Hong Kong's crackdown leaves journalists struggling to find jobs

Police officers standing guard while evidence is collected at Hong Kong's Stand News office, on Dec 29, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Six months ago, Pak was a finance reporter for one of Hong Kong's best-read tabloids. Now, he's a coffee shop barista in London, after the collapse of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily under a national security probe left him jobless and several of his bosses facing life in prison.

"The shutdown of Apple Daily was definitely the last straw that led to the decision," said Pak, 33, who asked to only be identified by his first name due to safety concerns. "As a veteran, I simply could not find a suitable position that I would fit without worrying about my integrity and personal safety."

At least 1,562 Hong Kong civil society jobs have been lost so far to the government's crackdown on dissent under a Beijing-imposed national security law, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News drawn from scores of phone calls and emails to impacted parties, as well as local news reports.

More than 60 organisations including media companies, trade unions, political bodies, and religious and human rights groups have disbanded in the past year, under intense pressure from national security police.

"This has a massive cost that cannot easily be expressed in numbers," Lokman Tsui, a former journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said by email. "I see an entire generation of young people wondering what the future for independent, critical reporting in Hong Kong looks like," he said.

While just a small sliver of the financial hub's overall market, the job losses come as the city's economy faces increasing challenges caused by a Covid Zero strategy that's largely kept borders shut and raised questions about the city's future as a global finance hub.

Growth is set to slow further as the city seeks to snuff out Omicron cases, Financial Secretary Paul Chan said this month.

Many of the newly unemployed have struggled to find jobs or were forced to change professions, according to interviews with a dozen people who lost their jobs.

Some have become taxi drivers or food delivery workers, while one person opened a fast food restaurant. A former Apple Daily writer said applicants to his consultancy firm often ask if he'd be arrested, too. Others, like Pak, quit the city entirely.

Those who leave Hong Kong often face language barriers while those who stay must deal with the stigma of a national security probe, said Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

"I don't think it is easy for them to move forward, even if they emigrate," he said. "I would describe it as a disastrous situation."

In an e-mailed statement responding to questions, the Hong Kong government said the security law had "restored stability and increased the confidence in Hong Kong, thereby allowing the city to resume its normal operation and return to the path of development."

"In 2021, the number of business operations in Hong Kong with parent companies outside Hong Kong and the number of start-ups in Hong Kong both reached record highs," the government statement added. "All these will also contribute to additional job opportunities for the people of Hong Kong."

Biggest blow

The city's once-freewheeling media scene has suffered the most, accounting for some 1,115 - or 71 per cent - of job losses, including full-time and part-time positions, according to data complied by Bloomberg News.

That means roughly 20 per cent of media workers for Chinese-language organisations in the city have lost their jobs in the past 12 months.

Stand News, which chronicled the pro-democracy protests in 2019, announced last month it would immediately close and lay off all staff, after national security police raided the online portal's newsroom. That cost 60 jobs, according to Chan.

Police officers escorting then Stand News acting chief editor Patrick Lam on Dec 29, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Less than a week later, Citizen News shuttered amid security fears, losing another 40 positions.

The latest closures came six months after the shutdown of Apple Daily and its parent company, Next Digital Ltd, stripped the city of some 1,000 jobs.

Just under half of Apple Daily journalists transitioned into public relations, finance and content creation roles, according to job movements observed by Asia-based media relations platform Telum Media, its East Asia Director Nick Thorpe said.

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Vacancies in those industries have soared amid population outflows, he added.

Hong Kong's population saw a 1.2 per cent decline over the past 12 months, amid pandemic curbs and the changing political environment.

Others spoke of needing to recover from the "trauma" of the security probes. They said they're embracing the "lying flat" social protest movement, which has seen millennials in mainland China opt out of work and the pressures of society.

"I just want to live a leisurely life without paying attention to anything," said Wing, 30, a former reporter who asked to be identified by their given name. "I want to find a part-time job. I watch the news a lot less. I don't have any personal goals. I just want to live a safe life."

Almost everybody interviewed knew at least four former colleagues who had moved abroad, either permanently or to study. Many had relocated to the UK, Canada, or Australia, which have offered special visa arrangements for those looking to leave the city.

Civil society

Previously, journalists looking for a career change might seek out political or academic roles, said Grace Leung, a media lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. But those jobs are also facing government scrutiny.

"It's difficult to estimate the human cost, but it will definitely create immediate pressure on the job market," she said.

The collapse of the Professional Teachers' Union in August cost 200 jobs, while 230 people were let go when the Confederation of Trade Unions folded in October.

Amnesty International announced in October it was leaving Hong Kong, taking some 15 jobs with it, the organisation said in an emailed response.

More than 60 organisations including media companies have disbanded in the past year, under intense pressure from national security police. PHOTO: REUTERS

Alfred Wu, an associate professor specialising in Hong Kong at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said that in future "it's likely all civil society jobs will have to match the government's position, unlike in the past when they could be independent."

The HKJA has distributed over HK$356,700 (S$61,650) in aid to 654 former journalists over a seven-week period last summer, while some 150 former employees of Next Digital have sought to recoup lost wages from the Labour Department, it confirmed in a written response to Bloomberg News.

Chan, the HKJA chairman who lost his job as a reporter when Stand News fell, said he already missed being a journalist.

"But you need to accept the things you have to do may not be the things you want to do," he added.

That's a reality Pak, the coffee shop worker in London, knows well. "There might be people who are willing to give up their integrity or genuinely believe in the ideology of the Communist Party," he said.

"Having said that, the fundamental value and impact of the industry will be forever changed," he added. "And I am not interested to be a part of it."

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