HONG KONG • A string of figures critical of China's Communist Party say they have been denied visas to Hong Kong, sparking accusations of a secret "blacklist" that bears signs of Beijing's growing influence over the city.
Taiwanese scholars Wu Rwei-ren and Wu Jieh-min of Taipei's prestigious Academia Sinica, due to speak at a conference in Hong Kong today, are the latest to say their visa applications had been rejected without explanation.
Their cases followed a high-profile incident in October when British activist Benedict Rogers, deputy chairman of the governing Conservative Party's human rights commission, was turned away by immigration after landing for what he said was a private trip.
Mr Rogers has previously criticised the jailing of democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, calling it "one of the most grotesque miscarriages of justice I have seen".
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland since being handed back to China by Britain in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" deal. But there are rising concerns that those liberties are under threat.
The city's mini-Constitution, the Basic Law, stipulates immigration affairs are managed internally, but analysts say decisions over who is allowed in are increasingly arbitrary and non-transparent, sparking concern that immigration is becoming a political battleground.
"Things that were not considered a threat are now seen as threats," said assistant professor of government and international studies Edmund Cheng at Hong Kong Baptist University.
In a controversial response to media questions over the Rogers case, city leader Carrie Lam refused to provide details about why he was refused entry but suggested that matters of immigration can involve diplomatic considerations, for which Beijing is responsible.
"This redefines some of the boundaries in 'one country, two systems'," Professor Cheng said of Ms Lam's comments.
China banned a cross-party delegation of British MPs from entering Hong Kong in 2014, at the height of the mass pro-democracy Umbrella Movement rallies. That visit was part of a foreign affairs committee examination of the former colony's relations with the United Kingdom.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said she believed Hong Kong was "giving up" its own authority on immigration issues.
"The whole thing was unthinkable 10 years ago, but now it's happening," Ms Mo said.
Rejected Taiwanese scholar Wu Rwei-ren accused the Hong Kong government of having a "blacklist" which was expanding to academics.
Lawmakers from Taiwan's ruling Beijing-sceptic Democratic Progressive Party and the island's top anti-China activists were also previously refused entry to Hong Kong.
"Taiwan's academics have actively participated in social movements," Mr Wu said. He believes Beijing wants to block communication between Taiwanese groups and opposition forces in Hong Kong "to isolate its civil society and render it helpless".
Hong Kong's immigration department said it could not comment on individual cases when asked about the Taiwan scholars' case, saying only it would "consider all the factors" when assessing applications.
Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, which deals with cross-strait relations, expressed "regret and dissatisfaction" over the barring of its citizens.