U.S. senators on Nov. 19 condemned an arson attack on the Hong Kong Epoch Times’ printing shop, saying it was part of a “disturbing trend” and the latest evidence that the Chinese regime won’t uphold its promise to allow autonomy in the territory.
The lawmakers made the comments shortly after the Senate unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which they said would be a strong message to Beijing that suppression and violence aren’t the answer to the people of Hong Kong. Protesters have taken to the streets since June to oppose what they see as Beijing’s steady erosion of the city’s basic freedoms.
Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under the express guarantee that its autonomy would be preserved.
In the early hours on Nov. 19 local time, four masked assailants, including two carrying batons, carried containers filled with a flammable liquid into the printing warehouse of the Hong Kong edition of The Epoch Times. They poured the liquid onto the floor, printing machines, and nearby stacks of papers, before setting it on fire. The incident is suspected to be the latest intimidation tactic of the Chinese Communist Party to discourage The Epoch Times from reporting on topics that could be sensitive to the Chinese regime.
The Epoch Times has been a leading voice in independent reporting on the protests in Hong Kong in recent months.
In response to the incident, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said, “Any assault on the freedom of the press is an assault of the liberty that was promised to the people of Hong Kong.”
“It’s an assault to the basic function of a democracy.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that he was “not surprised,” but “very disappointed” to see such actions taking place.
“Suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press is the first task of tyrants, and I think that’s exactly what they’re trying to do,” he said.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said that the fire served as an example of the “impetus” for him and his colleagues to pass the bill. He went on to note the ongoing suppression of religious minorities in China, including Muslim-practicing Uyghurs and other minorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, and of freedom of expression—all of which “has been very much in the wrong direction in China.”
“Only a totalitarian regime is afraid of what is written by the press,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “If you have truth on your side, you’re never afraid about being written by the press.
“That in and of itself is another concerning violation of the type of basic rights we support in the United States.”
The fire damaged two printing machines, four rolls of printing paper, and several stacks of newspapers in the facility. A day after the attack, some machines were still being repaired, and the amount of the loss from the fire was yet to be assessed.
Cheryl Ng, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong edition, said the attack was a “crime against press freedom in Hong Kong” and suggested it was yet another intimidation tactic from the Chinese regime.
In Hong Kong, there has long been a pattern of physical and verbal attacks on pro-democracy activists or vocal critics of the Chinese regime.
On the same day as the arson attack, at around 7 p.m., several masked men assaulted former lawmaker Albert Ho with clubs, injuring his head, back, and both arms. The incident lasted for several minutes, according to local media.
Ho is the chairman of a pro-democracy group called the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, and former chairman of the Democratic Party. He was discharged from the hospital after undergoing surgery.
“We are one of the newspapers that really gives out the truth and really reports the real situation here,” Ng said.
The Hong Kong branch has for years been a target of the Chinese Communist Party for its extensive and truthful coverage that’s been critical of the regime.
In September 2006, for example, local intelligence agents kidnapped a computer technician working for the Hong Kong edition while he was visiting Zhuhai City, Guangdong Province in mainland China; he was forced to become a special agent and sabotage the Hong Kong Epoch Times.
Earlier this year, the popular chain store 7-Eleven abruptly removed the Hong Kong edition’s newspaper from its shelves without an explanation, even as sales well exceeded the minimum target. The chain’s 500 stores had been the paper’s chief distribution channel. Cédric Alviani, East Asia bureau director at Reporters Without Borders, said at the time that they “can’t see any reason but the pressure from the Chinese authorities for this withdrawal.”
The Hong Kong Journalists Association condemned the arson attack and called on the police to “seriously handle” the fire incident.
Chris Yeung, chairperson of the association, said in an interview that the attack was a “direct threat” to the press, and urged a strong message from the government that such conduct is “absolutely unacceptable.”
“It’s an exceptionally violent conduct and a serious breach of the law,” Yeung told The Epoch Times. “In similar incidents targeting the media in the past, it seems that the government had not been able to quickly make a breakthrough in the investigation, and this actually is condoning the increasingly serious illegal activities.”
The incident wasn’t the first time the printing operations have been attacked. In February 2006, four thugs broke into the factory and smashed a plate-making machine worth 1 million Hong Kong dollars (about $128,000), forcing the factory to temporarily suspend operations.
The director of the Hong Kong edition, Guo Jun, said that the paper wouldn’t back down despite the threats. After the arson attack, the Hong Kong edition published its Nov. 20 issue as scheduled.
That day, seven out of 10 major Hong Kong newspapers ran a front-page advertisement that portrayed protesters as rioters. The same ad, appealing to voters to “oppose rioting” ahead of local district elections to be held Nov. 24, also appeared on front pages of at least six newspapers on Nov. 12, the morning after police had fired about 3,000 rounds of tear gas and other projectiles on a university campus.
Pro-democracy activist Ho suggested that the arson showed a growing recognition of the newspaper’s role as an independent voice.
“If you are not successful and influential, others won’t see the need to deal with you,” Ho said in an interview. “Because your words are powerful, some people are feeling pressured or threatened, and thus they want to scare you and make you back down.”
Emel Akan contributed to this report.