A subtle revision to official media guidelines has caused an outcry over the state of democracy in Hong Kong. On Wednesday September 23rd, the Hong Kong police force announced their decision to limit access to restricted areas and press briefings to outlets registered with the government and those recognized internationally. Freelance journalists, student reporters, and other local media associations can now be banned from covering police-controlled events and press conferences. Journalists and industry experts have criticized the new restrictions as an attack on press freedom. But this is only the latest in a series of incidences pointing to the criminalization of dissent in Hong Kong’s eroding democracy.
To examine Hong Kong’s democratic failures, it is first important to draw a contrast with its uniquely democratic history. Due to the “one country, two systems” model, Hong Kong has enjoyed considerable political autonomy since the handover from Britain in 1997. The model proposed by Deng Xiaoping is supposed to guarantee Hong Kongers various civil and political liberties for 50 years. Article 27 of the Basic Law, which serves as Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, assures freedom of the press. However, the new restrictions on access to police-controlled events and conferences blatantly violates this law. Freedom of the press is being repealed in Hong Kong.
With the new regulation, who is regarded as an official ‘media representative’ has been altered. Prior to the revision, media representatives were defined as reporters, photographers, and camera crews who had proof of identity issued by individual press agencies, or a membership card issued by the Hong Kong Journalists Association or the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association. The revision redefines media representatives as reporters, photographers, and camera crews who have proof of identity issued by the Government News and Media Information System (GNMIS), or globally reputable media agencies. This subtle change means a world of difference for local journalists in Hong Kong. It means that freelance journalists and student reporters are no longer recognized as media representatives. While these unrecognized journalists can theoretically cover a protest, the police force are not required to support them. The “operational efficiency” of the Hong Kong police force is being prioritized over the freedom of the press. Political dissent, and the unobstructed coverage of it by local news agencies and freelance journalists, is being criminalized.
Why are press freedom and political dissent vital for a healthy democracy? One can look to Dahl’s notion of responsiveness for an answer. This idea refers to the responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens. In order to have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of the government, citizens must have access to “alternative sources of information”, that is, a breadth of information sources that are not controlled by the government, and sources that are not self-censored due to pressure from the government. Due to this new police regulation, the citizenry will only be exposed to media sources approved by the Chinese government. This ensures that the information disseminated is more partial and pro-China than ever before. If having alternative sources of information is a condition for a healthy democracy, this new restriction on press freedom positions Hong Kong in danger of democratic backsliding.
This certainly isn’t the first time civil and political liberties in Hong Kong are being curbed. On 30th June earlier this year, the day before the 23rd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, a new national security law was passed. Details of the law’s 66 articles were kept a secret until coming into effect. It criminalizes any act of:
- Secession = breaking away from the country
- Subversion = undermining the power and authority of the central government
- Terrorism = using violence or intimidation against people (including damaging public transport)
- Collusion with foreign actors
People suspected of breaking the law can be wire-tapped and put under strict surveillance. And many of them will be extradited to mainland China, where courts convict 99.9% of defendants. All of these “crimes” can result in life sentences in prison. Yes, you read that right. Political dissent is considered a crime punishable by life in prison.
But why is Beijing doing this? Because it fears any challenge to Chinese authority. Since the pro-democracy Yellow Umbrella movement in 2014, China has cracked down on independent thought and dissent in Hong Kong. These attempts to maintain CCP control of the nation relate to Bermeo’s notion of executive aggrandizement. This occurs when executives weaken checks on their power one by one, undertaking a series of institutional changes, such as limiting free speech and media freedoms, to impede opposition forces from challenging authority. In this case, the ‘opposition force’ is the Hong Kong people fighting for democracy.
Critics have called this new national security law “the end of Hong Kong”. It would be more accurate to call it “the end of Hong Kong’s democracy”. However, the former still stands. Hong Kong is democracy. The city is defined by its separate status as a special administrative region of China, enjoying unique political autonomy and civil liberties. The demise of free speech, the criminalization of dissent, and the new restrictions on press freedom, will diminish the appeal of doing business in Hong Kong. Since foreigners are also subject to the security law, travel to Hong Kong will be affected. The city’s position as Asia’s trading hub, financial center, and tourism hotspot, hangs in the balance. As does its freedoms.