Hong Kong Starts Denying Visas to Foreign Correspondents

Toeing the government line recommended

By: Tim Hamlett

The news that Presidents Biden and Xi have agreed to more generous visa arrangements for each other's journalists will have attracted attention in Hong Kong, where relations between the government and the resident foreign press have been rocky lately.

Hong Kong's large corps of correspondents, or at least its upper crust, enjoy the use of a picturesque listed building leased from the Hong Kong government (above) as their clubhouse and have traditionally been cosseted by a government eager to be seen abroad as effective and humane.

The rising levels of political turbulence since 2014 have seen this relationship go downhill. In recent years, there have been recurrent complaints about difficulties or delays in getting work visas for correspondents to come to Hong Kong. And some who were already in the city have been effectively expelled.

The first was Victor Mallet of the Financial Times, who had presided as Vice President of the Foreign Correspondents' Club (the president was away) at a lunch meeting in 2018 addressed by a local politician abhorred by the government. Last year, Chris Buckley of the New York Times was refused permission to stay, as was Aaron McNicholas, who had been offered the editorship of the Hong Kong Free Press, which is not the government's favorite news outlet.

No reason was given for these decisions. The government has also refused to explain the refusal to renew the visa of the Economist's Wong Sue-lin last week. Wong, who is Australian, had not featured in any public spats. But the Economist's coverage of Mr Xi's progress towards immortality may have gone down badly.

The government had just fallen out with Bloomberg opinion writer Matthew Brooker. “Attempts to undermine Hong Kong's electoral system with sensationalist and biased reporting are extremely deplorable,” Hong Kong official Derick Tsang wrote to the editor. Mr Brooker is a Hong Kong resident and so does not require a visa. Whether that helps will be closely watched. 

The FCC has managed of late to get into hot water in its own right. China's Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong takes the lead in dealing with foreign correspondent matters and was incensed when the club surveyed its members, discovering that 84 percent thought conditions had deteriorated, 56 percent of them were thinking of leaving the city and 56 percent had self-censored.

In full wolf warrior mode, the ministry statement attacked the FCC: “Smearing of Hong Kong’s press freedom and playing-up of the chilling effect are interference in Hong Kong affairs…

We urge the FCC to distinguish right from wrong, respect the rule of law in the HKSAR, and stop driving wedge in Hong Kong and meddling in Hong Kong affairs under whatever pretext.”

Actually, people have been trickling away already. After the enactment of Hong Kong's new national security law last year the New York Times moved a third of its staff to South Korea. The Washington Post moved its regional HQ, also to Seoul. Veteran journalist Steve Vines departed for the UK complaining of “white terror” inflicted on critics of the government. Initium, a news website, departed en bloc to Singapore.

Other realignments were quieter. Readers of the Guardian may not have noticed that much of its Hong Kong coverage is now filed from Taipei.

Local journalists may feel that the FCC is turning up rather late for the funeral of press freedom in the city, which for them effectively ended when the government closed Apple Daily – a popular pro-democracy tabloid – froze its funds and arrested many of its senior staff.

The national security law confers wide powers on the police, who have a special national security unit, and also makes it hard for arrested people to get bail. Other criticized features include juryless trials and a picked list of judges to preside over them. But the attribute which gives the law much of its effect on media work is the vagueness of the description of offenses. Hardly a week goes by without an official of one kind or another announcing that some hitherto commonplace activity “may be a violation of the national security law.”

The effect, as one local writer put it in a picturesque local variation on the Sword of Damocles, is like eating in a dining room with a cobra in the chandelier. Everything looks normal but you never know when.

Foreign news organizations no longer expect visas to be issued or renewed as a matter of course, as they used to be. They are also hampered by Hong Kong's following of China's “zero Covid” policy, which makes it hard for correspondents to travel around the region.

Nobody expects reporting from Hong Kong to be abandoned altogether. But back-office staff, editors, and administrators can be moved elsewhere. As the FCC may have to. During the row over Victor Mallet's expulsion a former Hong Kong Chief Executive, Leung Chun Ying, suggested that the government should cancel its lease on the building. It would be a pity to lose a handsome venue. But the way things are going something smaller might soon suffice.