China urges Hong Kong media to work against 'external forces'

Demonstrators protest outside the immigration department building in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2018, after authorities declined a visa renewal for senior Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet.
Demonstrators protest outside the immigration department building in Hong Kong on Oct 6, 2018, after authorities declined a visa renewal for senior Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Chinese officials urged Hong Kong media to help prevent "external forces" from challenging Beijing's authority, in the latest sign that the Communist Party was laying the ground for a tough new security law.

Hong Kong media executives received the warning during a visit to Beijing in the wake of the city's decision not to renew the visa of a Financial Times editor who hosted a Foreign Correspondents' Club speech by a pro-independence activist.

Mr Huang Kunming, the party's propaganda minister and a member of the 25-seat Politburo, said on Tuesday (Oct 16) that he hoped the media would help "prevent external forces from turning the city into a base for interfering with the mainland".

The comments were relayed by Mr Siu Sai-wo, a Hong Kong newspaper publisher who led the media delegation to the Chinese capital.

Mr Zhang Xiaoming, the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, defended the comments during a subsequent meeting on Thursday, Mr Siu said.

"It is nothing unusual for state leaders to send out kind reminders that Hong Kong should not be used as an anti-China and anti-Communist Party base," Mr Siu cited Mr Zhang as saying.

GROWING PRESSURE

The comments highlighted the growing pressure on Hong Kong's media in the Beijing government's widening campaign to limit dissent in the former British colony.

While the pro-Beijing officials have long complained about the influence of "external forces" - presumably United States and British organisations - the warnings carry greater weight after the city's rare decision not to renew Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet's work visa.

Underscoring such concerns was a controversy over Mr Siu's account of Mr Huang's remarks.

 
 
 
 

The newspaper executive initially said Mr Huang had warned the media against becoming a base itself for foreign interference, only to later retract and revise the comment.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association released a statement on Wednesday demanding participants explain what Mr Huang had said.

Still, the remarks fanned concerns that President Xi Jinping intends to use the controversy to pressure Hong Kong to enact security legislation that could put new limits on freedom of speech guaranteed before the city's return to China.

NEW LIMITS

The legislation, known as Article 23, requires the administration to enact laws that "prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the region".

In his meeting with media executives, Mr Zhang noted Hong Kong's failure to pass Article 23, as required by the city's Basic Law.

He also expressed support for Hong Kong's visa decision, which the city has so far declined to explain.

"They are laying the framework for Article 23," said Dr Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The city's leader Carrie Lam last week said she wants "to create a favourable social environment" before advancing the legislation.

The government abandoned plans to enact the laws in 2003 after half a million people took to the streets in protest.

Beijing and the Hong Kong administration have invoked the spectre of foreign interference in attempts to undercut local opposition before.

During mass pro-democracy protests in 2014, then-Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said without producing evidence he was convinced foreign forces had been meddling in the city's politics.