A vibrant media landscape will ease fears over Hong Kong’s Article 23 law

Mar 31, 2024
Hong Kong Chief Executive, Mr John Lee, center, Secretary for Justice, Mr Paul Lam, SC, (left ), and Secretary for Security, Mr Tang Pink Keung(right) hold a press conference on Safeguarding National Security Basic Law Article 23 Legislation Public Consultation at the Auditorium, Ground Floor, Central Government Offices, 2 Tim Mei Avenue, Tamar, Hong Kong, China, 30 January, 2024 Photo via Image: Alamy/Newscom/Alamy Live News

People in Hong Kong, particularly the media, should still be allowed to voice diverse opinions and criticism without fear of retribution – as long as it is fair and fact-based. This will help mitigate the concern of people considering a move to the city and show ‘one country, two systems’ is still alive and well.

In numerology, 23 is a lucky number which has motifs associated with transformation, progress, harmony and making good things happen. Others refer to the concept of the “23 enigma”, which has been popularised by various books, films and conspiracy theories. Indeed, it may well be a symbol of something larger, with hidden significance, at least according to my cursory Google search of the subject.

One thing is certain: the number 23 does have far-reaching and historic significance for Hong Kong. On March 19, Hong Kong’s lawmakers unanimously passed the city’s domestic national security law, under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini constitution.

Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu announced that the law would take effect on March 23. He decided to fast-track the constitutionally mandated legislation, which had been shelved for more than two decades, following a trip to Beijing. There, he attended the opening ceremony of the annual plenary session of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), which began on March 5.

The number on Lee’s NPC attendance badge was 0023. Whether this was randomly assigned or intentional remains unclear. But, in a modern city that remains superstitious about numbers, 23 has certainly taken on new significance.

The ramifications of Article 23 legislation cannot be overstated. Beijing’s direct imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020 has already caused widespread jitters among foreign businesses, whose executives are worried about a potential loss of freedoms in the city.

Article 23 legislation is more comprehensive and is aimed at filling the gaps in the Beijing-imposed national security law, which covers only four categories: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces. The domestic security law will also cover treason, theft of state secrets or espionage, and foreign political bodies and organisations operating in the city.

Hong Kong’s move came after Beijing’s pivot to national security on the mainland, where authorities have conducted unannounced raids on foreign businesses, including consultancies and due diligence firms which authorities believed may have been involved in activities harming China’s national security.

Lee has said that the city’s new law meets international standards and protects rights and freedoms. But many people in the city remain sceptical, with concerns particularly acute among foreign banks, hedge funds, research companies and media outlets.

As a journalist who worked in Hong Kong for 30 years and now teaches journalism at Baptist University, I share the widespread worries about the future of the city’s media industry. It is true that the era of a diverse and freewheeling media sector is now gone. And it is understandable that some people have despaired of the Hong Kong media’s future.

But I refuse to give up. Hong Kong-based journalists should not frighten themselves into submission. Instead, they should hold the Hong Kong and central governments to their pledge that normal, fact-based reporting activities should continue as usual.

I understand the scepticism about whether Hong Kong’s media and others in the city will be able to make Beijing honour its promise, and its past track record does not augur well. But what is the alternative for journalists if we don’t try to defend our rights and freedoms?

The new law appears to have set very narrow parameters for Hong-Kong-based media to operate. However, journalists should continue their normal fact-based reporting activities to test the boundaries.

One litmus test is whether the Hong Kong media can continue to criticise the Communist Party, the Chinese government or even the Hong Kong government in future. This is something I have been asked recently by quite a few Hong Kong journalists as well as my students.

My answer is a definite yes. Hong Kong’s media serving as a watchdog to investigate and report on government overreach and hold officials responsible for their actions is critical to increase accountability in the city’s governance system. A trickier issue could be Hong Kong media reports on mainland China’s politics.

Back in the 1980s, China’s leader Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the “one country, two systems” concept, told Hong Kong visitors that people in the city would be allowed to criticise the party after the handover in 1997 and should be counted as “patriots” as long as they loved the motherland and Hong Kong.

Even with the two national security laws taking effect, Deng’s words still ring true more than 40 years later. People in Hong Kong, particularly the media, should be allowed to voice their diverse opinions, including criticising the party without the fear of retribution – or even worse – as long as their criticism is fair and fact-based. Fierce critics are often patriots who want Hong Kong and mainland China to improve.

Hong Kong’s leaders have said that the Article 23 legislation would allow the city to move forward without worry or burden, and focus on growing the economy and improving people’s livelihoods. For the city to get back its mojo and restore faith in Asia’s financial hub, it needs global talent. However, many such people have been hesitant to come because of the persistent negative reports about Hong Kong’s freedoms.

A vibrant media sector can help ease the fears of people considering a move here and serve as a much-needed example that “one country, two systems” is still alive and well.

 

Republished from the South China Morning Post, March 25, 2024

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