The Future for Press Freedom in Hong Kong

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: The Future for Press Freedom in Hong Kong

DATE: 20 July, 3:00pm – 4:00pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Mark Clifford, Yuen Chan, Keith Richburg




Gray Sergeant 00:00

Good afternoon, everybody, or good morning or good evening, wherever you are in the world. I know all of our speakers here today are spanning right across the globe, all the way from the east coast of America to here in London and in Hong Kong itself. I’m delighted that you can join us. My name is Gray Sergeant. I’m a research fellow here at the Henry Jackson Society’s Asia Studies Centre. And I’m really pleased to be co-hosting this event with the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong.

We’ve got a fantastic panel today to discuss media freedom in the city, and obviously, it comes in the wake of one year run from the National Security Law, which promised to go after subversion, and serious threats to Hong Kong’s national security. But as we suspected in the way that these vague words, lots of versions of submission as subversive activities are used. They’ve been misused, and they’ve gone after pro-democracy activists and human rights activists. And of course, people in the media as well. And only last month we have the Sackler for Apple Daily Show hear about more later on the arrest of Jimmy Lai. And of course, we’ve heard many stories from local journalists and foreign correspondents in Hong Kong have their fears and concerns about the years ahead.

So as I said, we’ve got a fantastic panel. I think to kick us off, we’ll be starting off with Mark Clifford, who is a board member of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong. He’s got a business background and press background in Hong Kong, and was former Editor-in-Chief of The Standard and South China Morning Post. Our next speaker should be Yuan Chen. She’s a senior lecturer in journalism at City University here in London. She also has a long background in journalism in Hong Kong and in China. And to complete our sort of trio of journalists, we have Keith Richburg, who is the president of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong, he also leads the Hong Kong University Media and Journalism canter. And he also has a background of being a journalist in Hong Kong as the Bureau Chief for The Washington Post.

So I think Mark will kick us off, I’m going to ask each of our speakers to talk about 10 minutes, and then we will throw it open to the Q&A session. So you can begin to write in the Q&A box and start asking your questions when they pop up. Or wait until all of our speakers have finished their contributions. And hopefully, we’ll be able to answer your questions. So without further ado, Mark, you like to go ahead.

Mark Clifford 02:51

Yeah, well, thank you very much Gray. And thanks to the Henry Jackson Society, the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong is delighted to be partnering with Henry Jackson Society to air some of these issues. I’m going to start off by talking from my perspective as a member of the Board of Directors of Next Digital, which is the parent company of what used to be the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong. And the I guess, the difficulties are that the paper and our digital operations have faced as a result of the National Security Law because I think we’ve had the misfortune of being the most high-profile casualty of the National Security Law since it came into effect on July 1, a year ago. Of course, there have been hundreds of people who’ve been arrested, many of them held without even a trial date. They could be rotting in jail for years, essentially presumed guilty until proven innocent. As you said, Gray, you know, very vague charges of collusion with foreign forces, subversion succession. We don’t even know what this means. But effectively, we’ve seen the criminalization of free speech in Hong Kong. The basic law, which is our mini constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of speech and many other freedoms: freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, these things have all been tossed out the window, and hundreds of people are now paying for it and their families, of course, in terms of being caught up in the jaws of the Chinese legal system. It’s warfare by another name. It’s lawfare. So let me talk with that sort of general introduction. Let me talk more explicitly about what’s happened to Apple because it’s incredible that in what was a free city, one of the most open international cities in the world that we could see freedom snuffed out so quickly and dramatically. I mean, I think we have to look back to what the Soviets did in the late 1940s, or the communists did in Shanghai after the 1949 revolution to see anything like what is happening in Hong Kong now. So let me go through some of the specifics for Apple.

A year ago, last August, we had 200 armed police come into the into the newsroom and take a lot of evidence, arrest a number of people they went to Jimmy Lai’s house. Jimmy Lai, of course is the founder of Apple Daily and arrested him, marched him through the newsroom in a well-publicized march. I mean, they talk about social distancing as a result of the pandemic, but they made sure to manacle him and manhandle him, took a lot of journalistic material, and in the end arrested five people, including Jimmy. All of them were released within 48 hours. Jimmy, however, was had his bail denied and has been in jail since late December has also been convicted on a number of what I would say are fairly spurious and at the most young minor charges. And he is now facing a National Security trial. I believe it’s early next year. So Jimmy Lai is one person high profile, but more recently, he had his property confiscated. The Secretary for Security told Jimmy Lai and his bankers and everybody involved that Jimmy could not exercise any rights relating to the 72% of the shareholders. He has index digital publicly traded company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, but the majority owner could not exercise his rights.

The Secretary for Security went further and froze two offshore bank accounts in Singapore with international banks and warned the bankers and everybody else involved: Jimmy’s family and his lawyers, anybody who had his power of attorney that if they touch those bank accounts, they would be assumed to be guilty and could be subject to seven years imprisonment. I mean, again, we’re criminalizing what was freedom of speech, freedom of the press. I mean Jimmy hasn’t been found guilty, nobody’s been found guilty. And yet, they’re presumed guilty until proven innocent, they’re having their assets their property stripped. So that was in May.

