The debarring of a would-be pro-democracy candidate in a forthcoming by-election for Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) and the denial of a visa to a Financial Times journalist show that Beijing is breaking its promise that the city's traditional freedoms would remain under Chinese rule, commentators said on Tuesday.
Last week, the Hong Kong Labour Party's would-be candidate Lau Siu-lai had her candidacy rejected by a returning officer, an administrative official charged with the orderly running of elections.
Lau has repeatedly denied that she supports the idea of self-determination for Hong Kong, which became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China in 1997.
Alleged separatist views have already been used as grounds to debar two other prominent opposition figures — Agnes Chow and Andy Chan.
But the returning officer claimed not to believe Lau, while Hong Kong's Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip said the pre-election screening process doesn't always allow applicants to put their case to officials.
Nip told pro-democracy lawmakers in LegCo on Tuesday that returning officers aren't obliged to allow applicants to speak up on their own behalf.
"It is not a necessary arrangement, it's up to the returning officers to decide," Nip said.
The city's High Court ruled in February after the decision to ban Andy Chan of the separatist Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) from running in elections that would-be candidates should be given a "reasonable opportunity" to respond to doubts about their loyalty to Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Political commentator Lam Kei said the ruling Chinese Communist Party isn't concerned with separatists so much as anyone with a strong, dissenting voice.
"The Chinese Communist Party isn't really going after separatists, but wants to shut down democracy indiscriminately, in breach of the  Sino-British Joint Declaration that promised no change for 50 years," Lam wrote in a commentary aired on RFA's Cantonese Service.
"It wants to turn Hong Kong into just another mainland Chinese city," he said.
Lam added: "The leaders claim to have been elected by the people and to represent the people, and that they are permitted to change the delineation of Chinese territory, but when those people themselves talk about having such rights, then how is this suddenly disloyalty? What kind of logic is that?"
Beginning of the end
Meanwhile, Keith Richburg, a former journalist with The Washington Post who directs the journalism school at the University of Hong Kong, said historians might view this summer as the beginning of the end of Hong Kong as a bastion of free speech and a free press.
"When people in the future look back at what was precipitated the death of Hong Kong, then this might look like the starting point, when things started going badly for freedom of expression and [the] free press," Richburg said.
He cited the rejection of a visa renewal application from Victor Mallet, the Financial Times' Hong Kong-based Asia editor, after he hosted a lunch event at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) at which the HKNP's Andy Chan was the speaker.
Mallet defended the FCC event in the face of open criticism and requests to cancel Chan's appearance. His visa renewal was later rejected without explanation, and he was given just seven days to leave the city.
"This is the first time ever a journalist has been told to leave the country, that they could not work here, that anybody can remember, so this definitely is a turning point," Richburg told RFA on Tuesday.
"Before, this was a place that anybody could come as a journalist to work, particularly those who were expelled from China, or who were not allowed to report from China or other parts of Asia, they would put themselves in Hong Kong, because this was always an open and free place," he said.
He said the denial of Mallet's renewal application was "a really dramatic step" that called into question the separate status of Hong Kong's administration under the "one country, two systems" formula promised before the handover to Chinese rule.
"For the very first time, the Hong Kong government ... has adopted the same tactics [as] on the mainland, which is using a journalist's visa to pressure a journalist, or try to send a message that you only work here at the behest of the government here, and that you can be kicked out, if you write or behave in a way that they don't like," Richburg said. "So to me that's a turning point."
He called on the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam to give a public explanation for the denial of Mallet's visa, and also to clarify the "red lines" within which officials expect journalists to operate now.
"We need real clarity on that, as well as some legal definition of what their so-called red lines are: What can you cover; what can't you cover ... whether or not they intend to use the work visa as a punishment or a tool of punishment for journalists as they do in the mainland," Richburg said.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.