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Executive Summary: Media Crackdown in Hong Kong

Team: PACOM

Week of: April 26, 2021


Media mogul Jimmy Lai arrives at court to face trial[1]


China is currently in the process of aggressively limiting pro-democracy positions in Hong Kong. One way in which China is doing this that has become increasingly notable and intensified within the last two months is by cracking down on freedom of expression in the Hong Kong media. Several media figures have been arrested and charged, worrying developments have taken place relating to the city’s public broadcaster, a newspaper’s offices have been physically attacked, and the Hong Kong government has begun to bring fake news into their discourse when discussing domestic and foreign media that goes against their line. While citizens have responded by resorting to alternative online media sources, the clampdown on media freedom is highly likely to continue. The introduction of the national security law, as well as sweeping electoral and legal changes, means that press restrictions are very likely to continue to be used as a tool by the government to suppress and deter dissent. As the public space for freedom of expression shrinks, citizens are likely to continue to transition to receiving their information from online media sources. This, however, increases the future possibility of an increased internet crackdown by the government, as well as an increasingly hostile environment for foreign media outlets operating in the city. This environment is highly likely to impact domestic and foreign businesses operating in the city, as well as a potential brain drain, as the young workforce depart Hong Kong for less oppressive countries.


In June 2020, the Chinese Government adopted a national security law (NSL) that allows it to intervene directly in Hong Kong in circumstances where it perceives there to be crimes against the State. Such crimes include subversion, secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. The Chinese-imposed NSL came into force after months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and convictions under it are punishable up to life in prison. Critics of the new law argue that the law aims to stop dissent and erodes the freedom of citizens in the semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that it upholds stability in the state following months of unrest. In recent weeks, there have been many concerning developments to Hong Kong’s media landscape, such as the arrest of prominent journalists. Jimmy Lai, the founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, was arrested in August 2020 and again in February 2021.[2] On April 16, 2021, he was sentenced to 14 months in prison after being found guilty of unauthorized assembly.


A matter of days earlier, on April 12, 2021, a Hong Kong newspaper, the Epoch Times, revealed its printing presses had been attacked and destroyed by four masked men. The publication has been critical of the Chinese Government, something that is becoming increasingly rare in Hong Kong print media. Given this fact, there is a high probability that the paper was targeted due to its outspoken views on the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments. Violent attacks on media outlets are rare in Hong Kong, even as press freedom has declined in recent years. It is entirely plausible that the Epoch Times was targeted over its refusal to follow a trend of muted criticism of authorities. If so, similar independent media outlets will also be subject to the same level of scrutiny, hostile surveillance, and potential attack. In light of this incident and the ongoing crackdown on media freedoms, similar independent press organizations are likely to be subject to the same raised level of scrutiny, raising the risk of a violent backlash by proxy actors. The city continues to house regional offices of many major publications, but events such as this one may change that. These recent developments are one of many tools in the government’s arsenal that have been deployed to invoke fear in the Hong Kong population and to thus clamp down on any form of dissent against either the Hong Kong or Chinese Government.


It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the above-mentioned restrictive developments in the media came in quick succession of each other shortly after the surprisingly rapid rollout of extensive electoral and legal reform in the city. Since early March 2021, the Chinese Government has announced sweeping electoral reforms that will make it even more difficult for legislators who wish to pursue democracy for Hong Kong to win power. On top of this, the Chinese Government has pushed through revisions to the Hong Kong Basic Law, which is essentially the city’s constitution that was agreed upon by the Chinese and the British when Hong Kong changed hands in 1997. Many in and outside of Hong Kong have been surprised by the swift nature of these changes, which have concrete and alarming effects on the city’s freedoms that were guaranteed in a joint agreement between the Chinese and British in their 1984 Sino-British Declaration. There is bound to be negative public opinion surrounding these developments, which helps explain the timing of these unsettling developments to the city’s press environment. Up until recent years, Hong Kong has had a vibrant media landscape. Analyzing the city’s ranking on the Press Freedom Index demonstrates the deterioration: ranked 18 out of 180 countries in 2002, their ranking had declined to 61 by 2014, and to a record low of 80 by 2021. In comparison, China ranks 176 on the Index.[3]


On April 22, 2021, Hong Kong documentary maker and producer for the RTHK media outlet, Bao Choy, was found guilty of making false statements to obtain public records while researching for a documentary on the Yuen Long mob attacks that occurred in 2019 during the pro-democracy protests. Choy was fined HK $6,000 ( US $770) in the court proceedings.[4] This case has been viewed by the city’s pro-democracy movement, as well as various global media freedom watchdogs, as another example of the Hong Kong Government suppressing media freedoms, which have become more restricted since the imposition of the NSL. The charge has potential ramifications for other reporters in Hong Kong, which many believe is linked to the general media crackdown happening in the city following the introduction of the NSL in June 2020. The arrests of Lai and Choy illustrate the vague, wide-scope nature of the NSL, which broadly applies to any criticism of the Chinese or Hong Kong Governments. Anything from peaceful activism to more explicit criticism of the government can lead to Hong Kong citizens being harshly penalized, and in some cases transported to the Chinese mainland for trials that result in excessively harsh outcomes or torture in police custody. This gives China greater power over Hong Kong while disregarding the agreement that the One Country, Two Systems mechanism would remain in force until 2047.[5] While this is having a significant immediate impact on the Hong Kong media, the NSL is a potential gateway to further Chinese control of Hong Kong. The Chinese Government’s deployment of the NSL may be considered to be a part of China’s general objective of geographical expansion through forceful action, as evidenced in the South China Sea. Additionally, the NSL may be a warning sign for Taiwan, which is currently facing threatening Chinese pressure in the form of warplane incursions that show China’s determination to reunification by force.


Furthermore, the city’s state TV broadcaster - RTHK - has seen its editorial independence constrained in recent weeks. The broadcaster’s schedules have been somewhat in flux, with programs repeatedly pulled at the last minute by the new director of broadcasting, Patrick Li, for not toeing the official line. The station pointed to concerns about the "impartiality" of the shows in question, with management implementing a new review system for the station's output. It was also announced that the city’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, will address the city on RTHK to inform and explain to citizens about the recent electoral reforms and other aspects of the NSL.[6] This 40 part series is programmed for every day of the week between April 28 and May 17, with the broadcast being repeated four times per day. This announcement came at the same time as multiple programs have been axed by the channel’s management, increasing the impression that censorship is becoming an increasing feature of the channel’s activities. The government is increasingly using various forms of media to influence, cajole and potentially manipulate, its people.


The final recent development of note is the entry into government discourse on the fake news phenomenon. On April 8, 2021, Hong Kong Chief Executive Officer Carrie Lam stated that the Hong Kong Government is the “biggest victim” of fake news.[7] Speaking during a Q&A session on the new electoral laws, Lam expressed that fake news had made it difficult to govern. This discourse very much echoes mainland China’s narrative of having to combat foreign interference from the West. Then, on April 16, 2021, Hong Kong Police Commissioner Chris Tang stated that media outlets reporting fake news will be investigated, and if the evidence is found, prosecuted.[8] Hong Kong’s press club, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, responded to Police Commissioner Tang, stating that the targeting of fake news has the potential to put journalists at risk.[9] This is one of many recent developments that demonstrates a restriction on press freedoms, his comments coming on the same day of Jimmy Lai’s arrest. This development will also have ramifications for foreign media, which Hong Kong’s Government believes is disseminating disinformation to create a division in Hong Kong’s society. “Fake news” is a very contested and politicized term, particularly so in an environment where the government is creeping towards a more authoritarian form, meaning that its use depends on who defines it and with what agenda. It is quite apparent that the Hong Kong Government’s deployment of the fake news accusation against both domestic and foreign media has the potential to silence them, which further contributes to the lack of freedom of speech when reporting issues related to Hong Kong and China.