Then in June, we get 500 armed cops, last year we have 200 armed cops coming into next digital look like it was some kind of terrorist scene or something in a way it was because they terrorize the journalists and the people working there. And I know this. I’m in board meetings where people are fleeing the building because the police are coming. I mean, it’s just unbelievable. Escalation, I would say, of the kind of state sponsored violence that we’re seeing in Hong Kong, again, arrested a number of people, some of the arrested five people, including the CEO, the Editor-in-Chief, two other senior journalists and our chief operating officer. I mean, under National Security Law violations, they questioned journalists on over 100 stories that people had worked on, they won’t say that they found anything that the newspapers done that’s violated the National Security Law. But the secretary for securities just decided that we’re guilty, froze our bank accounts. So we were able to pay 200 people out of who were working for an affiliated company. We have 600 people who we haven’t been able to pay, we couldn’t pay their June salaries. We’ve closed the newspaper. I’ll get back to that in a minute. And we haven’t been able to pay severance payments. So we’ve thrown in the end 800, or close to 1000 people out of jobs, we haven’t been able to make the payments that they’re due. You know, people have rent payments, they’ve got school payments, they’ve got electricity payments, and we haven’t actually been able to pay our electricity bill. We haven’t been able to pay our phone bill. We’ve actually had to move to different quarters because the government has said that what we were doing in our headquarters office breached the National Security Law.

Again, this is the government acting as judge, jury and executioner. It’s unbelievable that something like this could happen in a city that is still proclaiming itself to be Asia’s global city, Asia’s finest International Financial Centre. And we’re a listed company. And the net result was that the government forced us out of business, we have tens of millions of dollars that we’d like to pay employees and others that we can’t touch. So in the end, the board made the very difficult decision to shut the newspaper and we really had no choice and for the safety and security of our staff, not to mention the financial pressures we were under. We had our final edition in late June. And I have to say it was an extraordinary. And to my mind, very encouraging scene where we had thousands of people, ordinary citizens of Hong Kong, around the headquarters building out in an industrial estate in a fairly remote part of Hong Kong. At midnight, as the Final Edition was going to bed, we printed a million copies, we usually print about 80,000, sold out a million copies in a matter of hours, we had people lining up at three o’clock in the morning when the first the first papers hit the streets of Bangkok and other parts of the city. So I think there’s an enormous amount of support for Apple and for what it represents, and for the fact that it will give voice to democratic forces in Hong Kong. But ultimately, the government for all its talk about a free market economy, it doesn’t want to marketplace and ideas. It can’t be challenged. It can’t take its failings, and it’s often corruption, and it’s misdemeanours. I can’t take being held to account for this. And ultimately, Jimmy Lai, and the very brave the hundreds of people who work at Apple Daily, which is too much of a threat. It is too much of a threat for the world’s second biggest economy, for a place that prides itself on Chinese statecraft and thousands of years of administration. They couldn’t take a little newspaper like Apple Daily. So they had to shut it down. It was very, very sad time. And we don’t know what the final chapter will be. But I can tell you, it’s really not nice being on the other end when Chinese Communist Party decides that it wants to put you out of business. And it’s been is very, very sobering experience. But again, I think in many ways, it is encouraging to see the support we got from the people of Hong Kong. So that’s the story and what it looks like from Next Digital and Apple Daily, and I’ll turn it over to Yuen now.

Gray Sergeant 12:07

Thank you Mark indeed, sad times. But still, we call for some inspiration from the resolve of Hong Kongers who go out and show their flashlights on their phone even by the Apple Daily, and do small acts of resistance. That they’ve shut down Apple Daily prevents them doing one of those things, but I’m sure they’ll find other ways to be inventive, and show their commitment to liberal democratic values. Obviously, the Apple Daily being the biggest pro-democracy paper, but there’s other news outlets and other journalists as well. And on the eve of Apple Daily’s closure, I saw a piece by Yuen in The Conversation that expressed some of the worries and concerns from local journalists on the ground, who obviously aren’t in a position to express themselves fully. And I thought it would be really great if Yuen could come on and express them thoughts here today, and also address the wider topic as well.

Yuen Chan 13:15

Thank you to the organizers of today’s panel, and thank you to Mark for such a vivid account of what happened at and to Apple Daily. I’d like to stress that, among the people who were mourning the passing of Apple Daily, not all of them were fans of the newspaper. And this is something that I think people need to understand is that even people who are really critical of Apple Daily, and I’ve been critical of Apple Daily in the past, we recognize the value to Hong Kong, or perhaps having an Apple Daily in existence, whether you agree with everything that is published in Apple Daily. It is one thing but the manner in which Apple Daily was forced to close, I think a lot of Hong Kong has found that an affront, frankly. And so that’s some of the context to the strength of feeling on the ground of Apple Daily and not just in Hong Kong, but among the Diaspora as well. I think that’s a very widespread kind of feeling.

