Ma Ying-jeou’s Great SOPA Whitewash

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
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The former Taiwanese president had a golden opportunity to give hope to embattled journalists in Hong Kong. He blew it.

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Barred by the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration from traveling to Hong Kong to attend the Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) 2016 Awards gala dinner on June 15, former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) delivered his scheduled address via videoconference, during which he emphasized the many values that are shared by the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, Ma’s version of history papered over many of the problems that have haunted the Special Administrative Region in recent years.

Conceived in Taiwan and born in Hong Kong, the former president, who stepped down on May 20, pointed to press freedom as a barometer of societies. “Freedom of the press and standards of professional journalism have always indicated the cultural level of modern societies,” Ma said, adding that they “also reflect core values that Taiwan and Hong Kong share and uphold.”

Referring to the Martial Law period in Taiwan, Ma, who as an alleged “professional student” on U.S. campus may have played a role in state repression, said that as freedom of the press was restricted in Taiwan, “we would go to bookstalls to sneak a peek at banned books smuggled in from Hong Kong.”

“People in Hong Kong didn’t even know that they were once our window on the outside world, helping young people in Taiwan to break political taboos,” he said.

“Taiwan and Hong Kong have long shared the core values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law, and especially freedom of expression,” Ma concluded.

All of this is no doubt true, but Ma left something out: he did not make a single mention of the fact that the freedoms, values and rule of law he underscored in his speech have been under siege in Hong Kong as the central government in Beijing tightens its grip on the increasingly restive territory. Given the nature of the event, someone of Ma’s stature should have used the occasion to highlight those problems and to express his support to the members of the journalist and publishing industries there who face an uphill battle against the forces of repression.

If we limited ourselves to Ma’s remarks, we would be under the impression that Hong Kong remains the bastion of a free press in Asia. But that isn’t so. Not anymore. And Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula, in which “one country” increasingly has primacy over “two systems,” is largely to blame. Acquisitions by pro-Beijing conglomerates and advertising pressures have had a detrimental impact on media independence and the ability of editors and journalists to speak truth to power. Discussing the matter in its 2015 report, the U.S.-based Freedom House observed that “Beijing’s enormous economic power and influence over Hong Kong businesses, politicians, and media owners allow it to exert considerable indirect pressure on the territory’s media, leading to growing self-censorship in recent years.”

Newspapers like the South China Morning Post, which now belongs to Chinese billionaire and Alibaba founder Jack Ma (馬雲), have bled out reporters and editors. Beijing also reportedly had a hand in the closing of the pro-democracy House News. And in the past few years, a number of editors and owners of the few remaining media that are critical of Beijing have been physically assaulted — one of them, Ming Pao editor-in-chief Kevin Lau Chun (劉進圖), was attacked with a meat cleaver.

During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, “massive cyberattacks crippled widely read news sites at politically significant moments, and businesses withdrew advertising from outlets that were critical of Beijing and supportive of prodemocracy protesters,” Freedom House wrote.

According to the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index of press freedom, Hong Kong dropped from 18th spot globally in 2002, the year the index was launched, to 70th last year (Taiwan was 51st, China 176th). For the 2016 index, Hong Kong is up one spot to 69th, while Taiwan, which faces pressures of its own from China, remained 51st.

On the publishing side, five booksellers were kidnapped by Chinese authorities, several bookstores have been forced to rid themselves of “controversial” books critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the market has been virtually taken over by bookstores that toe the party line in Beijing.

Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung (梁振英) may have repeatedly asserted the importance of a vibrant press in the SAR, but as someone observed recently, “nowhere in his administration do we see these inspirational words put into action.”

“In fact,” Kent Ewing noted in Hong Kong Free Press, “Leung has presided over a troubling erosion of the very core value to which he was so keen to give lip service” during the annual HK News Awards, which is sponsored by the Newspaper Society of Hong Kong.

According to a recent survey by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, journalist respondents said “they were facing difficulties in obtaining information they need for reporting,” adding that “government manipulation of the media in reporting news had become very common.” A stunning 90% of the journalists involved in the survey said that press freedom had worsened, while 48% said it had suffered “a substantial setback.” Only 1% said press freedom had improved in the past year.

The same survey found that 51% of respondents from the public believed press freedom had worsened, against 35% who thought there had been no change.

Like their counterparts in Taiwan, the residents of Hong Kong undoubtedly understand the value of a free press, but theirs isn’t free anymore. The tables have been turned: Hong Kongers now must come to Taiwan to find books that, as he said, “break the taboos.” As a former official with some standing in this part of the world and an emotional attachment to the former British colony, Ma should not have remained silent on the deterioration of the media and publishing environment in Hong Kong. What a missed opportunity to show leadership!

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