HONG KONG -- The principle of "one country, two systems," agreed to by Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher to guarantee the special status of Hong Kong even after the return of sovereignty to China, is losing its luster in the eyes of many residents of the former British colony. The view seems especially prevalent in the realm of freedom of expression and the press.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association sounded another alarm on July 3 in the latest issue of its annual report, which was titled "One Country, Two Nightmares -- Hong Kong media caught in ideological battleground." Although the one country, two systems framework has been deteriorating over almost two decades since the handover, the local reporters organization is especially wary of "spillover to Hong Kong of Chinese ideological control," as witnessed in the disappearance of five local booksellers who sold publications banned on the mainland. Mak Yin-ting, a former chairwoman of the association and the editor of the annual report, spoke with the Nikkei Asian Review about the severity of the situation.
Q: The title of this year's report refers to nightmares, but wasn't it a nightmare already?
A: It is already a nightmare, but this time we are focusing on the nightmare of ideological control. In the past, [Beijing] was more focused on press freedom, as they thought media in Hong Kong were a "subversive base" and they had to "regain the Hong Kong media." But now they are coming at a wider spectrum, almost on every aspect related to ideological control -- culture, publication, media -- and taking a more proactive approach under [President] Xi Jinping. They have a more active role in buying up the media in Hong Kong [through buying] shares from them, and even building up lots of news websites in Hong Kong.
The disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers had a devastating effect on the territory's freewheeling publishing industry. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)
Q: How serious was the impact of the bookseller case on freedom of expression?
A: It definitely had a chilling effect on the freedom of publication and expression in Hong Kong. Since the incident, we heard that more publishers refuse to publish books regarded as sensitive by China. Even street shops are not selling.
Q: But freedom of expression has already been under pressure in recent years.
A: The Chinese government is doing this sector by sector. First in the media, and now it is the booksellers. Most books that are banned in mainland China come to Hong Kong for publishing, including memoirs by [former state leaders] Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng. No matter if you agree [with the content] or not, the most important thing is that they can come and get published.
We are free to publish everything in Hong Kong. If you think a publication has infringed on your rights, you can show it in court. But just taking away someone you think is jeopardizing your rights is not [part of] Hong Kong's system. The bookseller case, therefore, had an immense chilling effect.
Q: On June 14 -- when one of the missing booksellers, Lam Wing-kee, returned to Hong Kong -- a daughter of Gao Zhiseng, a prominent human rights lawyer under house arrest in the inland province of Shaanxi, came to Hong Kong from the U.S. to promote her father's memoir, which was somehow smuggled out. It was published and sold in Taiwan, but no Hong Kong booksellers were selling it.
A: That is a very vivid example. No publishers dare to publish this book in Hong Kong. You could only get it online or buy it in Taiwan. As a matter of fact, Gao's daughter came to Hong Kong first, because she was afraid that she would not be able to get into Hong Kong if she had her press conference first in Taiwan. Imagine how the system has spilled over to Hong Kong, and how the freedom of publication has been affected.
Q: Do you think Taiwan will be taking over the role of Hong Kong, especially now that the Democratic Progressive Party has replaced the mainland-friendly Nationalists?
A: Hong Kong still enjoys a geographic advantage in publishing those books, but yes, I can imagine more books could go to Taiwan. Even though you cannot publish them in Hong Kong, they could get published anywhere around the world. But the best way is to keep Hong Kong alive as a publication center.
Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
A: We always try not to say whether we are optimistic or pessimistic. We know that the situation is oppressive, and the role is difficult. But we have to fight for what we deserve and what we believe in. There still are battlefields to fight on.
Geng Ge, daughter of the prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, came to promote his memoir in Hong Kong. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)
Q: But you are fighting against the world's second largest economy; even Western democracies are hesitant go against it.
A: We see some backlash. Even though the U.K. government says it has entered a "golden age" with China, the Conservative Party published a report [on June 29] saying it is "the darkest moment" for Hong Kong. This means that even within the ruling party, [there are factions that] do not agree with the development in Sino-British [relations] that Prime Minister [David Cameron] has set forth. China [being] the second largest economy doesn't mean they can control everything.
Q: Brexit has forced Cameron to step down. Do you anticipate any impact on the so-called "golden age"?
A: We have to wait and see. But [the U.K.] has a moral obligation to Hong Kong as it has put Hong Kong on this path. The human rights report by the Conservative Party is a good sign. We hope the British government and the people will uphold the moral obligation toward Hong Kong and their obligations as an ally in the democratic world to speak out against suppression of human rights in China.
KENJI KAWASE, Nikkei deputy editor