I’m talking about press freedom in Hong Kong, and I think in listening to Mark just now I think what people need to understand is there are two aspects to this. One is the depth and the other is the pace of deterioration. And both of those, the magnitude, the scale, the pace are really beyond what people would have imagined. I think, nobody was under any illusions that everything was going to be hunky dory after the handover. But in the last couple of years, the pace and the depth of the deterioration has been quite breath-taking. At the annual press freedom report that was just published by the Hong Kong journalists association is titled to freedom in tatters. And in the message from the outgoing Chairman, he noted that a year after the implementation of the National Security Law, red lines are everywhere, and fear prevails. And that is basically describes the conditions under which local journalists are working in Hong Kong right now. In that report, the outgoing Chairman says the process of rectification of the media has already begun. And it should come as no surprise because in fact, threats to press freedom are baked into the National Security Law. I think Mark touched upon that when he was speaking earlier. And at the end of last year, actually, I was asked to write a piece about the state of press freedom in Hong Kong. And in that piece, I ended up outlining what I called an inventory of misery. And in inventory, the first thing on the list was the raid on Apple Daily in August, when there were 200 officers. So and the arrest of its executives. But in addition to that, there were a whole series of things that included a unilateral redefinition by the Hong Kong Police of who got to be regarded as a journalist when reporting on the front line of protests. And in that unilateral redefinition, basically, freelancers were excluded, student reporters were excluded. That was, I think, a huge blow. And then there was also politically motivated management shakeups at cable news. And this is like one of the best regarded broadcast news operations in Hong Kong, home to a highly regarded China reporting team, which resigned on mass and cable lost a lot of really good people. So that was within the local journalism community that was seen as a very significant earthquake.

And then another really terrible blow was the very high-profile arrests of Bao Choy, who was an RTHK producer who had made an award-winning documentary that was investigating the ties between the white shirted thugs who beat up alarm civilians in July of 2019. And because she had used well established methods of getting information from public records from vehicle registration, and in this case, this is something that reporters have been doing, it’s the bread and butter of investigative journalism work in Hong Kong, no one had ever gotten to trouble for it before Bao was hauled before a judge for that journalistic activity.

So that was at the end of 20. But by the time the piece was actually published, in February this year, the situation had already a new inventory of misery. And now seven months later, it’s even worse, right? So we started with the raid on Apple Daily with the 200 police officers. And now we have Apple Daily is gone. The impact of that isn’t just that Hong Kong lost Apple Daily, which was the only openly publicly a pro-democracy mainstream news organization in Hong Kong, but that has an impact on the rest of the industry. So I spoke to a reporter yesterday, and he was talking to me about how there was a court case in which a man who has been accused of rape and in this case is what led to the discovery that three Hong Kong senior officials were attended an illegal hot pop gathering. So in this case garnered huge press interest as you can imagine. And it’s very usual in these circumstances that when the defendant leaves the court, he or she is pursued to their car or wherever by whole gaggle of reporters trying to get a comment from them. But in this case, this time, Stand News which is an independent online media, their reporter was the only one to pursue the defendant. And this reporter that I spoke to who works at Stand News said, and I quote, “you can imagine that if Apple Daily was still around, Oriental Daily would chase him too, Hong Kong 01 would be in pursuit, and probably Ming Bao would be too. But now no, we’re the only ones”. And I think that is a really concrete example of how the loss of Apple Daily affects reporting across the board. Because here you had a fearless news organization that was willing to go after the big guns. And that creates pressure on the other news organizations to keep up with them and also don’t want to lose out and not have the news to the Apple. But now that Apple’s gone, that motivation is gone. And that’s a very real way that journalistic work is affected perhaps one way. Of course, now, as Mark has mentioned, there are a lot of unemployed journalists in Hong Kong. And I spoke to some of them after Apple Daily closed and some of them were very concerned, they said because I used to work for Apple Daily, it’s kind of really hard for me to get a job in another mainstream media organization. Now, people might not want to employ me. And one of them told me, “I really want to carry on working in journalism, I really want to work independently and be an independent journalist. But where can I go now”. So this is something that I’ve come across in talking to journalists on the ground, which is where are the organization’s these people can go.

In terms of broadcast media, i-Cable, and Now TV used to be quite well regarded, and relatively independent. But as I mentioned earlier, there was this management shakeup at i-Cable, and at the same time, there was also a management shakeup at Now TV. And senior management that was brought in is someone who is regarded to have very close ties with the China Liaison Office. And just yesterday or the day before yesterday, I can’t remember now, a very senior person at Now TV has, has now resigned. And it’s thought to be this person had been having a lot of disputes with the new management for the whole year now. And the breaking point apparently was because a presenter of one of the talk shows had refused on air to condemn the Hong Kong University Student Union for passing a motion that expressed sympathy with the man who killed himself after attacking a policeman.

So these are the things that are going on at other organizations. So when unemployed journalists from Apple Daily look around, say, “where can I go”, they’re not seeing a lot of options because RTHK, the public service broadcaster was also regarded as somewhere where you could practice well regarded, respected, independent journalism. And RTHK has been under incredible pressure. It has been for a number of years, but it’s really, really intensified. And now we have the original head of RTHK replaced by a career civil servant. We’ve had the pulling of programs, termination of series. We’ve heard about topics and interviewees being vetted and disallowed from being interviewed, and lots of editorial interference, and even pulling out of awards, and RTHK cables always done really well and won lots of awards. Management doesn’t even want them to enter those awards anymore. And as a result of that, RTHK has been (inaudible), you could say. And it’s no longer a place where a lot of people want to go and work. And, in fact a lot of very well-respected journalists have left recently.

