Journalist's expulsion may threaten Hong Kong's unique financial status

  • Hong Kong's decision to reject a new visa for a foreign journalist is raising concerns about the sustainability of the city's unique role as a free and efficient capital market.
  • The head of the city's American Chamber of Commerce says Hong Kong authorities are "sending a worrying signal" by refusing the work document for Victor Mallet, an editor with the Financial Times.
  • Hong Kong, a former British colony now a special region of China, has long enjoyed freedoms unknown in the Chinese mainland.
Members of a pro-government group gather outside the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong to protest a scheduled talk by pro-independence advocate Andy Chan Ho-tin.
Anthony Wallace | AFP | Getty Images
Members of a pro-government group gather outside the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong to protest a scheduled talk by pro-independence advocate Andy Chan Ho-tin.

Hong Kong has long profited on its unique position as a culturally Chinese city with freedom of expression, rule of law and an incorruptible civil service.

Those attributes turned it into a remarkable success as a dynamic banking and trade center known worldwide for being a safe, efficient and reliable place to do business. But an unprecedented decision by local immigration authorities to effectively expel a Hong Kong-based foreign journalist for a prestigious British newspaper has thrown that equation into question.

Authorities' rejection of a new work visa for Victor Mallet, an editor with the Financial Times, "sends a worrying signal" for Hong Kong, Tara Joseph, the president of the local American Chamber of Commerce, said in a Monday statement.

"Without a free press, capital markets cannot properly function, and business and trade cannot be reliably conducted," added Joseph, a former president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong.

On Friday, the Financial Times announced that Mallet's request for a renewal of his visa had been rejected. The FT said no reason was given and Hong Kong immigration authorities said the same day they would not comment on individual cases.

Such applications have traditionally been approved as a matter of course in Hong Kong. The situation is different in neighboring China, where authorities have used actual and threatened expulsions of journalists as punishment for reporting they find sensitive or embarrassing.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was famously promised it would have a high degree of autonomy and its legal system would not change for 50 years when it became a special administrative region of China in 1997 under the "one country, two systems" formula, but the situation has been seen as steadily eroding for a number of years.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's top official, was pressed by journalists Tuesday on Mallet's case, but refused to comment on specifics.

"I can assure you ... freedom of expression, freedom of reporting are core values in Hong Kong," she said, according to an official press release, adding that she and the government would protect such rights.

'The Beijing way'

Mallet's transgression appears to have been his prominent role as a vice president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club when in August it invited a member of a now-banned local political party that calls for the city to declare independence from China — a red line for the central government in Beijing.

The speech on the club's premises went ahead in the face of efforts by Hong Kong and Beijing authorities to stop it.

Despite Joseph's comments, it was difficult to find others in Hong Kong's business and financial world taking a similar stand, at least so far.

The European Chamber of Commerce told CNBC it had no comment, while the British Chamber of Commerce said it was "considering" the issue.

The local stock exchange and several major international banks contacted by CNBC said they would not be commenting.

Victoria Tin-bor Hui, an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Notre Dame and an expert on Hong Kong, said that the visa action was a "strong signal" by Hong Kong authorities the message of which is undeniable.

"You guys mess with us, we're just going the China way, the Beijing way," Hui said.

"Basically, what's the difference between Hong Kong and China these days when we say something, when you do something that the government doesn't like, and denying a visa which is exactly what Beijing has been doing to journalists," she added.

The British-based and now Japanese owned FT suggested that Mallet's treatment was meant as a warning.

"It sends a chilling message to everyone in Hong Kong, highlighting Beijing's tightening grip on the territory and the steady erosion of basic rights that are guaranteed in Hong Kong's laws and international agreements," the paper said in an editorial Monday.