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Press freedom dies in Hong Kong, and one of China’s top cops disappears


Dear Access members:

We’ve got six news items at the top for you today. I remain on the lookout for happy stories, but this was not a good week for them!

—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief


1. The day Hong Kong press freedom died

From July 1, 1997, until October 5, 2018, Hong Kong was the only part of the People’s Republic of China that enjoyed a thriving — and largely uncensored — news media. Yet there have been growing threats to freedom of expression ranging from violent attacks on critical journalists to commercial and political pressures on news organizations. Way back in 2015, Foreign Policy published an article about how press freedom was eroding in Hong Kong.

Today marks the first time the Hong Kong government has pulled off the mask. The official refusal of a journalist’s visa as retribution for an event he attended is a tactic from Beijing’s playbook. It’s a watershed event: Hong Kong can no longer meaningfully claim to have a free press.

Hong Kong Free Press, which is clearly going to need all the support it can get in the coming years, reports:

Hong Kong rejects visa renewal for foreign press club vice-pres. who chaired independence talk

Hong Kong has refused to renew the visa for the foreign press club’s vice president, HKFP has learned.

Victor Mallet, the Financial Times’ Asia News Editor, has served as the vice president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong since 2017.

“This is the first time we have encountered this situation in Hong Kong, and we have not been given a reason for the rejection,” a spokesperson for the Financial Times told HKFP. Mallet chaired a talk by pro-independence activist Andy Chan (陈浩天 Chén Hàotiān) at the FCC in August, which the office of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong had tried to block

The FCC was heavily criticized by the Hong Kong government as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for hosting the talk.

Further coverage:

Other threats to free expression in Hong Kong

2. Chinese president of Interpol disappears

In 2016, Mèng Hóngweǐ 孟宏伟 was appointed president of Interpol, the organization that facilitates international police cooperation. He holds the position concurrently with his role as vice minister of China’s Ministry of Public Security.

Meng’s selection was controversial, with critics worrying that he would abuse his position to arrest Chinese dissidents and refugees abroad. Interpol issues “Red Notices,” a type of international arrest warrant that Russia and China sometimes use to target political opponents.

Now Meng is in trouble himself: French police opened an investigation after his wife reported him missing today, according to Lori Hinnant and Christopher Bodeen of the Associated Press. She had not heard from her 64-year-old husband since he left Lyon, France, where Interpol is based, on a trip back to China when he disappeared.

  • “Interpol is aware of media reports in connection with the alleged disappearance of Interpol President Meng Hongwei. This is a matter for the relevant authorities in both France and China. Interpol’s General Secretariat headquarters will not comment further,” reports CNN.
  • “The statement noted that Interpol’s secretary general, and not its president, is responsible for the international police agency’s operations,” notes the AP report linked above.
  • “Meng Hongwei’s disappearance seems to fit in with a now familiar pattern among China’s senior Communist Party officials,” explains the BBC’s Celia Hatton. “The official in question suddenly drops out of the public eye and an alarm is raised that the person is ‘missing,’ usually by members of the public. Eventually, the party issues a terse statement that the official is ‘under investigation,’ the official is then booted from the party for ‘disciplinary infractions’ and — eventually — a prison sentence is announced.”
  • “The possible downfall of Mr. Meng could also acutely embarrass the Chinese government, with reverberations felt far beyond Beijing,” say Chris Buckley and Aurelien Breeden of the New York Times (porous paywall). “Meng’s disappearance threatens to taint China’s image, demonstrating that even the most prominent official of an international police organization is subject to secretive disappearance under Mr. Xi.”

What a strange situation. The head of an international police body disappears, and the official response is to keep mum. Journalist Isaac Stone Fish has thoughts, via Twitter:

So the president of the global policing body Interpol Meng Hongwei has disappeared after a trip to China. This is obviously a huge deal. Why it’s problematic to appoint Chinese Communist Party officials to head international bodies.

When Meng — who remains a vice minister of public security — was appointed in 2016, rights groups criticized the decision because they thought Interpol would issue arrest warrants to political enemies of Beijing, like the exiled tycoon Guō Wénguì 郭文贵.

But the bigger problem is that Party members must follow the rules, dictates, and whims of the Party above anything else. Meng couldn’t be expected to serve the interests of Interpol, but rather the interests of the Party.

Furthermore, if the Party decides that he is under investigation, or acted corruptly (which seems to be what has happened), it doesn’t feel the need to explain what happened.

Contrast this with the 2011 scandal involving then IMF managing director Strauss-Kahn, accused of sexually assaulting a maid, which played out publicly. The IMF could respond accordingly. I’d be surprised if Interpol itself knows what happened to Meng.