So where does that leave a journalist who still wants to practice independent critical journalism? So one of my interviewees had said Stand News, Citizen News, these online independent news outlets, these are the media that are left. But at the same time, she says “these are going to be the next target”. And in fact, just days after Apple Daily closed, we saw that Stand News started to delete its old articles pre-emptively and publicly announced that it was stopped taking new donations, and also the resignations of some of it’s quite well-known directors. A little bit more context on that. In May, two pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong actually accused Stand News of inciting terrorism and violence because it had published an article that framed the future of Hong Kong struggle from the perspective of the history and experience of the troubles in Northern Ireland. And so Stand News actually pulled that article those accusations came out. But that wasn’t the end of it because the (inaudible) then said, that’s not the ends. Don’t think you can evade legal liability just by taking down that article. So there’s real fear hanging over people, when can they be said to have crossed the red lines? The red lines are everywhere, and yet shifting and kind of nebulous, you can never really catch it, and you don’t know you’ve crossed it until you have and then it’s too late.

So I talked about Stand News briefly. I mentioned who they are, these kinds of outlets are really important. And another example of why they’re really important as I talked about Bao Choy earlier. She’s left RTHK. But she actually has produced a follow-up investigation. And it’s on YouTube. So I suggest people can go and see that. It was actually published by Stand News yesterday, and there’s a documentary that is a follow-up investigation. So Stand News is still there to publish while RTHK won’t publish now. But how long can that continue? So the new chairman of the Hong Kong Journalism Association is actually a reporter at Stand News. And I spoke to him, and I said “how are you guys repairing? What do you think’s going to happen?” And I very much agree with him. On the one hand, nobody knows exactly what’s gonna happen, and when it will happen. But on the other hand, what is going to be, or what can happen is completely predictable. So, that both those things are true. And he told me “you can see what they can control, that what they can control they will, they’ll tighten their control of it. And the more you ban the mainstream media, the more you squeeze the mainstream media, the more people will look to this online media. And so what will happen then, then you will come and ban us”. And then what will happen? What can they do about it? There’s not actually that much they can do about it. He says “I don’t know, will they shut us down, forbid us from publishing? Will they DQ us? Will they take us off the list of recognized media. In fact, it’s all much of a muchness, the things that we can predict if you ask me the worst-case scenario is we will be shut down”.

So this is something I’ve heard from a lot of journalists, they expect the worst. But at the same time, nearly all the journalists that I speak to say, “if I can get one more day, that’s one more day”. So this is the kind of attitude that people are having is to take every day as it comes to do as much as they can, for as long as they can. And so the Stand journalist as I spoke to, he said, “it’s like planting a flag to show Hong Kong people that will struggle to persist and to survive even in the narrowest crevice”. Not everyone can work for these organizations obviously, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. So people are doing what they can from whichever positions that they’re in. And the person I spoke to, he singled out Ming Bao journalists for instance, he says that he’s noticed that they have really struggled and strive to make sure voices from all sides are represented. So even though they are duty bound to have to interview certain people, they will do the best that they can to also find more critical voices as well.

And the other really sad thing, but I can say about most of the journalists that I’ve spoken to is that they accept and they know that jail, prison is a very real possibility of something that they will have to face for doing their work, which is quite unthinkable in Hong Kong even from five years ago that a journalist would say I am prepared that I may have to go to jail for doing my work. So increasingly, I think what we’re looking at for journalists, and they themselves see this as well is that the media landscape in Hong Kong is going to resemble more and more the mainland media landscape. There are significant differences, and maybe we can talk about this later. But in certain respects, they are also prepared that they will have to make adjustments to the way that they work. As one of them told me, I think we’re starting learn about how to operate in the cracks. So I think that it’s only practical, and there’s worse coming. So there’s the anti-doxing regulations, which have already been gazetted, we’ll go to Leg Co later this year, Carrie Lam, and the new chief of police have talked about fake news law. So this will also have a huge impact. And we also see that there are going to be changes to access to previously publicly available information. So that’s the information in the company’s registry, birth and marriage records, vehicle registrations, electoral registers, journalists have used all these public records in very legitimate ways in public interest investigations. And it’s going to be a lot harder for them to do so. The corollary of that is there’s going to be less scrutiny of the government, less accountability of the powerful authority. So that’s what’s to come. I think I’ve probably spoken too much. So I’ll end it there.

Gray Sergeant 31:48

And I thank you Yuen for those examples and giving us some insights into the dynamics of journalism in the city and particularly think about the competition for people to get the top stories and how that how the disappearance of Apple Daily affects that is something I certainly I didn’t know about. And it’s an interesting part of the whole press, freedom debate and competition debate. Obviously, the National Security Law does not just affect Hong Kong residents. And it does have powers to target foreigners. And we know that foreign correspondents have faced problems in Hong Kong before with the police but obviously the National Security Law brings its own challenges as well. But before I ask you to speak, if I could just remind people to start posting some questions in the Q&A box down at the bottom of the screen. And then once Keith has spoken, we can then bring you in to ask your questions. Or if you’d rather remain anonymous, I believe there’s the option to select anonymity and then you can just type in your question, and we’ll read it out for you, Keith.

