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Pedestrians cross a street in Hong Kong on Oct. 31, 2021. Hong Kong was once among the freest societies in Asia and considered one of the best places to be based for journalists covering the region because of the ease of securing employment visas for foreign reporters.BERTHA WANG/AFP/Getty Images

Immigration authorities in Hong Kong have refused to renew the visa of an Economist correspondent, forcing her to leave the territory in a manner long used by Beijing against critical reporters.

In a statement late Thursday, Economist editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes said the decision not to renew Sue-Lin Wong’s visa “was given without explanation.”

“We are proud of Sue-Lin’s journalism,” Ms. Beddoes wrote. “We urge the government of Hong Kong to maintain access for the foreign press, which is vital to the territory’s standing as an international city.”

On Twitter, Ms. Wong said she was “very sad I won’t be able to continue reporting from Hong Kong.”

“I loved getting to know the city and its people. I will miss you all,” she wrote. The Economist said she had already left the city.

An Australian, Ms. Wong was hired by the Economist from the Financial Times (FT) in June, 2020, as a China correspondent “focusing on society and politics in mainland China and Hong Kong,” according to her bio on the magazine’s website.

At the FT, she covered the 2019 Hong Kong anti-government unrest in depth. She wrote a long feature on clashes between student protesters and police titled “Inside the battle for Hong Kong.” Since joining the Economist, she has written about how a national security law imposed on the city last year by Beijing has been used to crack down on labour unions and universities.

Hong Kong was once among the freest societies in Asia. It was considered one of the best places for journalists covering the region to be based because it offered constitutional protections that were lacking elsewhere, and because of the ease of securing employment visas for foreign reporters. Unlike in mainland China, foreign reporters in Hong Kong do not have to apply for specialized journalist visas. They are treated like other workers.

Since the national security law was introduced in 2020, there has been a major crackdown on the press, mainly targeting local outlets in the Chinese language. The pro-democracy Apple Daily was forced to close after a number of its executives and top editors were arrested and its assets frozen, while public broadcaster RTHK has been placed under tight government control, with its editorial independence reined in.

Hong Kong Watch, a U.K.-based human rights group, described Ms. Wong’s expulsion as “genuinely ridiculous” and “a sign of the sheer speed of Hong Kong’s decline.”

In August last year, Aaron Mc Nicholas, an Irish journalist previously with Bloomberg who had worked in the city since 2015, was denied a visa to take up a position with the Hong Kong Free Press. Immigration authorities refused to comment on the case at the time, and no official reason was given for refusing Mr. Mc Nicholas.

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HKFP is a local English-language outlet without a long track record of employing foreign nationals, and some had hoped Mr. Mc Nicholas’s case would be an isolated one. The decision to bar Ms. Wong suggests that immigration officials are taking a harder line on foreign reporters, and may be adopting a tactic from mainland China of using visa renewals to bar critical journalists from the country.

“The Beijing ‘welcome’ goes south,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter in reaction to Ms. Wong’s expulsion. “Very sorry to see this.”

Along with the substantial corps of journalists covering Hong Kong itself, the city is currently hosting dozens of reporters who typically cover China but are waiting for visas to be renewed or issued. While the city has long been a pit stop for those waiting for credentials to enter the mainland, the situation has become particularly acute during the pandemic, with authorities in Beijing largely halting visa approvals last year and continuing to drag their feet.

And Hong Kong is no longer the sanctuary it once was. A recent survey by the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) found that 84 per cent of respondents felt the working environment for journalism has “changed for the worse” since the national security law came into force.

Nearly half of respondents, 46 per cent, said they were considering leaving or already had plans to leave Hong Kong because of the decline in press freedom in the city.

“These results clearly show that assurances that Hong Kong still enjoys press freedom … are not enough,” FCC president Keith Richburg said in a statement. “More steps need to be taken to restore confidence among journalists and to make sure Hong Kong maintains its decades-long reputation as a welcoming place for the international media.”

In response, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry accused the FCC of “meddling in Hong Kong affairs,” and said “the right of media professionals in Hong Kong to report in accordance with law has not been affected at all.”

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