Hong Kong has set off a storm by refusing to renew the visa of a British journalist after he chaired a controversial talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club by an independence activist in August, despite objections from the city’s government and Beijing.
“The Hong Kong authorities have rejected an application to renew the work visa of Victor Mallet, Asia news editor at the Financial Times,” a spokeswoman for the newspaper headquartered in London said on Friday.
“This is the first time we have encountered this situation in Hong Kong, and we have not been given a reason for the rejection.”
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club issued a statement expressing deep concern and urging the government to let Mallet stay.
“The FCC is expecting a full explanation from the Hong Kong authorities for this extraordinary move, which is extremely rare, if not unprecedented,” the statement read.
“Hong Kong rightly prides itself on its reputation as a place where the rule of law applies and where freedom of speech is protected by law. The FCC has been proud to represent and champion that reputation since it moved here in 1949.
“In the absence of any reasonable explanation, the FCC calls on the Hong Kong authorities to rescind their decision.”
Mallet came to Hong Kong in October 2016 to run the Financial Times’ news operations in Asia, after an earlier stint in the city. He has been the FCC’s first vice-president since last year.
Former city leader Leung Chun-ying repeatedly attacked the club in August over its decision to host Andy Chan Ho-tin, then convenor of the Hong Kong National Party, for a lunch talk.
Chan’s party was then facing an unprecedented ban by the government on grounds of national security and public safety. It was officially outlawed last month, making it illegal for anyone to provide it with any aid or financial help.
Mallet, who moderated the talk, had argued the FCC was upholding freedom of expression, and that views from people across the political spectrum should be permitted. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had asked the club to call off the talk while the local government also objected to it.
In a subsequent open letter to Mallet, Leung criticised the British journalist’s logic, saying it implied the club would not “draw any line against criminals and terrorists”.
Chan’s defiant speech at the club – in which he insisted separation from China was the only option for the city – was later used by police to justify the ban on his party.
Chan, speaking on Friday in a personal capacity, condemned the move as a reprisal for the club’s decision to host him.
“It has dealt a severe blow to the city’s press freedom, and will greatly affect Hong Kong's image,” he said. “It is really a big deal. How could the government refuse to renew the visa of a journalist without even offering any reason?”
Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said she supported the ban as a “normal arrangement”.
“The FCC has breached the constitution and the law by allowing Chan to speak on its premises,” she said. “The authorities would be turning a blind eye to the separatists destroying China’s territorial integrity … if they do nothing and take no decisive action to stop it.”
Basic Law Committee member Priscilla Leung Mei-fun said the FCC had “breached the bottom line” of the “one country, two systems” principle – under which the city is ruled by Beijing, but promised a high degree of autonomy – by hosting Chan.
“I think this incident has given a clear message to the Hong Kong public that the zero tolerance for pro-independence talk has been escalated to a state level,” she said, adding that Beijing would not let anyone into the city who provided a venue for separatist advocacy.
Democratic Party legislator James To Kun-sun condemned the government’s move, which he interpreted as payback for Chan’s FCC talk.
How could the government refuse to renew the visa of a journalist without even offering any reason?
“I suspect it is a retaliation measure, and the government is sending a very wrong message to the international community, that Hong Kong is just another city in China,” To said.
Legislator Claudia Mo Man-ching, who convenes the opposition camp’s meetings, described the decision as “very political” and a “bad precedent”.
“We are telling the international press that Hong Kong can only accept people who will ‘good-mouth’ Hong Kong,” she said.
Chris Yeung Kin-hing, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, urged the authorities to come clean on the reasons behind the decision.
“The government should explain it clearly, or else it will be seen as relating to the FCC and Chan,” he said.
It was only in mainland China that journalists had visa applications rejected on political grounds, Yeung noted.
“Has Beijing exerted any pressure on Hong Kong? If yes, that has already eroded the high degree of autonomy which Hong Kong enjoys,” he said. “It would be worse if it was only a second-guess by Hong Kong officials.”
Yeung feared it would not be an isolated incident, and warned of a chilling effect that would prompt self-censorship.
Reporters Without Borders – an international group which advocates press freedom – urged authorities to reverse their decision, describing the action as proof Beijing was extending to Hong Kong what it called a policy of intimidating foreign journalists.
“The Hong Kong authorities’ visa renewal rejection – without explanation – of a journalist who’s done nothing more than his job smacks of Beijing-style persecution of critics,” said Maya Wang, senior researcher on China for Human Rights Watch.
“Together with the recent and also unprecedented banning of the Hong Kong National Party, the visa rejection indicates a quickening downward spiral for human rights in Hong Kong; that the Hong Kong government is now following Beijing’s lead in acting aggressively towards those whose views the authorities dislike.”
The government, through a spokesman, said it would not comment on individual cases.
“In handling each application, the Immigration Department acts in accordance with the laws and prevailing policies, and decides whether to approve or refuse the application after careful consideration of individual circumstances of each case,” the spokesman said.
According to the department, an application for a visa or entry permit to take up employment would generally be considered if there was no security objection and the applicant had no record of serious crime.
Mallet applied for his visa renewal last month, but it remained uncertain when his application was turned down. The journalist, travelling outside Hong Kong on Friday, did not respond to requests for comment.
Hong Kong authorities have come under fire over the past few years for denying entry to outspoken foreign politicians and activists, such as Benedict Rogers, deputy chairman of the British Conservative Party’s human rights commission, and more recently Japanese politician Kenichiro Wada. But it is rare for them to deny a journalist’s visa application.
In 2011, Chang Ping, a respected and liberal mainland Chinese commentator, was denied a work visa in Hong Kong.
Additional reporting by Christy Leung