China.
The episode is the latest in a string of attacks on the freedoms the territory has long enjoyed, from the abductions of Hong Kong-based booksellers and a Chinese billionaire to the politicised prosecution of student activists.
Mr Mallet is an experienced editor and foreign correspondent. No criticism has been offered of his work as a journalist. In the absence of any proper explanation for the decision, it is therefore hard to resist the conclusion that it amounts to retribution for his role as first vice-president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong.
Last August, Mr Mallet acted as spokesman for the club when Beijing attempted to prevent it from hosting a speech by Andy Chan, convener of the Hong Kong National party, which subsequently became the first political party to be banned in Hong Kong since 1997. At the time of the FCC talk, which went ahead despite vociferous threats from Beijing and some Hong Kong officials, the HKNP was not an illegal party and the Hong Kong government had no legal basis to stop the event.
Under the Basic Law, which serves as the city’s mini-constitution, and the 1985 Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” and be administered locally for at least 50 years from Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. Article 27 of the Basic Law also states that “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration”.
Foreign journalists are regularly expelled or refused visas in mainland China, usually for covering topics the government deems politically “sensitive”.
Hong Kong independence is indeed a sensitive topic. It would not only violate the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration but would also be highly impractical. Such a move does not enjoy popular support in the territory.
This newspaper does not support the idea of Hong Kong independence, but it strongly supports the principle of free speech. The decision to deny a visa to an FT correspondent is highly regrettable. It sends a chilling message to everyone in Hong Kong, highlighting Beijing’s tightening grip on the territory and the steady erosion of basic rights that are guaranteed in Hong Kong’s laws and international agreements.