There is growing public distrust in the Hong Kong press as the latter endures increasing political weight to keep in line with the Beijing-imposed NSL. Public perception of the independence and credibility of Hong Kong’s news outlets have slumped to a record low, according to a Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute survey released on April 7, 2021. General satisfaction with news media was at its lowest since records began in 1993, declining by 18 percent from March 2020. The survey also indicated that 58 percent of respondents believed that the media is hesitant to criticize authorities, a 20 percent increase compared to March 2020.[10] There are several possible implications of this declining trust in the media. One of the most significant, and indeed already occurring, is the emigration of people out of the city. Tens of thousands are believed to have left for the UK alone in a matter of weeks. In a recent poll, 60 percent of young Hong Kongers said they were considering leaving Hong Kong in the future.[11] The potential risks of brain drain and the impact on Hong Kong’s human capital for future foreign investors are significant. A second noteworthy possible implication is the possible emergence of peaceful or even violent groups in the city out of anger at developments relating to press freedom. Hong Kong has an impressive history of protest, and public opinion polls speak volumes. However, the realistic chances of this are much reduced than they would have been even one year ago because of the NSL. Thie NSL has acted as a significant deterrent to any forms of demonstration or protest, peaceful or violent. The vagueness of the law, and the fact 100 people have been arrested and 57 charged under it as of April 2021, meaning the government is highly likely to be able to continue on its repressive trajectory with little to no public disagreement.[12]


Although recent events have shown a marked decrease in press and media freedom, this is not to say the phenomenon is new. Since the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests that lasted several months, the Hong Kong Journalists Association has been alert to this trend, creating their press freedom index specific to the city in April 2014.[13] Despite, or perhaps as a result of, all of the above developments, the number of online media platforms has grown in number and readership. Some of the most prominent and vocal platforms include Citizen News, Stand News, The Initium, Hong Kong Free Press, and in-Media. Popular because of their independence from state forces or opinion, it is likely that in the future the popularity and influence of these publications will only grow. As a result, there is a growing likelihood of increased restriction to internet access in Hong Kong in the short to medium term. Although many social media sites that are censored in China have existed in Hong Kong for years, there are worrying signs both that this freedom has been far less than people perceived, and that censorship of the online world could come about at any point. The government has introduced sizable alterations to the city’s political and legal environment and is well aware that Hong Kong people are more than willing to protest. Although during previous protests that made Hong Kong known around the world the government never resorted to internet shutdowns, preferring physical measures instead, this is a tactic that has been employed elsewhere in Asia to quell dissent. The farmer protests in India provide a good example. Increased censorship of the internet in the short, medium, and long term are likely.


The impact of the above developments on Hong Kong and foreign media outlets operating in the city are multiple. A large number of big media outlets have their Asia-Pacific headquarters in Hong Kong, given the city’s traditional position as a vibrant, free business center. Foreign companies doing business in - or with - Hong Kong may also face reputational risks within Hong Kong if they speak out against the government in any way, or indeed outside Hong Kong if they are seen as being complicit in oppressive acts or opinions of the Chinese Government. Such risks and pressure arise as a result of businesses needing to meet their local obligations to legal decisions relating to freedom of expression viewed as superseding pre-existing Hong Kong laws, and against the wider interest of many of the territory’s residents. These pressures can be expected to intensify as the electoral and legal reforms are transposed into Hong Kong law in the coming months. This assimilation of Hong Kong back into China has always been inevitable, but developments since the passing of the NSL have shown speed-up efforts to marginalize the political opposition, impose a form of censorship on public opinion and expression, and dilute a traditionally independent media landscape. Businesses must now accelerate their plans for scenario planning in a rapidly changing political risk landscape.


