Hong Kong’s Loss of Freedom

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Hong Kong continues to lose freedom. Under pressure from China, public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong has squeezed out longtime broadcast journalist Steve Vines, who had a current affairs show called “The Pulse.” Tom Grundy of the Hong Kong Free Press web page, has a report on it here. The Washington Post has an editorial on it here.

Announcing his departure for Britain, Vines wrote that in spite of Beijing’s crackdown on the democracy movement, he “thought that a space might still exist” for at least a partly free press, but that “these illusions are being shattered.” Vines told the Financial Times he was warned to leave the territory. Pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong “have this band of people who are not officially sanctioned . . . who go around threatening anybody who has, so-called, stepped out of line,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, I was one of those.”

Vines was in the business of making his political thoughts — at least some of them — public. In Hong Kong that has become dangerous. He wrote his friends: “Hong Kong is now in a very dark place. . . . The white terror sweeping through Hong Kong is far from over, and the near-term prospects of things getting better are simply nonexistent. The institutions that ensure the liberty of Hongkongers are being dismantled by people who care so little that they don’t even flinch . . .”

Hong Kong people were careful about what they said about China because it might be used against them later. These were small worries compared with the situation now.


I winced at the term “white terror.” So did readers who commented on the Washington Post’s editorial. One of them, under the moniker TrueBlueBruinCAL, noted that “white terror” is right-wing terror, as in the counterrevolution in France in 1793, Chiang Kai-shek’s massacre of Chinese Communists in Shanghai in 1927, or Francisco Franco’s killing of leftists in 1936–39. The correct term for an act by China, TrueBlue wrote, would be “red terror.”

To be fair, “terror” overstates it. Warning a handful of journalists to leave is not comparable to mass executions done by Franco in the Spanish Civil War. China won’t have to impose that sort of terror in order to screw down the lid on the local media. But it is the extinction of freedom nonetheless.

I was a journalist in Hong Kong from 1989 to 1993. Even under British rule there was a measure of self-censorship. Part of it was because the publication I worked for, Asiaweek, circulated in countries that were less free — Indonesia, Malaysia and particularly Singapore. We didn’t circulate in China, but we had dreams of doing so, and toned down our “Western” criticisms to a whisper. Hong Kong people told me they were careful about what they said about China because it might be noted and used against them later. These were small worries compared with the situation now. I hope that the worries now will not look small compared with what’s to come.

President Biden has given Hong Kong citizens living in the United States the privilege of staying for 18 months. Probably that means they will be able to stay permanently. There is not a whole lot the US government can do about Hong Kong without hurting the people there or overstepping its role, but it can do that.

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