The cancellation of literary and artistic events and the refusal to allow a Financial Times editor to enter Hong Kong have reignited concern about freedom of expression in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
A last-minute decision Friday to reinstate the literary event illustrates the back-and-forth over this issue.
Hong Kong was promised semi-autonomy for 50 years as part of its 1997 handover from Great Britain, allowing it to retain rights to assembly and free speech that are denied on the Chinese mainland.
The suspected kidnapping in 2015 by Chinese security forces of publishers of sometimes salacious works on the country’s leaders and the prosecution of organizers of anti-Beijing protests have sparked concern about those rights.
A look at the three recent incidents and the effect they’re having on freedom of speech and civil rights:
A Hong Kong arts venue has decided to allow exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian to speak at a literary festival, after canceling his appearance earlier in the week.
The event was still off when Ma arrived in Hong Kong late Friday afternoon. He speculated to reporters that an unseen “black hand” was controlling the conditions under which he could appear.
“The lecture will definitely happen,” he said. “If there is a single Hong Kong person who is willing to listen, or a single reader who contacts me, I will be there.”
About two hours later, the Hong Kong International Literary Festival announced that the Tai Kwun Center for Heritage and Arts had decided to allow Ma to appear after all. He was to speak Saturday evening.
“The principles of free speech and cultural expression are central to our mission as an international literary festival,” a festival news release said, apologizing for the uncertainty over the past few days.
“We have reconsidered our position in light of the possibility that these events might be prevented from taking place altogether,” an unnamed Tai Kwun spokesperson said in the release.
Ma, 65, is known for his novels criticizing China’s ruling Communist Party. His six novels are banned in mainland China, and he has said that he has been unable to find a Chinese-language publisher in Hong Kong for his most recent work, “China Dream.”
The book, which has been compared to the works of George Orwell in its scathing description of authoritarian rule, has been published in English with a cover design by dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who also lives outside China.
The Financial Times earlier quoted Tai Kwun’s director Timothy Calnin as saying, “We do not want Tai Kwun to become a platform to promote the political interests of any individual.”
FINANCIAL TIMES EDITOR REFUSED ENTRY
The Financial Times said that its Asia news editor Victor Mallet had been turned away at the border on Thursday when he attempted to re-enter Hong Kong as a visitor.
That came after Mallet was forced to leave Hong Kong after the government refused to renew his work visa in apparent retaliation for his hosting a speaker at the Foreign Correspondents Club who led a now-banned political party advocating the territory’s independence from China.
Hong Kong’s immigration authority gave no explanation for his expulsion and on Friday responded with a statement saying it would “act in accordance with the laws and policies, and decide whether the entry will be allowed or refused after careful consideration of circumstances of each case.”
Hong Kong journalist groups have submitted a letter of protest to Hong Kong’s government over the expulsion, saying it boded ill for the territory’s reputation as a place ruled by law where freedom of speech is protected.
Rights groups have called the visa rejection the latest sign of Beijing’s expanding restrictions on the territory, including legal cases brought against pro-democracy legislators and organizers of large-scale anti-government protests in 2014.
ARTIST’S SHOW CALLED OFF AFTER ALLEGED THREATS
An exhibition by the Chinese-Australian artist known as Badiucao was canceled after organizers said in a statement that threats had been “made by the Chinese authorities relating to the artist.”
Hong Kong Free Press, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders — all groups frequently critical of China’s ruling Communist Party — were joint organizers of the event, titled “Gongle.”
They said in a joint statement that the exhibition had been canceled over “safety concerns”
Two members of the Russian activist band Pussy Riot was also due to appear, along with Joshua Wong, secretary-general of the opposition political party Demosisto and local political artist Sampson Wong.
Badiucao’s cartoons lampoon China’s leaders and the surveillance society they are establishing, and his website says he “uses his art to challenge the censorship and dictatorship in China.”
“He believes art and internet has the power to deconstruct the arrogance and authority of dictatorship as building block of individual awakening and free independence,” his site says.
Speaking earlier to Hong Kong Free Press, Badiucao said he wouldn’t be appearing at the exhibition for fear or being kidnapped or having his true identity revealed.
“I really admire artists and dissidents who are brave enough to do it openly. I see myself as a coward,” the website quoted him as saying. “But I try to explain to myself that I’m just an ordinary guy, I’m not as brave as a hero. And an ordinary guy also deserves a voice.”