Censorship in Hong Kong since the Umbrella Movement: An overview
67 incidents listed and categorized by type of expression, censor and victim indicate censorship has been getting worse in HK for a long time.
Note: This article is regularly updated whenever a new instance of political censorship in Hong Kong occurs. It was most recently updated on April 17, 2019.The original article in November 2018 listed 57 incidents.
I haven’t been rigorously tracking censorship in Hong Kong, but after a recent series of incidents — the cancellation of Chinese artist Badiucao’s exhibition on 1 November after having received threats, the refusal of entry to Hong Kong of Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet on 8 November, and the cancellation of Ma Jian’s 10 November Hong Kong International Literary Festival events by two different venues (one of which eventually reconsidered) — , I began to think I should. What follows is a list of incidents that have occurred over the past four years. I suspect it is far from exhaustive, but it is extensive enough to indicate a pattern of worsening censorship.
The list goes back to the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Of course, there was censorship before the Umbrella Movement. Especially in the months preceding the movement, as pressure built, censorship increased dramatically. For example, the postal service refused to deliver Scholarism’s flyers, and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department of the HK government denied use of Tamar Park to students on the climactic day of their class boycott, ironically leading to them getting the idea of occupying Civic Square, thus triggering the Umbrella Movement, a classic case of censorship backfiring.
But since then, censorship in HK has become more widespread and the number of incidents has increased. Especially in regard to certain issues, the Communist Party and HK government have made a concerted effort to impose a censorship regime upon the city, frequently invoking a vaguely defined “red line” and repeating “freedom of expression is not absolute” like a mantra.
This list includes only clear, discrete instances of political censorship. That means cases in which people have been prevented from saying something, or prevented from holding an event or a public gathering or otherwise associating, or punished for clearly political reasons for doing any of the above, or because of their political opinions or expressions, or when governmental authorities have used their power to condemn political expression for the clear purposes of deterrence and intimidation.
As such, the list is by definition incomplete because censorship works, to a large extent, through creating an environment hostile to free expression and encouraging people to censor themselves: we will never know the expression that might have occurred if people felt fully free to express themselves.
Routine censorship is arguably the most pervasive and problematic. The Communist Party’s Liaison Office owns at least an 80 percent market share of book distribution and retail in HK, including 51 bookstores. These bookstores do not carry books politically disagreeable to the Party. A substantial portion of the media is owned by Party allies. In annual reports by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, journalists have year after year reported widespread self-censorship in the media. Art from the Umbrella Movement has not found a home in any official institutions in Hong Kong and instead has had to seek sanctuary abroad. Police routinely declare demonstrations “unlawful”, and judges have issued stricter sentencing guidelines for certain protest-related crimes, sending the signal that it is dangerous to demonstrate and you could be arrested and punished, deterring people from coming out.
The incidents of censorship itemized here are like canaries in the coal mine, bellwethers, the tip of the iceberg. One suspects and feels there is much more beneath the surface.
Both systemic censorship (Party control of the book industry, for example) and discrete incidents of censorship (for example, the bookseller detentions) “ripple outward”, having widespread effects that largely go unreported. Most forms of censorship never reach the surface because they are standard practice. A striking number of cases itemized below only came to light because institutions reversed initial decisions to allow an event to occur or adopted a new censorious policy.
The detention of five HK booksellers on the mainland in late 2015 is widely perceived to have sent a chill through the HK book industry. Highly reputable publishers such as Bao Pu (best known for having published Zhao Ziyang’s memoir and for having decided not to publish Li Peng’s after Party intervention) have moved their publishing operations elsewhere. The fact that so much of the book industry is controlled by the Party meant that I didn’t even try to find a city-wide book distributor for my Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong or to get it into bookstores.
Also not included in the list are instances of restrictions on largely non-political expression. Buskers and street performers have recently been banned at Mong Kok and Times Square, part of wide-ranging attempts by the government and property developers to more tightly restrict the use of already inadequate public space in a crowded city. These efforts have a negative impact on the opportunity to fully exert freedom of expression and are part of the increasingly censorious environment in HK.
The inclusion of some of the items on the list may be controversial. To take one example, six newly elected pro-democracy Legislative Council members were disqualified in October 2016 for their expressions during the Legco oath-taking ceremony. They were removed from office over what they said and how they said it though they had broken no law and were not charged with a crime — a clear case of censorship.
