Repeated Blows to Free Speech Spark Outcry in Hong Kong

china-majian-110918.jpg Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian waves to reporters after arriving in Hong Kong, Nov. 9, 2018.

A second venue in Hong Kong pulled out of hosting a literary event by dissident Chinese author Ma Jian, after immigration authorities in Hong Kong allowed him to enter the city under its visa-free visitor program.

"I was let through. No problem," Ma said via his Twitter account after landing in Hong Kong on Friday. But he added: "Just heard that the second venue has pulled out of hosting my talks."

Hong Kong's Tai Kwun Arts and Heritage Centre canceled Ma's Hong Kong International Literary Festival (HKILF) event, in which Ma plans to discuss his latest book China Dream, a biting satire of President Xi Jinping's concept of a resurgent China.

But the venue apparently changed its mind and reinstated the event on Friday after a public outcry, the HKILF said in a statement on Facebook.

"The Festival is pleased to announce that ... Tai Kwun are now offering to host the events as scheduled. We are delighted to be able to hold our events with Ma Jian tomorrow as planned," it said.

"The principles of free speech and cultural expression are central to our mission as an international literary festival," it said.

Tai Kwun said it had "reconsidered our position in light of the possibility that these events might be prevented from taking place altogether."

Ma said: "I am pleased that Tai Kwun has reconsidered, and I am looking forward to speaking about my book, China Dream," according to the HKILF statement.

Ma, who is described in the festival's promotional material as "China's answer to Orwell, Swift and Solzhenitsyn," had earlier tweeted that he had no political agenda other than freedom of speech, and Tai Kwun said this "clarification" had contributed to its change of heart.

Entry to Hong Kong refused

But the reinstatement of Ma's event will likely do little quell concerns over vanishing freedoms in Hong Kong.

The cancellations came as Hong Kong immigration authorities refused a visitor entry stamp to the Financial Times' Asia news editor Victor Mallet, who had had his work permit revoked after hosting a discussion event featuring pro-independence politician Andy Chan in August in spite of requests to cancel from ruling Chinese Communist Party officials.

Mak Yin-ting, former chair of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA), said the refusal of entry to Mallet was unprecedented.

"If Mallet isn't even allowed in as a visitor, then that suggests even more strongly that there are political considerations at play in the background," Mak told RFA. "It gives the impression that Hong Kong is pretty similar ... to the rest of mainland China."

"Maybe I could even be refused entry illegally to Hong Kong at some point in the future," Mak said. "Maybe they will seek to punish any dissenting voices in that way."

Meanwhile, Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui hit out at Tai Kwun's decision, which he attributed to the venue's ultimate owners, the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

"It seems that in its management of Tai Kwun, the Jockey Club is willing to sacrifice freedom of speech and expression in Hong Kong," Hui told reporters on Friday during a protest outside the arts venue on Friday.

"The Jockey Club has shown it is subject to political pressure and interference, because it wouldn't allow Ma Jian's event to go ahead at this venue," he said. "The Jockey Club itself also self-censors in order to minimize its political risk."

Decisions made 'according to law'

The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which dates back to the dawn of colonial era horse-racing in 1884, is the city's largest community benefactor, operating as a not-for-profit organization and funding venues, clinics, and community projects.

Hong Kong's secretary for security John Lee declined on Friday to comment on individual cases, but said immigration officers make their decisions "according to law."

"The Immigration Department will always consider the specific circumstances of each case, and make decisions based on Hong Kong laws and established policies," Lee told journalists in response to the decision to refuse entry to Mallet.

"The number of overseas visitors is almost 60 million [annually]; some are approved for entry, and some are not," he said. "It is normal for the immigration department to carry out immigration controls."

Democratic Party lawmakers protested the decision on Friday, saying Lee's explanation was unacceptable.

"We protest political pressure! We want freedom of the press back!" they shouted, calling on the city's chief executive Carrie Lam to apologize and explain the decision to deny Mallet entry.

Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan said the decision had dealt a severe blow to freedom of speech in the city, which was promised the continuation of its existing freedoms under the terms of the 1997 handover to China.

"I think that this is very bad news that will cause huge concern in the international community over whether Hong Kong really has free speech, and whether the immigration regime will be used to suppress it," Wan said.

"Are foreign correspondents terrorists, or some kind of scourge, that they should be treated in this way?"

Veteran journalist Claudia Mo said the latest developments show that Beijing is keen to turn Hong Kong into just another Chinese city sooner rather than later.

"The Mallet incident, the cancellation of the exhibition by [satirical cartoonist] Badiucao [last week], and the cancellation of Ma Jian's literary event are similar in that they are effectively a ban on their speech," Mo said.

"These red lines, that exist in the imagination of Carrie Lam, have clearly been drawn by Beijing, and we know for sure now that they can be moved," she said. "Hong Kong is getting closer and closer to the end [of free speech]."

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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