Foreign governments watching Hong Kong freedoms, but not acting – yet

A slew of incidents concerning Hong Kong’s freedom of speech in the past few months has left many at home and abroad wonder if the autonomous city is becoming “just another Chinese city” – or JACC, in the parlance of Harbour Times sister publication, High Tide.

Australia might already think so, according to a Bloomberg report. The assumption was made after the country blocked Hong Kong-based CK Group’s $9.4 billion bid for its biggest natural gas infrastructure business, the APA Group, on November 6.

The Australian government cited “national interest” for the reason behind this move.

Like its ally, the U.S. is expressing the same sentiment.

On November 14, the U.S. Congress released a report to call for re-assessing Hong Kong’s status as an independent economic entity, due to “challenges to freedom of speech and assembly in Hong Kong”.

The U.S. is Hong Kong’s second largest trading partner in the world.

In merely two weeks, the international community is voicing concerns over the city’s autonomy, which could deal a blow to Hong Kong’s trade and businesses.

What happened in Hong Kong

In October, Financial Times editor Mr Victor Mallet was denied renewal of his work visa, which generated reams of international press. The move came after he presided over a talk by a pro-independence group, the Hong Kong National Party, in August at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in his capacity as Vice President.

Mr Mallet, who is a British citizen, was later granted an unusually short stay for one week as a tourist on his next entry (versus a normal 3 months). On November 9, he was completely denied entry to Hong Kong after being detained and questioned for hours.

The British government describes Mr Mallet’s case as ‘politically motivated’.

Not just foreign interference

On November 7, Chinese-born author Mr Ma Jian, whose novel satirizes the slogan “China Dream”, was barred from speaking at the main venue, Tai Kwun, by the venue’s management.

Tai Kwun uncited its unwillingness to “become a platform to promote the political interests of any individual”, which sparked criticism. Tai Kwun director Timothy Calnin eventually backtracked and let Mr Ma give his talk after the novelist said he did not intend to do anything political.

Only a week before these two incidents, an exhibition by dissident Chinese-born artist Badiucao was forced to be cancelled. The artist produces drawings critical of Chinese political figures.

The organizer said on November 2 that the cancellation was out of “safety concerns”.

Local scholars: No, not Chinese yet

While these incidents sent out worrying signs, scholars in Hong Kong refute that the city has become “just another Chinese city” or JACCed.

Bruce Lui, senior lecturer at Journalism Department of HKBU, tells Harbour Times that Hong Kong still has a certain degree of freedom of speech.

“Marches, demonstrations and criticism against the government are still allowed here. It is when the ‘red line’ is crossed – issues involving territorial integrity and the leaders’ images, such freedom is gone,” he says, but notes that recent incidents show that the city’s free speech is at risk.

And these incidents might not be relevant or powerful enough to shake things up.

The CK Group’s failure to bid in Australia may not have to do with concerns over Hong Kong’s free speech, Mr Wilson Chan, a social science lecturer at CUHK, tells Harbour Times.

“It is more on Sino-Australian levels as it concerns national interests,” he says.

“There were security concerns when Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing’s company Hutchison Whampoa invested in the Panama Canal. And Hong Kong could not buy light weapons (specifically H&K machine guns) from Germany… The CK Group’s bid failure is not a special case,” Mr Chan says. In the German case, no official statement was made. However, an unnamed manager cited an unwillingness to sell to countries that are not “unequivocally democratic, definitely not corrupt and in NATO or close to NATO.”

Since Germany considers Hong Kong as part of China, the linkage could be part of the concerns for Germany exporting arms to the city, he notes.

All watching,  no acting

Mr Chan adds that while the Western countries have been keeping an eye on Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and have expressed their concerns, none of these has translated into any actual policies.

“The status quo is still there. I don’t see a lot of foreign companies withdrawing from Hong Kong yet,” he argues, dismissing any significant impact of the recent incidents on Hong Kong’s economy.