Keith Richburg 33:04

Thank you very much Gray. It’s a bit tricky coming after Mark and Yuen because they both explained everything so well. So I have to follow up and give you something a little bit different, I suppose. But by the way in apologies if we cut off, I’ve got a little bit of an unstable internet connection here. So if I freeze for a second or two, that’s fine, just let me know.

But the one thing I’ll say is I was asked to write recently a freelance piece on the one-year anniversary of this National Security Law. And look, what I said is look 1997 when many of us were here, I think Mark was here, covering the handover, not much really happened. I mean, we all woke up the next day after the handover, and everything was pretty much the same in Hong Kong. Everything that’s happening now is what we feared would happen in 1997, and didn’t really happen. So I say 1997 was the handover. But the year 2020 was the takeover. And that was when they really decided to start remaking Hong Kong in China’s image. So this law is only a year old now. So we don’t know precisely how it’s going to be applied on a wider scale. We got a lot of hints now with Apple Daily obviously, and we don’t know how or if it’s going to be applied to foreign journalists. But we also have a lot of hints. The biggest hints we can get is how the mainland treats foreign journalists in mainland China. And if they intend to treat foreign journalists in Hong Kong the same way, meaning if they’re going to treat Hong Kong as just another part of China, then foreign journalists here are in for a bad situation. I’ll talk about some of the possibilities there.

But I want to pick up on what Yuen was saying about the red lines. The problem is we don’t know where the red lines are. And you know, I was based in Beijing, I was based in Shanghai I covered Mainland China for many years. And in China, you knew kind of where the red lines are. And young journalists there were born and raised under the communist system. And they kind of instinctively know where the red lines are. In Hong Kong, this is all new. And I think that’s why it’s so shocking and so surprising because people here in Hong Kong, including foreign journalists based here don’t know where the red lines are. And, in fact, nobody can tell them where the red lines are including Hong Kong government officials, because Hong Kong government officials don’t know where the red lines are, because they didn’t write the National Security Law. This was a law that was imposed on Hong Kong from Beijing. And so if you ask a government official, can we do this? Can we do that? They kind of say, well you can go ahead and do it. But you may get in trouble. We don’t know. This kind of their attitude. They don’t know where the red lines are. It seems like every day the police are drawing the red lines wherever they feel like they should be. And in the case that someone mentioned about the university student union here that made these comments, thanking the attacker of a policeman for which they then apologized and then resigned. And then the police just kind of decided, well, just because you apologize and resign, you could still be guilty under the National Security Law. Well, we don’t know what these laws mean because the police just seem to be deciding every day (inaudible) against same sex marriage and gay rights and saying gay rights is against Chinese culture, and it’s probably against national security. And some of us were looking at what is going “What? Seriously? National security?”…(inaudible)… And, I saw this person wearing a yellow t-shirt if they may be violating National Security Law. And because nobody knows where the red lines are, those who are trying to ingratiate themselves to the authorities are literally just calling up and snitching on other people around here. But in terms of the foreign media and then the media in general, there’s some several areas of concern. There’s some areas that we’re worried about, but we don’t know yet. The areas that we see that we’re really concerned…(inaudible)… Today, a few hours ago, they announced that at RTHK that are no longer to refer to the President of Taiwan as President…(inaudible)… In addition to that, in terms of foreign journalists, I can tell you people are now fearful of foreign media because of this broad category under National Security called collusion with foreign powers…(inaudible)…

Gray Sergeant 38:50

Okay, I think you may be lagging slightly. Maybe if you turn off the camera. It might speed up the audio. We’ll give that a go. If not, we’ll move on to the Q&A. I think we’ve lost Keith again, unfortunately. We can hear you in bursts. Unfortunately, this is sort of the parallel version of online Q&A.

Keith Richburg 39:45

My apologies, whatever, what I can do is I can sign out and try to come back in again if that might work.

Gray Sergeant 39:54

I’m not sure how we resolve these things, but perhaps that might be worth a go. We can move on to the Q&A. And if you are able to join us in a couple of minutes Keith, we shall we shall see what we can do. Brilliant. So hopefully Keith will re-join us in a sec. For now, perhaps we could answer a couple of the Q&A questions. Some of them are quite broad on general Hong Kong. I’m sure Mark might have a view generally on the UK and the wider Liberal Democratic world’s response to the basically the tearing up of the Joint Declaration. I think there is a question from Masato Kimura.

Masato Kimura 40:45

My question is about the Hong Kong banking sector. And so Mark said frozen assets for Jimmy Lai. What is the bank? And also I think we there are so many different banks in Hong Kong, and which bank is supporting Hong Kong already? And so there is some differences between banks?

