'White Terror' Behind Hong Kong Web Closure?

Somebody or something scared the shit out of Tony Tsoi Tung-ho. On July 20, he suddenly shut down House News, the most popular stand-alone Chinese-language website in Hong Kong.

The two-year-old website, modeled on the phenomenally popular US website Huffington Post and featuring an amalgam of columnists, journalists and observers who were often critical of China, had 300,000 unique viewers per day and was growing fast. It had garnered Hong Kong’s big luxury car dealers BMW, Mercedes and Audi as advertisers. It was reportedly on the edge of a tie-up with the Wall Street Journal.

It stopped dead so suddenly that stunned staffers weren’t even informed of its demise, coming to work to find the doors locked. Tsoi himself has been unreachable and, friends say, may have moved out of his home into a serviced apartment so he can’t be found.

When he shut down House News, however, he left this astonishing written statement on the screen where the publication had been:

“I fear. The current atmosphere of political struggle is extremely unsettling. A number of the democratic camp members are being stalked, smeared, and having some old stories dug out. A wave of white terror envelops this society, and I feel it. And, as a businessman who often travels up to the mainland, I have to admit every time I cross the border I would get jittery. Am I just being paranoid? That feeling is inexplicable to outsiders. But what unsettles me most is my family also feels this pressure, and they worry about me all the time ... That breaks my heart."

What those pressures are is unknown but the term “white terror” carries a special resonance. To Chinese and particularly Taiwanese, the term refers to a four-decade period in Taiwan in which then-dictator Chiang Kai-shek and his successors imprisoned 140,000 Taiwanese, of which perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 were executed because of their resistance to the Kuomintang regime.

Although the mainstream media reported that House News had failed as a business, Evan Fowler, one of the main contributors, said in an interview that although the company was running at a loss, the losses at the start of July were understood to be both manageable and expected, that a promotional campaign had been launched in June and that Tsoi was looking forward to new opportunities.

Conjecture runs to the possibility that on one of his trips to the mainland he had been caught in a “honey trap,” in which he had been enticed into a sexual relationship and then blackmailed. But Fowler, who was close to Tsoi, said that was highly unlikely and that such rumors had been around for quite some time. Other reports suggested that possibly a mainland investigation was turning up embarrassing details about one of House News’s main funders.

Speculation also centered on the possibility that members of Tsoi’s family had been threatened with the same kind of harm that met Kevin Lau, the former editor of Ming Pao, who was slashed as he got out of his car by “patriotic” triad forces. Lau had allowed Ming Pao to participate with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in an investigation into funds that flowed out of the mainland from prominent Communist Party members and their families into anonymous accounts in the British Virgin Islands. Tendons in his legs were severed and after months of rehabilitation he is still crippled and almost unable to walk.

Whatever the reasons for Tsoi’s sudden departure from Internet journalism, democracy and free press advocates in Hong Kong are stunned and increasingly fearful. That has been exemplified by a wide-ranging attack on Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, the tycoon whose Next Media is by far Beijing’s most virulent critic in Asia.

It is uncertain who is orchestrating the campaign in Hong Kong. However, sources say, speculation centers around a Hong Kong-based tycoon with ties to Beijing. Whether the campaign emanates from Beijing is unknown. But the targets are plain enough, and getting rid of them aligns directly with Beijing’s ambitions. Sources in the Chinese capital say there is growing irritation over Hong Kong and what is regarded as an ungrateful upstart that has ignored the benefits from tourism – some 42 million from the mainland in 2013 – plus an extremely favorable Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, a trade pact that grants Hong Kong considerable advantage in the movement of goods and services.

The intensity of the campaign against Lai is spreading. As was widely reported earlier, hackers broke into email conversations with Lai and his aide, Mark Simon, and stole 1,800 files. That has been followed by subsequent revelations of Lai’s contributions to a pro-democracy figures and institutions such as Occupy Central, which has threatened to shut down the center of the city to attempt to force universal suffrage in 2017 in accordance with Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

The pro-Beijing forces have sought to conflate Lai’s donations into illegal contributions to democracy campaigners, although Hong Kong’s admittedly lax campaign contribution laws do not require stringent disclosure. Among others, they have gone after are political figures such as Claudia Mo. a legislative council member and prominent pro-democracy activist; radical lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, famously known as Long Hair; and labor leader Lee Cheuk-yan. Others whose pro-democracy efforts have been backed by Lai including former Chief Secretary Anson Chan and former head of the Catholic church in Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen.

Pro-Beijing newspapers and television stations have been primed to follow political figures and bombard them with questions over the money passed by Lai. Cameras have followed children of the campaign's targets as they emerged from school. Concerns are rising that the city’s Independent Commission Against Corruption will be asked to investigate, drawing out the situation for months if not years.

“There is a growing feeling, especially among the young, that Hong Kong's mainstream media is no longer free to represent the full diversity of perspectives within this city,” Fowler wrote in an op-ed piece in the South China Morning Post.

“There is too much about the sudden closure of House News that does not add up to attribute it to being merely a business decision. It is not unreasonable to conclude that, whatever the details and mechanics of the pressures that forced House to close, the level of this pressure was beyond the expectations and the ability of a man as able as Tony Tsoi.”

John Berthelsen is the editor of Asia Sentinel