The implementation of the NSL over the past ten months has the potential to have greater implications for the freedoms of Hong Kong’s citizens beyond the media crackdown. New immigration law was passed on April 28, 2021, which gives Hong Kong’s Director of Immigration the power to ban people from entering or leaving Hong Kong.[14] This has the potential to target dissidents in the same manner the NSL has. Similar to the NSL, a characteristic of the new “exit ban” is its wide scope in the power it grants the government, which the United States has expressed concern about. In conjunction with the media crackdown, the government’s power to control the movements of its citizens further brings into question the freedom of expression in Hong Kong. Additionally, this will have an impact on businesses that are reliant on freedom of movement in and out of Hong Kong. The newfound control of migration in Hong Kong has the potential to limit the growth in markets or dissuade foreign business from using Hong Kong as an economic hub. One reason for this is that employees are at a greater risk of persecution by the Government of Hong Kong and China if they make the choice to dissent, which may be a deterrent for businesses operating in the State.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] A4U0349 by Studio Incendo, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

[2] Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai arrested again while in jail, papers say, Reuters, February 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-security-idUSKBN2AH0RP

[3] 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders, March 2021, https://rsf.org/en/ranking

[4] Hong Kong court fines journalist HK$6,000 for use of public records in documentary about police, Hong Kong Free Press, April 2021, https://hongkongfp.com/2021/04/22/breaking-hong-kong-journalist-convicted-after-using-public-records-in-documentary-about-police/

[5] What Jimmy Lai’s Arrest Means, Human Rights Watch, August 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/12/what-jimmy-lais-arrest-means

[6] RTHK signs up Carrie Lam as new TV host, RTHK News, April 2021, https://news.rthk.hk/rthk/en/component/k2/1587913-20210427.htm

[7] Hong Kong gov’t is the ‘biggest victim of fake news,’ Chief Exec. Carrie Lam says, Hong Kong Free Press, April 2021, https://hongkongfp.com/2021/04/08/hong-kong-govt-is-the-biggest-victim-of-fake-news-chief-exec-carrie-lam-says/

[8] Journalists seek clarity on police chief's 'fake news' claim, The Standard, April 2021, https://www.thestandard.com.hk/breaking-news/section/4/170462/Journalists-seek-clarity-on-police-chief's-'fake-news'-claim

[9] Hong Kong press club urges police chief to clarify comments about action against ‘fake news’, Hong Kong Free Press, April 2021, https://hongkongfp.com/2021/04/23/hong-kong-press-club-urges-police-chief-to-clarify-comments-about-action-against-fake-news/

[10] Public perception of Hong Kong media’s independence and credibility at record low – survey, Hong Kong Free Press, April 2021, https://hongkongfp.com/2021/04/08/public-perception-of-hong-kong-medias-independence-and-credibility-at-record-low-survey/

[11] New poll shows 60% of Hong Kong youth aged 15 to 30 want to leave the city if they can, Business Insider, April 2021,https://www.businessinsider.com/poll-shows-60-percent-hong-kong-youth-want-to-leave-2021-4?r=US&IR=T#:~:text=A%20new%20poll%20by%20a,stories%20on%20Insider's%20business%20page.

[12] Arrests and trials of Hong Kong protestors, Medium, April 2021, https://kongtsunggan.medium.com/arrests-and-trials-of-hong-kong-protesters-2019-9d9a601d4950#:~:text=As%20of%20April%2027%2C%202021%2C%2055%20people%20have,later%20were%20determined%20not%20to%20be%20NSL%20suspects.%29

[13] First Hong Kong Press Freedom Index Announced, Hong Kong Journalists Association, April 2014, https://www.hkja.org.hk/en/press-freedom-index/first-hong-kong-press-freedom-index-announced-2/

[14] Explainer: Hong Kong national security crackdown – month 10, Hong Kong Free Press, May 2021, https://hongkongfp.com/2021/05/01/explainer-hong-kong-national-security-crackdown-month-10/


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