Inside China: With wounding of editor, press freedom under physical attack in Hong Kong

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Hong Kong’s once vibrant news outlets increasingly are coming under violent attacks for continuing to embrace pluralism and free speech.

The attacks are challenging the sincerity of China’s promise to follow the political framework of “One Country, Two Systems” under which the communist government in Beijing agreed to keep its hands off the free-wheelin, prosperous capitalist lifestyle of the former British colony.

On Wednesday, renowned muckraker Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of the venerable Ming Pao newspaper, was severely assaulted by a thug on a scooter armed with a butcher’s knife. He was stabbed three times in the back, and is fighting for his life in a Hong Kong hospital.

Many believe the attack was carried out in retaliation for Mr. Lau’s recent approval of an investigative reporting project that revealed how Chinese senior officials and their children embezzled public funds, laundered an enormous amount of state assets via Hong Kong and moved the pilfered funds overseas to financial safe havens.

Before the stabbing, Mr. Lau was summarily fired as chief editor by the newspaper’s Malaysian owner, who has close business ties with China and likely feared reprisals from Beijing. The newspaper’s staff staged a series of protests over the firing, making Mr. Lau a martyr for eroding press freedom under China’s intimidating smog.

Since 1949 when the communists took over China, Hong Kong has served as an important enclave of open news reports on Chinese affairs that is located close to the mainland. Most international news organizations operated China bureaus from headquarters in Hong Kong until about 15 years ago when many foreign outlets opened bureaus inside China.

However, press freedom inside China continues to be stifled, and all foreign media based in China are under tight government restrictions. Penalties for reporting range from constant surveillance and monitoring to expulsions in severe cases.

Beijing’s press controls have made Hong Kong a virtual back door for foreign news outlets’ China coverage — despite the fact that since Britain handed over Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997, many Hong Kong-based international broadcasters have softened their coverage of China and reduced their political reporting, focusing instead on relatively “safe” news about sports and finance.

The Kevin Lau incident is a poignant reminder to the world that press freedom, one of the fundamentals of Hong Kong’s “capitalist lifestyle,” is fading quickly. And the assault on Mr. Lau is not an isolated incident.

Jimmy Lai, the maverick fashion and media tycoon in Hong Kong whose Apple Daily and other media outlets are highly critical of China’s communist government, faced a similar incident on June 18, when a stolen car rammed through his front gate and the driver deposited an axe and a machete on the driveway before fleeing. Police believed the incident was an attempt to intimidate Mr. Lai into silence.

Two weeks ago, Li Wei-ling, a popular host at Hong Kong’s Commercial Radio station, was unceremoniously sacked without explanation for her criticism of the pro-Beijing local government and its chief executive.

The incident ignited a firestorm of protests. Thousands gathered outside the Commercial Radio building and staged a vigil to mark symbolically the death of press freedom in Hong Kong.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_Miles.

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