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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

After Stabbing, Fears Grow About Hong Kong Media Freedom

Pro-democracy activists hold a sign with an image of former chief editor of the Ming Pao daily Kevin Lau Chun-to as they attend a candlelight vigil at a hospital, to urge the police to solve the stabbing incident involving Lau, on February 26, 2014 in Hong Kong. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

Pro-democracy activists hold a sign with an image of former chief editor of the Ming Pao daily Kevin Lau Chun-to as they attend a candlelight vigil at a hospital, to urge the police to solve the stabbing incident involving Lau, on February 26, 2014 in Hong Kong. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

The former editor of the Hong Kong daily newspaper Ming Pao is fighting for his life after being stabbed in Hong Kong this morning by an assailant on a motocycle.

Kevin Lau Chun-to was editor of the newspaper when it took part in an investigation published last month that exposed offshore tax havens that have helped the relatives of Chinese leaders hide wealth.

His removal as editor and his stabbing are prompting concerns about media freedom in Hong Kong, as China’s influence grows over the semi-autonomous territory.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Shirley Yam, vice-chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, and James Fallows, a longtime China watcher and national correspondent for The Atlantic.

Guests

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And there was an attack in Hong Kong today that ordinarily wouldn't make headlines in this country, but it did because it was an attack on a journalist who's investigated China's leaders. Now, just to remind you, Hong Kong was a British colony that was handed back to China in 1997 but remains a special administrative region, which is supposed to have freedom of the press.

So let's get to that attack. Kevin Lau Chun-to was stabbed this morning. He was an editor at Ming Pao, which was a newspaper that, last month, helped to expose offshore tax havens used by relatives of China's leaders to hide wealth. He lost his job after that report.

Joining us now is Shirley Yam, vice-chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. Shirley, welcome.

SHIRLEY YAM: Thanks for having us.

HOBSON: Well, tell us more about Mr. Lau, first of all.

YAM: I've known Kevin for 30 years. We come from the same university. He is (unintelligible) journalist. He's certainly a very gentle personality. And knowing his background and his character, I simply cannot think of any reason why he get attacked.

HOBSON: So why do you think it happened then?

YAM: Our suspicion is that largely to do with the news coverage of Ming Pao. It has done lots of investigative reports recently. Ming Pao is the only news organization in Greater China that was invited by the ICIJ, which is an international investigative journalist organization, to investigate on the asset transfer overseas by China's state leaders and then prints things. So this is the type of publication Ming Pao is.

HOBSON: What is it like right now to be a reporter in Hong Kong?

YAM: Well, it is certainly very stressful in a sense that there is not just the threat of physical violence, there is also the invisible violence that we are seeing that comes in different form of sub-censorships. Interview ideas were barred. Some academics were blacklist, which means journalists should not speak to them or ask for their comment. Photos were added. Headlines were changed for different reasons and to please different persons.

HOBSON: So the idea that Hong Kong is this special administrative region that has more relaxed laws on press freedom than China - than Mainland China does - is not exactly the case.

YAM: If you're comparing to Mainland China, that's a very low starting point. But, of course, we do enjoy a much better press freedom than in the Mainland China. But if you compared with what the basic law - that is our mini-constitutions - has promised us, that is quite different. The mini-constitutions promised us press freedom. But in reality, as I've just said, it's quite different.

HOBSON: Just one last question. In the big picture, do you think that the Chinese government, right now, is opening up more or cracking down when it comes to free speech?

YAM: Let me tell you a story from one of those veteran journalists.

HOBSON: Sure.

YAM: They can speak face to face to Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang. That is the state leader in the '80s. We can no longer do that nowadays.

HOBSON: Shirley Yam is vice-chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. Shirley, thank you so much for joining us.

YAM: Thanks.

HOBSON: And for more on this, let's bring in someone who spent years in China. His latest book is "China Airborne." He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. James Fallows joins us. And, James, what do you make of what Shirley said there?

JAMES FALLOWS: I thought she put it in good perspective. On the one hand, the situation in Hong Kong is markedly different from the rest of Mainland China where there's not even a pretense of the free press, although some journalists do try hard to push at the fringes. On the other hand, the situation in China as a whole has been darkening recently in all kinds of freedom of expression issues, and that seems to be spilling over into Hong Kong.

Until recently, the main concern has been self-censorship. The firing of Mr. Lau earlier this year was a sign of something more than that. And, of course, if there is physical violence involved, then that's something even further. We don't know the exact cause of this episode, but that's the general picture.

HOBSON: Well, but isn't Hong Kong supposed to be a place where there still is press freedom? It does seem pretty alarming to have not just this attack, but others as well.

FALLOWS: Yes. Certainly, on the one hand, it is very different. As soon as you cross the border from Mainland China into Hong Kong, you notice that the press is much more raucous, and things still work differently there from the way they do in the mainland. It's in some ways to the advantage of the Beijing government to have Hong Kong operate on different, more international terms for the integrity of its financial system and all of that; it's is a way that the government can have it both ways. But there's been - in the last two years or so, criticism of all sorts seems to have been more under pressure within China, and that's spilling over into Hong Kong. On the other hand, there are huge mass protests about it there which just cannot happen in the mainland.

HOBSON: Now, we reached out for this story not just to Shirley Yam, who did speak with us, but to several news organizations. They didn't want us to talk to their people in Hong Kong about this episode. What does that tell you?

FALLOWS: I think that's one more point in this pattern of whether it's just seeming not worthwhile to rock the boat or make trouble for people and organizations in Hong Kong. Again, I should be clear, Hong Kong still, it seems dramatically different from a comparable city in the mainland. The universities still operate like real universities. There is a real electoral system. But it's the longer term trend of whether it just seems to be causing problems.

If there's things you know the mainland government doesn't want, especially investigations into the personal and family wealth of its politically powerful people, it just can become - there's an increasing in constriction there.

HOBSON: James Fallows, as you know, China seems very far away to a lot of Americans. You've done a great job in writing and trying to bring that world a little closer to us. But why should Americans care about this?

FALLOWS: It's - there is not an immediate impact on anything we do day by day. But I think that the Hong Kong situation is - it's in parallel with what's happening in Beijing and Shanghai, an indication of the next stage in development in China. It's always been a myth to imagine that as China got richer, it'll become naturally a liberal Western democracy. And people who assumed that didn't - hadn't paid closed enough attention. But in the long run it will matter in how we deal with China and how China exerts its influence around the world.

And I think the nervousness of the new government of Xi Jinping in China - now a year-plus old - on these matters of criticism suggests that it no longer cares about really winning a lot of friends in the Western world. That soft power charm initiative doesn't really matter so much. Solidifying his control within China and avoiding personal exposes of the leading families, that's more important to it now.

HOBSON: James Fallows, long-time China watcher. He's a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and his latest book about China is called "China Airborne." James Fallows, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you.

HOBSON: And that expose about Chinese leaders and where they're keeping their money that was published last month, we've got a link at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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