Mark Clifford 41:34

Yeah, that’s a great question Masato. It is a letter from the Secretary for Security, John Lee, who is now been promoted to the Chief Secretary number two in the Hong Kong government, acting number one person when Carrie Lam is in Beijing, or out of town. And he cited the authority vested to him under the National Security Law to take financial sanctions. So there was no court order, no one else had to be involved. He just has the authority to do this. And interestingly, the bank accounts that were frozen for Mr. Jimmy Lai were in Singapore, there are foreign banks, they’re not Chinese banks. And they were threatened. Now, I don’t know how enforceable this is. But if you were a foreign bank, you probably would not want to be on the wrong side of the Chinese authorities. So it’s all sort of legal in the sense of the way the National Security Law is drawn. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the way Hong Kong has operated for the last 180 years or so where there is due process, and one would need a court order. So it’s completely unprecedented. And the situation was much the same when it came to the freezing of the next digital accounts. There were three of our accounts, which were frozen, some accounts were not frozen.

So I mentioned a quite confusing situation where we were able to pay 200 staff, I’m speaking rough numbers here, but 200 staff because they were employed by a management services company, but we weren’t able to pay the 600 plus people who were paid from those three frozen accounts. And what was interesting is we were told that if we used any of those other accounts to the kind of non-frozen accounts. I’m sorry, I’m getting a little technical, but it’s very, very interesting. If we use any of the non-frozen accounts, we had plenty of money to pay people that they would then be they would be considered to be contaminated and thus frozen if we drew on them to pay things that should have been paid out of the frozen account. So I mean, it’s an extraordinary situation again, judge, jury, executioner, John Lee, Secretary for Security, now Chief Secretary, and I don’t know how Hong Kong can survive as the International Financial Centre when you effectively have a kangaroo court deciding that people are guilty and that financial institutions need to play their part in meeting out sentences of people who haven’t even been tried and found guilty. But John Lee said, “well, we think you did this”. You know, it is too bad. And I think that some of the things that we’re seeing in the mainland with the tech companies shows a very consistent pattern is as Keith and Yuen said about how China approaches these things.

Gray Sergeant 44:51

Thank you Mark, and nothing is wrong with technical details. That’s what hopefully all these discussions should be about. And certainly the banking situation does sound pretty horrendous in Hong Kong. I think if we perhaps group the last remaining questions together, and perhaps ask each of you to address whatever ones you fancy and then also give Keith the opportunity to carry on from where he is. Can we just check Keith, how is your signal?

Keith Richburg 45:22

Yes, I think that is better.

Gray Sergeant 45:27

Brilliant. Excellent. So and perhaps we’ll start off in the order that we did with Mark, Yuen, and then Keith. I think about Aliona, who’s going to ask a question on the microphone.

Aliona 45:45

Thank you very much for hosting a very interesting event on a pressing global issue. My question refers to the possibility of running Apple Daily from abroad and carry on with this mission from abroad, still informing Hong Kong population on everything that they’ve been fighting for? Or do you think or any of your panellists think that it would still be tracked down and shut down as brutally? And in this instance, of course, there comes a question about the journalists, self-organization and courage to continue working for the Apple Daily seeing what happened to Jimmy Lai initially. So do any of your panellists think that that is possible at all? Or this is the final end for Apple Daily?

Gray Sergeant 46:29

Yeah, and of course, we have got  Apple Daily in Taiwan, which I hear is just as vibrant as the Apple Daily in Hong Kong, but a separate thing. So we’ve got that question, and one about how foreign journalists can practice journalism safely in Hong Kong. And I think probably Yuen, I might be interested to hear from you about what the met the steps that local journalists are taken to protect themselves and their identity. And one of the questions that I had based on your conversation piece was the situation that young aspiring journalists are in. I’m sure Keith has some views of this given his work at Hong Kong University as well. They look abroad to carry on their journalistic career. And, yeah, I think that covers most of the questions that we had in the box. So we’ve got about 10 minutes or so left, so perhaps we get to Mark, then Yuen, and then Keith to address these questions. And Keith for you to conclude with a few of the remarks that you didn’t have a chance to say.

Mark Clifford 48:04

Yeah, I’d like to hear what others have to say. But it’s great question. Theoretically, it’s possible we do have operations in Taiwan. It’s not clear if a paper would be like a foreign news organization and be reporting on Hong Kong? I mean, we had 600 journalists. So I think whatever happens with Apple Daily is going to be very, very different than it was before. And I think it’d be difficult to print a newspaper in Hong Kong. But I’d be interested to hear what other people have to say, but Yuen’s example about the way that Apple covers really on the ground news in Hong Kong is well worth remembering. Because when the newspapers started in 1995, it shook up the Hong Kong political establishment because it covered all these stories. This is kind of symbiotic old boys network, I think, between the media and the political and government establishment before and that’s been shaken up. Now, it would be hard to replicate without a lot of people on the ground, but I really would like to hear what Yuen has said, I want to give some airtime to Keith because he got a little cut off. So let me stop here.