That incident shows too how closely the right of freedom of expression is often related to other rights, such as freedom of belief and opinion, the rights to vote, to run for election, and to be elected and hold public office, and the right to participate in government. In other cases, free speech is closely linked to the rights to freedom of assembly and of association.
Likewise, the barring of candidates from running for public office on political grounds — which has become standard practice by the Electoral Affairs Commission since the September 2016 Legislative Council elections, with altogether eleven candidates barred — both punishes their previous expression of political beliefs and infringes upon their right of freedom of expression.
It’s worth emphasizing that in all these cases of censure resulting in legal action being taken to punish or prevent expression, the victims’ expression was not explicitly prohibited by law and the victim had broken no law and was charged with no crime. Given that Basic Law Article 39 states, “The rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents shall not be restricted unless as prescribed by law,” governmental authorities have had to adopt “creative” means to prevent and punish political expression which is not explicitly prohibited but which they deem unacceptable.
One of the striking aspects of post-Umbrella censorship is the sheer number of means the HK government has employed to censor — disqualifications from Legco, barrings from elections, a ban on a political party, gross intimidation of the press, compelling semi-independent governmental departments and agencies and public universities to censor, use of arcane and rarely used laws, and aggressively pursuing cases in the courts with the help, in one case, of intervention by the Communist Party in the form of an “interpretation” of the Basic Law. In pursuit of its censorship aims, it has damaged rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the civil service and academic freedom as well as compromising the only free elections HK had.
As the list below shows, it is not only governmental authorities that censor. While the HK government and the Communist Party and its agents are the censors in 45 of the 67 cases, the list of censors includes arts and cultural institutions, universities, businesses, the media, venues and events, advertisers and even, in one case, the United Nations.
Many of us censor ourselves in our daily lives, and in doing so, condition ourselves and others to do so. In regard to the “Beneath Lion Rock” episode itemized below, it was hotels and actors that decided not to cooperate with the television program, effectively censoring themselves and making it more difficult for the show to be completed. Often in the past four years, well-meaning people have warned me, “Be careful what you say.” Very important ways to resist censorship are to refuse to censor ourselves and others, to check ourselves whenever we do, to support others who freely express themselves, especially if they get in trouble for doing so, and to call out those who do censor, especially if they do so from positions of power and authority.
An analysis of the cases
There are 44 entries below related to 67 different incidents of censorship. For example, the disqualification of six pro-democracy Legco members is one entry involving six cases. Other entries that contain more than one case are the detained booksellers, the censoring of election materials, the barring of election candidates (in three different entries), the censoring of the word “national” in reference to Taiwan universities in government flyers, and the censoring of independence advocacy on university campuses.
types of expression censored
independence (23 cases), criticism of the Communist Party (16), pro-democracy (10), self-determination (8), Taiwan-related (4), criticism of Chief Executive (4), anti-corruption (3), books about China (1), foreign reporting on corruption (1)
Some of the cases are difficult to categorize. For example, why exactly was the “Countdown Machine” censored? Presumably because it coincided with the visit of Party leader Zhang Dejiang. Therefore, I classify it under “criticism of the Communist Party”. Joshua Wong was barred from appearing at Asia Society before official criticism of his party Demosistō’s self-determination stance really ramped up; therefore, this type of censored expression is classified as “pro-democracy”. Benny Tai mentioning independence in Taiwan is one of three cases classified in two categories, “independence” and “Taiwan-related”, though it could also be classified under “pro-democracy”, since essentially what the government and its allies were doing was signalling to moderate pro-democracy leaders like Tai that they too are fair game. The other double-categorized cases are the Chief Executive threatening Apple Daily with legal action over an article about an allegedly corrupt buisness deal he was involved in, under both “criticism of Chief Executive” and “anti-corruption” and actually suing Kenneth Leung over a statement the latter made about the same deal.
HK government — 29 cases, including specific agencies and departments, Electoral Affairs Commission (13), High Court (6), Leisure and Cultural Services Department (3), Chief Executive (3), Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (2), police (2), Companies Registry (1), Hong Kong Arts Development Council (1)
Communist Party and its agents — 16 cases
arts and cultural institutions — 5 cases, including Asia Society (2), Hong Kong Arts Development Council, M+, and Tai Kwun
universities — 4 cases, including specific instances at Baptist University, Polytechnic University and Chinese University
businesses — 6 cases (cinemas, hotels, a delivery service, 3 mainland printing companies)
media — 7 cases, ViuTV, TVB, RTHK, Ming Pao, sector-wide self-censorship related to HK independence
venues and events — 2 cases, The Annex at Nan Fung Place, Yabuli Youth Forum 2018
advertisers — 1 case, Lancôme
United Nations — 1 case
I say “direct victims” because, ultimately, all HK people are the victims.
