As the physical border between Hong Kong and mainland China appears to blur, the space for dissenting views is rapidly shrinking, too. Last month, authorities in Hong Kong barred Victor Mallet, a British journalist working for the Financial Times, from entering the city after refusing to renew his work visa in October. Officials have offered no explanation for denying Mallet’s visa. But his difficulties arose only after he moderated a panel in August at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club with Andy Chan Ho-tin, a pro-independence activist, despite demands by Hong Kong and Beijing officials to cancel the event. Chan’s Hong Kong National Party was banned in September by the government on national-security grounds, the first such expulsion since the 1997 reunification.
Additionally, a show by a well-known Chinese political artist, Badiucao, scheduled as part of a week of free-expression events was abruptly pulled after “threats made by the Chinese authorities relating to the artist,” organizers said. And Ma Jian, a Chinese dissident writer, had two of his Hong Kong International Literary Festival speaking events at a government-backed arts center canceled. The venue said it did not want to be a platform for “political interests,” but ultimately reversed course and allowed the author to speak after outcry from free-speech advocates.
And last week, the trial of nine leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy “Occupy” protests continued. They are facing public-nuisance charges in closely watched proceedings that underscore Beijing’s efforts to politicize Hong Kong’s courts. Each faces up to seven years in prison and has pleaded not guilty. The trial marks a continuation of the legal fallout for those behind the “Umbrella Movement,” which brought tens of thousands of demonstrators into the streets of Hong Kong for rallies that drew comparisons to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
“The whole thing is to make sure that Hong Kong is not a particularly outstanding identity at the end of the day,” Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy Hong Kong lawmaker who has been a vocal critic of the infrastructure projects and an outspoken press-freedom advocate, told me.
People in Hong Kong say they have few options of recourse through the political system. There are no free elections in selecting the region’s highest office; instead, Beijing wields significant influence on who gets the job, and what his agenda will be. “If they want something done in Hong Kong,” Mo said, referring to Chinese authorities, “they just do it.”
Despite these grievances, Hong Kong maintains a complicated, and codependent, relationship with the mainland. China has been Hong Kong’s largest trading partner for more than 30 years and, in turn, Hong Kong is China’s third-largest trading partner, behind only the United States and Japan. The quasi-autonomous city has long served as an important bridge between the mainland and the larger global economy, and so preserving its political status is also expedient for Beijing. But there are fears that as Chinese cities like Shanghai grow in importance, Hong Kong’s position—and the freedom that comes with it—will diminish.