Yuen Chan 49:30

I think it would be really difficult, not least because you’d be putting people at risk in terms of if Apple Daily operated overseas, but was still reporting in Hong Kong. So what would the relationship between the people who speak to the Apple Daily that’s already been labeled as “hatted”. So when I was a reporter in Hong Kong, I remember going to report in China and how Apple Daily reporters were never allowed to go into any official press conferences. And they would always be hanging out at the hotel, waiting for us to come back and say “what happened?”, and then interviewing the Hong Kong delegates when they came back to the hotel. So what would happen in that case? Would anybody working for Apple Daily be in the same situation as they used to be in the mainland in Hong Kong? I think there would be lots of logistical difficulties. But most of all, I think it would be a safeguarding issue that would I would be really concerned about is the safety of the staff who are working for an Apple Daily that are based overseas. Would they be colluding with overseas forces then? And the people who talk to them as well, and I’d like to give Keith an opportunity to jump back in there because I think he was in the middle of talking about Claudia. And what happened to her for talking to overseas journalists.

Gray Sergeant 51:12

Thank you. And thank you for giving plenty of time for Keith to continue from where he was, and maybe pick up on a few of the questions that have been asked.

Keith Richburg 51:21

Yeah, thank you very much for that. I hope you can hear me okay, now. Thank you for giving me a little bit of time to hear what I was saying earlier about Claudia Mo that was exactly what I said. There is a couple of areas of fear for foreign journalists now. And one of them is in Claudia Mo’s bail hearing. It was actually mentioned, and they actually showed videos and screenshots in the courtroom that she had given interviews with foreign journalists. And they had actually shown her WhatsApp message where foreign journalists were trying to contact her. And she had given interviews to places like CNN and BBC. And the prosecutors use that to argue that because she was being sought out by the foreign media for interviews that shows she was a person of influence. And so therefore she should be denied bail. And she was denied bail by the judge in that case. And so what has happened now is my members of the foreign correspondents club and my colleagues and friends have told me that long-time sources of their as I’ve been calling them up and saying, “please erase my contacts out of your phone. Please don’t ever call me again. I like you again. But please, erase every WhatsApp message we’ve ever had”. Because they’re all worried now that talking the foreign media can be construed under this new kind of legal regime, this national security regime is collusion with foreign forces. And nobody wants to be caught up in that.

The other great fear of foreign journalists is that again the only template we have is mainland China, and how mainland China works. And the fear is that they can start weaponizing the visa regime, the visa system. If foreign journalists need visas to get in here, they can suddenly yank your visa away. Some people think they have the protection that their permanent residents because they’ve lived here for seven years, but they can still kick you out if you’re not Hong Kong born. So these are all fears for the future of the foreign media here, that people won’t talk to them that the visa regime can be used. And there’s another fear that actually came out of the Apple Daily case because there’s been no trial yet that some of the people arrested or charged were writing opinion pieces. Again, op-ed writing is a is a form of journalism. And the government seems to be saying it’s okay if you only cover the facts. But if you’re giving opinions about things that we don’t like the opinion, you can be charged under the National Security Law. So does that mean if there’s a debate over whether or not diplomat should boycott the Beijing Olympics? If you say yes, that could be advocating sanctions against China or boycotting China, you could be in violation of the National Security Law. So these are all things that are just quite frightening.

In terms of students and young people, I mean, look, it’s a really, really difficult time. I’ve got a lot of undergraduate students, the younger students who come to me and they say that the topic of conversation among themselves is what country should we emigrate to? We used to sit around and talk about baseball cards in college. Now, they sit around and talk about “Have you heard the Canadians are letting you in, if you have a master’s degree, Australia is going to let in 5000 a week”. They literally sit around and trade information on which country is easiest to get into. As a teacher of young journalists, I try to say I’m optimistic. I try to say don’t despair. The profession needs the journalist right now, more than ever before. And I try to say, look, there’s still good journalism coming out of China. I mean, China’s the one of the most restrictive places in the world, but if you look at some things that Sixth Tone is doing or that (inaudible) is doing, there’s still some space for Investigative Journalism, even within China, if you know where the red lines are, as long as you’re not looking at corruption among the ruling elite you can write about factories, polluting villages, rivers. You can talk about developers taking people’s land without paying them. You can talk about rural peasant uprising, there’s a space that you can do with reporting within China.

If we insist on looking back at Hong Kong the way it was a year or two ago and what you could report we’re going to be depressed. If we look at the fact, you can still do reporting in authoritarian countries. For example, in Thailand you know where the red lines are, you don’t talk about the king. In Malaysia, you don’t talk about the prophet or Islam or race relations, you know where the red lines are. And I think journalists, local young journalist I’m teaching and foreign journalists just have to learn a new way of doing business here in Hong Kong. I wouldn’t despair and say all is lost, I’d say it’s gonna be a completely different way of covering Hong Kong than we are used to, and that we like, but the good old days, they’re never coming back. I’m sorry it’s just never coming back. This National Security Law is the new law of the land. Sadly, we have to learn to live with it. But and I do think there’s good journalism that can be done. Again, the story about the hotpot trio, the story about the head of the National Security Police getting a massage spa in Wan Chai when we’re supposed to be under lockdown. This is coming out because people leaked these stories to the press, these came out because of leaks. And I think you’re gonna see more of that now. I think you’re gonna start seeing like the French Revolution. You’re gonna start seeing people turning on themselves and leaking things into the media now, because people realize that accountability is still a part of what journalists do.

