Beijing’s Expulsion of US Journalists Puts Hong Kong’s Press Freedoms Under Scrutiny

March 19, 2020 Updated: March 19, 2020

Beijing’s recent decision to expel American journalists has drawn widespread criticism, particularly in Hong Kong.

On March 18, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced “countermeasures” against the United States, expelling U.S. journalists based in China who work for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

China’s decision was made in retaliation against the U.S. State Department’s decision in early March to designate five Chinese state-run outlets as “foreign missions.” The Chinese outlets are “explicit propaganda organs of the Chinese Communist Party,” a State Department official said at the time.

The State Department also required those organizations to reduce the number of Chinese staff working in the United States.

In an unprecedented move, the ministry also said the U.S. journalists are barred from working in Macau and Hong Kong—two Chinese-ruled cities that were former colonies of Portugal and the United Kingdom, respectively.

Upon handover to China in 1999 and 1997, respectively, the Chinese regime adopted the “one country, two systems” model of governance in both cities, promising to preserve the autonomy and freedoms in the territories that aren’t afforded in the mainland.

However, locals have criticized Beijing for failing to abide by its commitment and continually encroaching on daily affairs—driving mass protests in Hong Kong that started in June last year.

In a statement on March 18, the Hong Kong government cited the Chinese foreign ministry’s countermeasures, but didn’t say definitively whether it would abide by the latter’s instructions.

“Foreign media organizations and journalists who cover stories in accordance with laws and regulations are always welcome in China, and will get continued facilitation and assistance,” it stated, adding that the Hong Kong government has been “facilitating media organizations and journalists from other countries to cover news in Hong Kong.”

It noted that Hong Kong’s immigration department “will consider the circumstances of the case and act in accordance with the laws and immigration policies.”

The Hong Kong government’s vague response to the expulsion sparked criticism.

Local pro-democracy party Demosisto, which was founded by activist Joshua Wong, slammed the Hong Kong government for its “incompetency in upholding the city’s autonomy to protect media freedoms.”

“When our #PressFreedom is under fire, this puppet government still boasts that “#Hongkong enjoys press freedom,” Demosisto wrote on Twitter.

Media organizations in Hong Kong also voiced concerns following Beijing’s announcement.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong said it was alarmed by the expulsion, noting that under Hong Kong’s constitution, decisions about issuing visas to foreign nationals are “made independently” by Hong Kong’s immigration department, according to its March 18 statement.

It warned that if the immigration department can’t independently make its decisions, it would “represent a serious erosion” of one country, two systems.

On March 19, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) stated that Beijing should “not interfere with the internal affairs of Hong Kong.”

Beijing’s decision will “raise doubts about whether Hong Kong is still a free and open society,” affecting the city’s international image, the HKJA said.

Several Hong Kong politicians have also criticized Beijing. Alan Leong, chairman of the pro-democracy Civic Party, wrote on Facebook that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) consistently fails to understand what is the “fourth estate.”

Local lawmaker Claudia Mo wrote on Twitter that the expulsion aimed to “tell Hong Kong to do what the BIG BOSS orders.”

International rights groups and U.S. lawmakers also condemned Beijing’s decision.

Amnesty International called it a “shameful assault on freedom of expression,” and said the expulsion could “potentially have grim public health consequences—globally and within China,” as the public deals with the current pandemic.

Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, pointed out that Beijing’s censorship enabled the disease’s spread in the first place.

“The despotic control of news and information by Beijing had a very negative impact at the starting point of this coronavirus epidemic,” he said in a statement about the expulsion.

U.S. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said Beijing’s move was a “short-sighted and blatant attempt to tighten state control of information in China” and a “clear violation of Hong Kong’s right to self-governance of local affairs,” according to a statement.

“I urge the Hong Kong government to ignore this prohibition on certain foreign journalists. Hong Kong must continue to uphold the free and open media environment that has made Hong Kong a great city,” he said.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer