The story of Victor Mallet has been difficult for me to read. Critics of Beijing have long argued that Beijing’s influence in Hong Kong has been on the rise, with freedoms being curtailed and the rabid press being defanged. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy community is highly attuned to any possible sign of encroaching authoritarianism, even when the CPC’s heavy hand does what some democratic governments often do, such as try and influence media coverage or police priorities. It’s long been a challenge to differentiate between what is normal and explainable government pressure from an ominous overstepping of those boundaries.
Even the forced abduction of Lee Bo, one of the Causeway Bay booksellers, right off the street in Chai Wan wasn’t particularly unique to Hong Kong. His business partner, Gui Minhai, was kidnapped while holidaying in Thailand — proof that China doesn’t discriminate when it comes to extra-judicial “arrests”.
I first visited Hong Kong in 2005, and moved here in 2008 from Beijing — partially because I love that Hong Kong isn’t Mainland China: it’s open, it’s free, the internet is faster than almost everywhere else, and people care. That last one, after enduring years of apathy in Beijing, tugged at me the most. While I’m an outsider who can never pretend to fully understand Hong Kongers, I nonetheless feel a kinship with the people here. They care, and I do too.
“Having” followed “Hong Kong” closely for a long time, I’ve grown tired of cliched reporting on the city: yes we are repeatedly told, the city is becoming “Mainlandized”. It’s such an easy position to take, because we all see the writing on the wall: Hong Kong is a tiny liberal society on the far reaches of an authoritarian behemoth. 2047 is when the jig is up for sure, but it’s easy to find China’s growing influence in Hong Kong when we’re all pre-programmed to find what we’re looking for. As I’ve argued previously, considering the differences in governments and values, it’s a miracle that Hong Kong remains as free as it is. Or that’s what I used to tell myself, anyway.
The expulsion of Financial Times reporter Victor Mallet, ostensibly because he had the temerity to host the leader of a legal political party at a private club where he’d be challenged by journalists. The party happened to the Hong Kong National Party, and the leader, Chan Ho-tin. The Hong Kong National Party advocates for Hong Kong independence, an idea supported by so few Hong Kongers that it’s immaterial. It’s a niche party, and Chan’s invitation to speak was consistent with the Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s long history of having a wide spectrum of newsmakers sharing their points of view, regardless of how popular or unpopular they might be. It was just four short years ago that I listened to Benny Tai at the same podium, a key agitator who encouraged Hong Kongers to resort to civil disobedience in its push for democracy. Just a few days later, thousands spilled into the streets and the Umbrella Movement had begun.
So what was Mallet’s crime? He was a vice-president of the club, but happened to be filling in as acting president at the time Chan was invited and spoke, thus making him the face of the event. He had to publicly defend Hong Kong’s tradition of free speech, remind people that the event was entirely legal, and explain that allowing Chan to speak did not equate support of his party. That didn’t stop the barrage of criticism from former Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung and Beijing’s Liaison Office, both of which denounced the FCC as dangerously crossing a “red line”.
Shortly afterward, the Hong Kong National Party was banned, making it officially an illegal organization. Then, when Mallet was attempting a routine renewal of his work visa, he was denied — leaving just a few days to pack up and permanently leave Hong Kong. As if that wasn’t heavy-handed enough, Hong Kong then turned him away at the airport last week, even blocking entry on a tourist visa. He wasn’t able to hand off his duties to the new vice president at the FCC.
Expelling journalists by refusing to provide visas has become common in Mainland China and other authoritarian jurisdictions in the neighbourhood — but never in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is where journalists banned elsewhere come as a refuge; it’s a place that welcomes everyone, a place that’s nearly as open and free as New York or London.
Of all of the steps Beijing has taken in recent years to consolidate control, this was the most ominous. It was blatant, it was explicit, and it was intended to send a strong message that dissent will no longer be tolerated. In one fell swoop, Beijing demonstrated to the world that it has absolute and complete control of Hong Kong. Self censorship is already on the rise, foreign news organizations will tread carefully, and even the financial community, the city’s lifeblood, has been shaken. What Hong Kong was, what it represented, is now gone. There is no coming back from this, not without a full-scale regime change in Beijing. The “Hong Kong Government”, as it’s known, has no real power; it has been gutted, leaving behind a few smiling minions to be Beijing’s public face while policy and control is consolidated at the Liaison Office. Make no mistake, Hong Kongers are not running Hong Kong.
If Beijing was restraining itself before, it isn’t now. Worse, it doesn’t care one whit about the fallout or impact on Hong Kong’s reputation, the financial market or Hong Kong’s value as a tool to warm Taiwan to the idea of reunification. The city is now expendable, a tiny, restless region that’s more trouble than it’s worth.
The relationship between Hong Kong and Mainland China has always been uncomfortable because while Hong Kong represents a valuable gift handed over to China in 1997, it was a gift created and nurtured by someone else. Every reminder of Hong Kong’s success, of Hong Kong’s standing in the international community, and of the respect Hong Kong has earned, is a reminder of the things Beijing has never been able to achieve for itself, anywhere. In a fit of petty insecurity, Beijing would rather destroy it.
I was speaking to a friend the other day, explaining why I found the expulsion of Victor Mallet so distressing. I think it’s because, while I have plenty of privilege and a foreign passport, this city is my home too. I am a permanent resident here, and I care about it — a lot. I lived in the Mainland for four years and left it for a reason. To my great disappointment, it has followed me here a lot sooner than I ever could’ve imagined.