UK seeks ‘urgent explanation’ as Hong Kong bans journalist

The FT’s Asia news editor and a British national earned the ire of authorities for hosting a speech by the leader of a tiny pro-independence political party. (AFP pic)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s decision to effectively blacklist a senior Financial Times journalist required an “urgent explanation”, the UK said Saturday, as foreign governments sounded the alarm over eroding freedoms in the former British colony.

Victor Mallet, the FT’s Asia news editor and a British national, earned the ire of authorities for hosting a speech by Andy Chan, the leader of a tiny pro-independence political party.

Chan attacked China as an empire trying to “annex” and “destroy” Hong Kong in a strident speech at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), where Mallet serves as vice president.

China’s foreign ministry had requested the club to pull the talk, but the FCC refused, arguing that all sides of a debate should be heard.

Rival protesters picketed the lunchtime event and the city’s former leader Leung Chun-ying called for the club to be evicted from its government-owned premises.

The FT said Friday that immigration authorities in Hong Kong had declined to renew Mallet’s visa, a decision rights groups and media organisations said was unprecedented.

“We have asked the Hong Kong Government for an urgent explanation,” said the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office in a statement.

“Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and its press freedoms are central to its way of life, and must be fully respected.”

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland, including freedom of expression, which are protected in the city’s Basic Law and the handover agreement between China and Britain.

But the space for dissent is shrinking as Beijing flexes its muscles.

The US consulate said Mallet’s visa denial was “especially disturbing”.

“It mirrors problems faced by international journalists in the Mainland and appears inconsistent with the principles enshrined in the Basic Law,” US consulate general spokesman Harvey Sernovitz told AFP.

But the decision to deny Mallet a new visa was cheered by pro-Beijing media.

A commentary in the Ta Kung Pao newspaper on Saturday said the journalist had to “pay the price” for giving exposure to Hong Kong’s fringe independence movement, and said authorities may still act to evict the FCC from the premises it has occupied since 1982.

Hong Kong authorities last week banned Chan’s Hong Kong National Party, calling it a threat to national security.

It was the first ban on a political party since the territory reverted to Chinese control in 1997.