Hong Kong’s reputation as a free and open society took a knocking over the last week or so, thanks to three widely reported events: the postponement of artist Badiucao’s exhibition; the barring from entry of previously-ejected Financial Times correspondent Victor Mallet; and the cancellation and subsequent un-cancellation of author Ma Jian’s appearance at a literary festival at Tai Kwun arts complex.
This succession of repressive actions within a few days compounded the bad publicity, as news reports started to lump them together. They also coincided with UN human rights hearings featuring criticism of Hong Kong.
The unofficial-official view is that this is all a matter of bad luck and misunderstandings (and perhaps mishandled PR). As a Standard editorial says: ‘Sadly, all these incidents were avoidable’. The skeptical view is that this is all a clear pattern of Mainlandization, and therefore happened by design.
Badiucao’s exhibition was abandoned because of ‘threats by Chinese authorities’ leading to ‘safety concerns’. Such a vague explanation lets Beijing hacks cast doubt on the story – hey, Pussy Riot turned up.
It would help to know whether the warning was anonymous, in which case it might have been an ultra-nationalist nut, or from a proxy (say, businessman or political figure) with plausible CCP connections, or from the Liaison Office itself. But after the abductions and silencing and forced confessions of the book publishers (whose work, like Badiucao’s, involved lèse–majesté against Xi Jinping) and the CCP’s tactic of threatening dissidents’ families, why wouldn’t you take it seriously?
The Victor Mallet case is straightforward. The government refused him entry as a visitor after rejecting his work visa renewal a month earlier. Officials refuse to say why, but everyone knows it is because, as a Foreign Correspondents Club office-holder, he hosted a (perfectly legal) talk by pro-independence figure Andy Chan – against the express wishes of Chinese officials. The decision not to let him back in to sort out personal things is classic CCP petty vindictiveness, intended to remind others to kowtow to the emperor in future.
The Ma Jian Tai Kwun fiasco is perhaps relatively amusing. The de-facto publicly-funded arts centre’s explanation for cancelling the author’s appearance was dim-witted – implying that the writer would ‘promote his own political interests’. (It’s meaningless, but anyway other guests at the event were discussing ‘political’ issues.) An alternative venue owned by a local developer predictably turned him away in a panic. After much hoo-hah, including a hasty-sounding Hong Kong government denial of any involvement, the hapless Tai Kwun boss reversed the decision, rather pathetically trying to shift blame on the victim by suggesting that Ma had now ‘clarified that he would not promote political’ blah blah.
It looks as if the directive came from Jockey Club grandee-elders who oversee Tai Kwun from on high and are presumably both clueless and spineless when it comes to anything to do with art, Beijing or ‘politics’, let alone PR. A classic Hong Kong establishment pre-emptive shoe-shine gone wrong. By hoping to appease the CCP, they try too hard and screw it up.
It may well be that someone in the Hong Kong administration despaired at yet more bad publicity, checked/pleaded with Beijing’s officials, and gave the Jockey Club bosses a kick up the rear for as-yet-unnecessary self-censorship. By then, the damage was done. The New York Times, BBC and so on do not give ‘bad stupid thing reversed’ follow-up stories the same profile. If this is what happened, it would be the one occasion in this list of unfolding Mainlandizing calamities in which the Hong Kong government actually had a decision-making role.
There is a pattern, of course. The common theme is pressure – real, direct, indirect or implied – from the CCP.