The stabbing of a former editor-in-chief of a Hong Kong newspaper known for aggressive investigative reporting has prompted thousands to turn out in protest and rally for press freedom.
On the morning of 26th February Kevin Lau Chun-to, who had been the editor-in-chief of Ming Pao, a Chinese-language newspaper in Hong Kong known for its aggressive investigative reporting, was attacked in the street by a man who slashed him six times with a meat cleaver, leaving a deep gash across his back and others across his legs. As his attacker fled on the back of a motorbike driven by an accomplice, Mr Lau was rushed to hospital critically wounded. His condition later stabilised.
Hong Kong police later said that the alleged attacker was dropped off by taxi at Kowloon Tong train station, where he is believed to have fled to the Mainland. Although there is no evidence to prove that this stabbing was planned or officially sanctioned in Beijing, thousands of Hong Kong residents marched on 2nd March to demand the city’s leaders uphold press freedom against what they see as intrusions from Mainland China.
Holding placards that read “They can’t kill us all” and wearing blue ribbons representing press freedom, many of the demonstrators in the park were young people, with little or no memories of Hong Kong before it returned to China in 1997 after a century and a half as a British colony. Some spoke Mandarin, not the Cantonese mainly spoken in Hong Kong, suggesting that they were from Mainland China. The organisers, the Press Coalition against Violence, says 13,000 (police say 8,600) people turned out.
“Violence is meant to intimidate. If we are frightened into submission, we lose our freedom,” Mr. Lau, 49, said in a recorded message broadcast to the demonstrators. “Freedom is not free. We all have to earn and guard it.”
This was not the first example of a physical attack on Hong Kong’s media. The same month Li Wei-ling, who has long been a frequent critic of both the Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese governments, was sacked by Commercial Radio, a privately-owned local station. In June last year, two masked men threatened workers with knives before torching copies of the anti-communist, Chinese-language Apple Daily on board a delivery truck.
Speculation over a connection between these events reflects real concerns and anxiety felt by many Hong Kong residents. When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, it was guaranteed its own legal system for 50 years, with freedoms of speech and assembly. Prior to the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, Hong Kong boasted one of the highest degrees of press freedom in Asia.
Yet, in 2013, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists published a report saying media freedom in Hong Kong was “at a low point”, 17 years after the 1997 handover of sovereignty. It cited commercial pressure and self-censorship as particularly serious problems, especially because more than half of media owners in the city have reportedly accepted positions in China’s lawmaking bodies.
Over the years, it has been a received wisdom that blessing from the Mainland underpins the economic development of Hong Kong. China helped Hong Kong through the 2009 global financial meltdown. Hong Kong’s economy has expanded by 6.8% in 2010 as it benefited from business ties with Mainland China. Approximately 40.7m Mainland tourists visited Hong Kong in 2013 — more than five times Hong Kong’s population of 7.2m.
Certain sectors, like retail, finance and real estate, have benefited greatly from Mainlanders, but the inflation and housing bubbles are less welcome effects. While the Hong Kong government estimates that Mainland tourists created more than 110,000 jobs in the region in 2012 alone, ordinary Hong Kongers do not believe that they have benefited from the influx. They often resent Mainland tourists for adding to overcrowding and particularly for driving up property prices.
A survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong, found that the number of people who view themselves as Chinese is only half of the number who view themselves as Hong Kongers. In 2011 nearly half of all babies born in Hong Kong (38,043 out of 80,131) were born to Mainland Chinese mothers. Local hospitals were stressed as thousands of pregnant women from the Mainland gave birth in Hong Kong in order to secure a Hong Kong passport for their offspring.
By the following year, HK Chief Executive Donald Tsang had to announce a plan to hold back the wave of Mainland pregnant women. Charges are now imposed on non-locals who turn up at hospitals in order to give birth. There are more border checks and local authorities have also cracked down on unlicensed pregnant women hotels and people who assisted them crossing the border.
A strong current of xenophobia is now evident in Hong Kong. In 2012, for example, Hong Kong netizens made a music video describing Mainland Chinese as “locusts” who like to “jump queues, spit in public”, “shout in restaurants, hotels and shops” and would drain the city’s resources.
In a separate, but typical, incident, disputes broke out between Hong Kong passengers and Mainland tourists who ate on a train. This incident later escalated when Peking University professor Kong Qingdong described Hong Kong people as “running dogs”.
While working class locals are afraid of shortages of baby formula, hospital beds, and a crowded Ocean Park, things are different in other places in Hong Kong. There is growing evidence that suggests Hong Kong’s estate developers have a close relationship with Mainland estate companies. Hong Kong developers are already active in the Mainland real estate market, with Chinese companies eager to learn from their expertise.
For instance, the Hang Lung Group, with its close relationship with the Beijng government, has invested US$5bn in building commercial complexes in several Chinese cities, including Tianjin, Shenyang, Jinan, Wuxi and Dalian. It earned a rental turnover of HK$3,526m in 2013 on the Mainland – a growth of 14% from the previous year.
The cosy relationship between Hong Kong developers and the Mainland worries some Hong Kong citizens, who see the former as more interested in appeasing the Beijing authorities than providing affordable housing for its own citizens.
Yet this is inevitable. A city of seven million cannot expect to be forever independent of a country of 1.3bn to which it is now irrevocably attached. This is true even in spite of Hong Kong’s role as an international centre of trade. The Mainland’s relationship with Hong Kong is a complex issue. Hong Kong’s public system is yet to be prepared for a large influx of Mainlanders, but it is unfair to blame the legal tourists for putting a strain on public resources. After all, it is the Hong Kong government’s responsibility, rather anyone else’s, to protect its citizens’ jobs and benefits. These must not be compromised by the flush of Mainland cash.