Authorities in Hong Kong have rejected the visa renewal application of a Financial Times journalist who chaired a speaking event featuring a pro-independence politician at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) in August, effectively barring him from working in the city.
“The Hong Kong authorities have rejected an application to renew the work visa of Victor Mallet, Asia news editor at the Financial Times,” the newspaper said in a statement. “This is the first time we have encountered this situation in Hong Kong. We have not been given a reason for the rejection.”
Mallet was acting president of the FCC in August when the club invited Andy Chan, who heads the now-banned pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), to speak at a lunch event.
He defended the club's decision to invite Chan, and later revealed to journalists that he had been approached by a Chinese foreign ministry official who wanted him to cancel the event.
The Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) said it was "shocked and outraged" at the decision not to renew Mallet's visa.
"This is the first time a foreign journalist based in Hong Kong has been denied a work visa, raising questions that the incident was related to Mallet's work at the FCC," the group said in a statement on its Facebook page on Friday.
It said the fact that Mallet was the acting FCC chairman at the time, and given the Hong Kong government's direct, public criticism of the FCC's event mean "it is hard not to construe the government's rejection of his visa application at this juncture as a settling of accounts."
"Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are the cornerstones of Hong Kong's success," the HKJA said. "This rejection of a journalist's visa application is a further, and very serious, blow to those freedoms."
HKJA chairman Chris Yeung said the government appeared to be making an example of Mallet over the public discussion of independence for Hong Kong, a topic that is anathema to Beijing.
"It seems that they are making a scapegoat out of him by punishing the editor who hosted the FCC lunch debate with Andy Chan," Yeung said. "I think that Hong Kong will probably become exactly like mainland China in future, with the government suppressing freedom of the press."
"I think the concept of one country, two systems is dead," he said, in a reference to promises that Hong Kong's way of life would remain unchanged for at least 50 years under Chinese rule.
Chan said the move was "very clearly a settling of scores, and one that has severely encroached on freedom of speech and press freedom in Hong Kong."
"They want to make an example of him to warn everyone else that they can't talk about independence ever again," he told reporters on Friday. "I really think that press freedom and one country, two systems are over."
Freedom of speech shrinking
The HKJA, which hit out at shrinking freedom of speech in the former British colony in an annual report in July, called on the Hong Kong government to reverse and explain the reasons for its decision.
The report said the ruling Chinese Communist Party's insistence that Hong Kong enact sedition and subversion laws further criminalizing speech in the city represents a further, and severe, threat to the city's promised freedoms under the terms of the 1997 handover agreement.
Democracy campaigner Joseph Cheng, a former political science professor at Hong Kong's City University, said Hong Kong is increasingly a target of Beijing "stability maintenance" program aimed at stifling internal criticism of the government.
"Hong Kong is included in this stability maintenance work, because in the eyes of the Communist Party, most of the critical voices aimed in its direction have their origin in Hong Kong," Cheng said.
"Hong Kong is also the starting point, and a channel for, a lot of negative news about China," he said. "They are also very worried that the political opposition in Hong Kong will start influencing mainland China, and having an impact on its stability."
He hit out at the Hong Kong government for being so ready to cave in to pressure from Beijing.
"These concessions have affected Hong Kong's international image ... for example, [recent reports] have warned about interference by China in the city's rule of law in recent years," he said.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Jing Yuan, Hwang Chun-mei, and Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.