(Bloomberg) -- In ousting a group of American reporters in Beijing, China also dealt a severe blow to Hong Kong’s autonomy that could have lasting repercussions for media freedom in the city.
China on Wednesday said that U.S. journalists set to be expelled from Beijing wouldn’t be allowed to work in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong or Macau, either. That’s despite the fact Hong Kong has separate powers of immigration and a higher degree of press freedom under the city’s mini-constitution known as the Basic Law, which underpins the “one country, two systems” principle governing relations with Beijing.
“Unless, it is a matter of foreign affairs, the central government should not have a role,” said Fernando Cheung, a Hong Kong opposition lawmaker and frequent critic of Beijing. “By disallowing foreign journalists to work in Hong Kong, the Chinese central government has violated the Basic Law and the principles of ‘one country, two systems.’”
In a statement late Wednesday, the city’s government acknowledged the mainland’s expulsion order and said “Hong Kong enjoys press freedom” and its immigration department “will consider the circumstances of the case and act in accordance with the laws and immigration policies.”
China’s move further strengthens its grip over Hong Kong following months of sometimes-violent protests against Beijing’s increasing control or the city. The unrest was first sparked by a proposed bill that would’ve allowed extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China, which critics said would’ve left city residents at the mercy of its opaque justice system.
It has also placed a deeper strain on already troubled relations with Washington after Beijing called the move a response to U.S. caps on Chinese media imposed early this month. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump said at a briefing he wasn’t happy to see China expelling American journalists.
Hong Kong’s ability to determine its own immigration policy has been undermined steadily in the past few years. In 2018, the city denied a visa renewal for Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet after he hosted an event with a local independence activist at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
More recently, Hong Kong denied entry to Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at the time that “allowing or not allowing the entry of certain people is China’s sovereign right.”
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong on Wednesday questioned whether Hong Kong still had control of its immigration policy, saying in a statement that any change would mark “a serious erosion” of the one country, two systems principle.
“The Hong Kong government must immediately clarify the situation and must immediately and without reservation provide assurances that foreign journalists working in Hong Kong and those applying to work in Hong Kong will continue to be issued employment visas without interference from the Chinese government,” the group said.
Beijing’s move targets some of the “most capable” journalists working in China, many of whom have a track record of exposing the country’s human rights violations, said William Nee, a business and human rights analyst at Amnesty International’s Hong Kong office. It’s possible Beijing “learned a lesson” from previous incidents of kicking out journalists who went on to do great work from Hong Kong, he said.
“It’s disturbing that the expelled journalists will not be able to report from Hong Kong,” Nee said. “This egregious action poses a grave threat to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework and the human rights obligations that China and the Hong Kong government must protect under international law and the Basic Law.”
(Updates with statement from Hong Kong’s government in fourth paragraph)
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