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Is Hong Kong turning into Asia’s censored city?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

In late March, Benny Tai, a law professor from the University of Hong Kong, took part in a two-day forum in Taiwan during which he discussed what might happen if China was no longer a dictatorship and what Hong Kong’s options might be then.

“We could consider going independent, being part of a federal system or a confederation system similar to that of the European Union,” he said, among other remarks. “This is democratic self-determination, involving different peoples, everyone with an equal right to decide their own future, and this is also the way for Hong Kong’s future.”

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The academic, one of three co-founders of the Occupy Central movement of 2014, was immediately criticized by pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong. Soon, Chinese officials and the Hong Kong government joined the chorus.

“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government is shocked by the remarks made by a university teaching staff member that Hong Kong could consider becoming an independent state, and strongly condemns such remarks,” an official statement on March 30 declared.

In his defence, Prof. Tai said he was shocked by the reaction since he had written similar things previously in newspaper articles. But that was then. This is now. Things in Hong Kong are changing fast.

Of course, freedom of speech is upheld in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitutional document. But now, that freedom is being circumscribed.

Last year, when Reporters Without Borders opened its first Asian bureau, it picked Taipei over Hong Kong to the surprise of many.

Before Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, about a fifth of its population fled, with many returning later with foreign passports in their pockets as an insurance policy.

In 2015, five booksellers went missing. The saga rocked Hong Kong especially when it became known that two of them had foreign passports – and both men had been abducted, from Hong Kong and Thailand, respectively, and taken to the mainland. Gone was the sense of security in Hong Kong, where Chinese agents were not meant to operate.

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This provided the impetus for a renewed wave of emigration. A 2016 Chinese University of Hong Kong survey showed that almost 40 per cent wanted to leave the city, with Taiwan the favoured destination, followed by Australia and Canada. Evidently, Taiwan’s proximity, Chinese lifestyle and relatively lower living costs enhanced its attractiveness.

Even one of the booksellers, Lam Wing-kee, has announced his intention to open a bookstore in Taiwan. Although Taiwan’s own future is unclear, with China claiming the island as its territory, for now at least it can enjoy freedoms that are under assault in Hong Kong.

Exactly how much freedom Hong Kong will be allowed remains unclear. Tam Yiu-chung, former chairman of the pro-China political party Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong who was recently promoted to the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, was interviewed by the China Daily, which reported him as saying that where freedom of speech is concerned, “there should be a bottom line or exceptions as long as national security and social order issues are concerned.”

Qiao Xiaoyang, former chairman of the Basic Law Committee of the National People’s Congress, has said that advocating independence is not a question of free speech since it is a violation of the Chinese constitution.

Last June, days before her inauguration as Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam was asked by the BBC if calls for independence were protected under Hong Kong’s right to free speech. Her response: “We will abide by the rule of law.”

In April, she reiterated that position. “Nobody has a crystal ball in front of him or her to guarantee that certain actions, certain behaviour will not be breaching the law, because the law is evolving,” she told the press. “It will depend on the situation, depend on the law, depend on that particular behaviour.”

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The likelihood, therefore, is that new legislation will make it an offence to advocate independence. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong is expected to enact national security laws to criminalize treason, secession, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets and foreign political interference. Criminalizing advocacy of independence may fit neatly in the anti-secession legislation. China is impatient for Hong Kong to act. Wang Zhimin, director of China’s Liaison Office in the territory, pointedly said recently that “Hong Kong is the only place in the world without national security legislation.”

But great care needs to be taken. Hong Kong is a global financial centre and the free flow of information is vital. Any law curbing free speech will be seen as the thin end of the wedge. Hong Kong likes to be known as Asia’s world city, but if national security is used to shut people up, it may end up being known as Asia’s censored city.

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