And so I tell students don’t despair, every young person has to make their own decision as how willing they are to take the risks. Again, there’s a lot of journalism you can do that’s not sensitive. There are a lot of people writing about business, tech, social trends, tiktok, etc. You can do some journalism here, that’s not in the sensitive areas. So there’s so space to do journalism. But I do tell students don’t draw the red lines yourself in your head, try to figure out where the red line is, and push right up against that, let’s occupy every inch of that space on the legal side of the red line. And let’s wait for them to tell us that we’re going too far. The biggest problem now, I think, is people overstep over guessing where the red lines are, and really putting in too much restraint. And I think there is some room to do good journalism. And maybe I’m too optimistic. But that’s my view.

Yuen Chan 57:34

I just wanted to add on to what Keith said, because I also used to teach student journalists in Hong Kong for very many years at Chinese University. And I think that what former colleagues have told me is that while there are students who are certainly more circumspect about entering the profession because of the censorship, and because the lack of outlets where they can still practice independent journalism. What I’m hearing is that the people who do want to enter the profession are more determined than ever before, and that they are better prepared. They know what to expect. They don’t have any illusions. I think we’re gonna be looking at a bunch of young journalists coming through, who are ready. And I think Keith is right in the sense that we’re all recalibrating because it’s a new media scape. It’s a new situation. As I said earlier the journalist I spoke to said, we’re learning how to operate in the cracks. And I think that is so true. I think that’s true of journalism education as well. And one thing that has always stayed with me is a quote that I heard from the founding editor of Southern Weekend, which is one of the heroic Chinese newspapers back in the day when there was a little bit more press freedom. And he said that “do not go for a hard head on collision. It’s not worth it”. But remember never to collude. So there are red lines, and those red lines are nebulous, and they’re shifting and we don’t know where they are in terms of reporting. But every single reporter also has their own individual red line. And that is a red line of how much am I willing to compromise before I’m no longer doing meaningful journalism. And so every journalist needs to figure out what their own red line is, as well.

Gray Sergeant 1:00:07

I’ve got time for some comments if people are happy to stay on for a few minutes.

Keith Richburg 1:00:12

I can stay on for another minute or two. But I tell my students, I used an interview I did for Asian American Journalists Association with Maria Ressa. I don’t know if you know Maria, she was one of the Time magazine’s people of the year. She’s just the courageous editor and founder of Rappler in the Philippines, and I was talking to Maria Ressa. And I said, “how do you feel?” She said she’s got like seven or eight court cases hanging over her head. She’s looking at years and years in jail if she’s convicted, she’s looking at millions of Philippine pesos in fines. And I asked her the question, “how do your journalists at Rappler. What is the mood there? What do they do?” She said, “they go to work every day”. And look, if Maria Ressa can go to work every day, and her journalist can go to work every day, facing millions of dollars in fines, and then jails time hanging over her head, then we can do that here in Hong Kong as well. I mean, she’s the model in the face of enormous adversity. I could see why people would just say it’s not worth doing it anymore. But again, like Yuen said our numbers are looking pretty strong in terms of our incoming class in September, and this would have been a class that applied after the National Security Law was in effect, and we haven’t seen a drop off, the only drop off we’re seeing is because Hong Kong has fewer 18 year olds coming up through the pipeline. But we haven’t seen any drop off at all. So I think that one of the changes we’ve seen is the people who really want to go into journalism are doing it because they really want to be journalists. We used to get a lot of people studying journalism because they wanted to do marketing. They thought it was something interesting to have if they wanted to go and do communication. Now the people we get studying journalism, I asked them, we asked every one of them, we interview everyone, master’s degree students and undergraduates, “why do you want to study journalism?” And they say “because of the protests in the National Security Law I saw how important journalism is”. And those are the people we want.

Gray Sergeant 1:02:05

Thank you for that Keith. Mark. Was there any last comments you wanted?

Mark Clifford 1:02:09

I think, excellent points by Keith and Yuen. And I think we all accept that it’s likely to get worse than better. But these things don’t last forever. I mean, they can last generations. But I mean, what Keith and Yuen’s students, the Apple journalists are doing is keeping the flame alive. And it’s not just about democracy. It’s about free thought, critical inquiry, accountability. And I am delighted to hear that your intake is so strong, Keith, and long may last and yeah, thank you. Thank you. Gray, and, and Henry Jackson Society for a really stimulating discussion.

Gray Sergeant 1:02:45

That with that, thank you, Mark. Thank you, Yuen. And thank you, Keith. I think obviously, it’s a terrible situation in Hong Kong. But it was nice to end on a note of somewhat strange optimism. That I mean, if anyone’s going to keep the flame alive, it’s going to be brave journalists and brave aspiring journalists. So let’s certainly hope that there are people that are willing to, as I say, speak truth to power. So, again, thanks to the speakers for their contributions today. And thank you for joining us, and hopefully, we shall see you soon. See you sometime soon. Thank you.


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