Meng’s situation is a warning that international organizations should think twice before appointing Party members to run them.

3. U.S.-China relations — trade war, day 92

I called yesterday decoupling day 1, but we’ll stick to our previous terminology for now, and mark October 5 as day 92 of the U.S.-China trade war. Here are the latest reports on the ongoing war of words, tariffs, and accusations:

Reaction to Mike Pence’s speech

  • China’s Foreign Ministry reacted to yesterday’s speech by the American vice president with a statement full of boilerplate about “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and “China’s national conditions.”
  • The statement denies Pence’s accusation that China interferes in American elections, but does not specifically respond to any other charges in the speech, such as militarization of the South China Sea, or the internment camps for Uyghurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang.
  • The key audience for Pence’s speech was a domestic American one, argues Ryan Hass of the Brookings Institution. He says “the clear objectives were to lay the basis for an adversarial posture toward China and to justify President Trump’s accusation that China is interfering in America’s electoral process.”
  • The speech “was not a search for off-ramps or for lowering tensions, but rather a message of America’s determination to elevate pressure until Beijing accepts the bilateral relationship, as Washington envisions it,” adds Hass.
  • “Any residual hope Beijing might have had that the United States was not out to contain its rise was quashed by Vice-President Mike Pence’s blistering attack on Thursday, according to analysts,” says the South China Morning Post.
  • “Taiwan’s presidential office has thanked U.S. Vice President Mike Pence for supporting Taiwan in his speech,” reports Hong Kong Free Press.
  • “Will China hack the U.S. midterms?” asks Adam Segal in the New York Times (porous paywall), in response to Pence’s allegations. Segal is the author of The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age, and a Sinica Podcast guest. To summarize his answer: Probably not, but it could. Read the whole thing for a less dumbed-down explanation.

Chinese in America

Chi Wang (王冀 Wáng Jì), a former head of the Chinese section of the U.S. Library of Congress, argues in the South China Morning Post that if Chinese students in the United States engaged more deeply with their host communities, some of the current hostility to China could be ameliorated:

The children of the elite in China travel to the U.S. simply for their own personal benefit, and are not concerned with how their actions may be perceived by Americans… More than ever before in the 70 years that I have been in the US, I am now sensing growing hostility toward Chinese in America.

Bloomberg spy chip allegations

Yesterday, Bloomberg published a bombshell of a report — it alleged that a Chinese military unit implanted tiny microchips on server motherboards made in China, which ended up being used by Apple, Amazon, and the CIA. Apple and Amazon have disputed the claims. Here are some follow-up reports:

Trade war and tariffs

4. Self-cultivating with state media

The National Day holiday week means central state media are still in slow-mo. Today’s top stories:

5. Two things on our radar this weekend

Policing the internet service providers

The South China Morning Post reports:

China has issued a new regulation setting out wide-ranging police powers to inspect internet service providers and users, as the government further tightens its grip on the country’s heavily restricted cyberspace. Under the new rule, effective from November 1, central and local public security authorities can enter the premises of all companies and entities that provide internet services, and look up and copy information considered relevant to cybersecurity.

Restricting teachers’ travel

Radio Free Asia says that “China is issuing an effective travel ban to teachers in its elementary and secondary schools, recalling their passports in some locations ahead of the National Day holiday this week.”

One teacher quoted in the piece says: “We don’t get it either. I had to hand in my passport, as well, because that’s what they told us to do. We daren’t say anything… We’re not rich, and we only go overseas to visit relatives from time to time, so we are baffled by this.”

—Jeremy Goldkorn

6. The intriguing history of Hunan TV

In today’s Chinese Corner, our weekly look at popular Chinese nonfiction writing:

For a long period of time, when most Chinese TV stations were still showing badly produced dramas and propaganda, Hunan TV was the only channel you could tune in to for high-quality variety shows. In 1997, it created Happy Camp 快乐大本营, which was, in some ways, China’s first reality TV show. Eight years later, the singing contest show Super Girl 超级女声 became a nationwide hit, and it was imitated by countless other talent shows. But today, Hunan TV is facing growing criticism for its excessive emphasis on ratings and a number of plagiarism scandals.

For more, click through to SupChina.

—Jiayun Feng

—–

Our whole team really appreciates your support as Access members. Please chat with us on our Slack channel or contact me anytime at jeremy@supchina.com.

—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief


Here are the stories that caught our eye this week:

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Jeremy Goldkorn

Jeremy Goldkorn worked in China for 20 years as an editor and entrepreneur. He is editor-in-chief of SupChina, and co-founder of the Sinica Podcast.