Little by little publishing freedom within Hong Kong is being cut down. Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), a local, independent, English-language online news service has been blocked from attending Government Press Conferences and accessing their corresponding Press Releases having also been blocked by the firewall only four months after its inception. However, even this is minor in comparison to some of the more serious events occurring in the region.
Four Hong Kong Publishers, who are well-known for critiquing Chinese leaders, are currently missing. Radio Free Asia has reported that Sage Bookstore (a famous political bookstore in Causeway Bay) has been closed for the last two months, after its owner Gui Haiming did not return from a holiday in Thailand. The manager of the bookstore, Lin Rongji, the company general manager, Lu Bo and an employee, Zhang Zhiping have also all gone missing. Attempts to contact the two of them have failed, raising speculation that they are being detained across the border. Tom Grundy, editor of HKFP, insisted that journalists must exercise caution when travelling abroad alongside his significant concerns of “rampant self-censorship and attacks on reporters”.
Another clear example of this lies in the injunction taking out by HKU for the broadcast of recording of “confidential” Council meetings. Whilst firstly, the justification of the confidentially requirement leaves much to be desired (if you cannot “speak freely” without confidentiality, how can you validate your place on the Council and the opinions you hold?), secondly the application by the University is a symbolic dagger to the heart of free press at the University. The Hong Kong Journalists Association responded to the injunction saying “Publication of confidential information in order to expose injustice and corruption to protect public interest has always been, and is, the duty of every journalist and media institution”. However, the decision to grant the injunction is a disheartening representation of the direction which Hong Kong is going. The “protection” for press freedom preserved by the Basic Law is certainly under attack, and the ensuing punishment of whistle-blowers such as Billy Fung (the president of HKUSU) should unquestionably raise serious concerns for Hongkongers relying on impartial media reports to educate themselves on political issues and allow the political participation required to hold a government to account.
Furthermore, it is not just the media who are under encroachment. Joint reports from The Guardian and Apply Daily found that the Liaison Office (Beijing’s official representation in Hong Kong) control the three main bookshop chains, two newspapers (Ta Kung Pao and Wen Hui Pao) as well as an assortment of magazines and publishing houses. The Liaison Office, according to the report, allow their affiliates to pay nominal rent in a market which highly values space, essentially pushing their competitors into a dangerously expensive stores backed by spiralling increases in costs from the property market. New Century Press, an independent publisher, has stated that books which the Chinese Authorities take issue with are subject to all sorts of underhand tactics to reduce their sphere of sale. Due to simple bans on pro-democracy books (for example To Be a Citizen: My Free China, by the lawyer and pro-democracy activist Xu Zhiyong) or being carefully hidden in those trying to appease the Liaison Office, most of the politically sensitive books now available in Hong Kong are on the side of Beijing and dissenting voices are vanishing off the shelves as emphasised when Sino-United Publishing rejected pro-occupy books from independent publisher Up and instead stocked critical books only. Professor Bruce Lui of the Baptist University said the rejection of such books is merely an innovative form of censorship from the Communist Party, and this was echoed by David Bandurski who works for the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project. He said he can clearly feel there is an “increasing censorship in Hong Kong, no matter if it is in broadcast or in print media” and that his colleagues managers “will use all kinds of excuses to block them or give them more difficulties” to publish sensitive news stories.
The dangerously increasing precedent of censorship in Hong Kong is a hugely worrying development in the territory. The lack of a free press will limit the exposure of citizens to alternative points of view and new ways of thinking. This can create a perilous monopoly of control over the thought processes by those doing the censorship. The loss of individual opinions and communication of those willing to speak out against an over-aweing power will only contribute to the strength of a totalitarian and oppressive regime. An ignorant society is a weak one, and has no place in modern civilisation as it creates a vulnerable people open to human rights abuses, misgovernance and tyrannical controls.