politicians — 20 cases, including Lau Siu-lai (2), Nathan Law (2), James Chan (2), Edward Yiu, Leung Kwok-hung, Baggio Leung, Yau Wai-ching, Agnes Chow, Joshua Wong, Eddie Chu (2), Edward Leung, Ventus Lau, Alice Lai, Yeung Ke-cheong, Nakade Hitsujiko, and Kenneth Leung
political parties — 18 cases, including Demosistō (7), HK National Party (5), Youngspiration (3), League of Social Democrats (2), Democratic Party (2)
artists and artworks — 9 cases, including Denise Ho (2), Ma Jian, Badiucao, “Beneath Lion Rock”, “Raise the Umbrellas”, “Countdown Machine”, “Ten Years”, “Right and Wrong”
journalists — 7 cases, including RTHK (2), Apple Daily, Sing Pao, Victor Mallet
businesses — 5 cases, the Causeway Bay Books booksellers
academics and students — 5 cases, including Undergrad magazine, Benny Tai, Billy Fung, Wang Dan
events — 3 cases, Hong Kong International Literary Festival, Free Expression Week, Yabuli Youth Forum 2018
organizations — 2 cases, Foreign Correspondents Club, Civil Human Rights Front
The HK government is by far the biggest censor, doing much of the Communist Party’s bidding, but the Party itself has not hesitated to involve itself directly, despite the fact that according to the “one country, two systems” principle of a “high degree of autonomy” for HK, it is not supposed to interfere. It has employed a variety of means, from the legal (unilaterally inserting an “intepretation” into the Basic Law so as to determine the outcome of a court case), to more frequent public statements by Party officials on a variety of HK cases (prohibiting those who call for an end to one-party dictatorship from running for Legco, Benny Tai, independence and self-determination advocacy, etc), to actually abducting people off the streets (HK bookseller Lee Bo).
Perhaps just as troubling as the fact that government authorities are the biggest censors is the extent to which a variety of other organizations and individuals have participated in the censorship, presumably not least due to (usually indirect) pressure from government authorities. It should be emphasized, though, that in few of the cases of non-governmental censorship has the government actively told another entity to censor. In this respect, the case of Andy Chan and the Foreign Correspondents Club is exceptional. Rather, these entities have surmised the correct political position and acted of their own accord, presumably so as to stay on the good side of the authorities.
The conclusion is that the greatest threat to freedom of expression in Hong Kong is the combination of governmental authorities and non-governmental actors practicing censorship, in turn encouraging society-wide self-censorship.
Notably, Ma Jian’s case is the only one of the 61 cases in which the censor, Tai Kwun, reversed its decision in the face of public criticism.
List of incidents of political censorship
in chronological order, starting with the most recent
The following list errs on the side of caution: There had to be pretty strong and clear evidence in order for an incident to be included. All of the below incidents were reported in the media; most were reported widely. I came across many borderline cases. I found it especially difficult to evaluate reports of suspected censorship in the media, in particular having to do with removal of articles, discontinuation of regular columns and changing of editorial staff. These might have been politically motivated and censorious, or have had a censorious effect, but in many cases, that’s unclear.
To give an example of some of the omissions, reported cases of censorship I have not included here are HK01’s publication, deletion and republication of an article on new information about the Tiananmen massacre; HK Economic Journal’s discontinuation of Joseph Lian’s column; the barring of online-only media from government press conferences (finally lifted in September 2017); threatening anonymous letters sent to Hong Kong Free Press; and SCMP’s deletion of an opinion column linking Xi Jinping with a Singaporean investor.
22% of HK journalists report being censored by superiors over HK independence
16 April 2019, Censorship: In its annual Press Freedom Index, the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association reports that 22 percent of HK journalists “said their seniors had exerted pressure on them to drop or reduce reporting on Hong Kong independence.” Censor: Editors of HK media. Outcome: Presumably, this sort of systematic, routine self-censorship is on-going. This entry is an anomaly in the list in that it doesn’t refer to a discrete incident, but it is noteworthy in that it is evidence of an important trend. It could also be considered evidence of an intimidating impact of discrete incidents such as the refusal to reissue a work visa to Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet after he chaired an event at the Foreign Correspondents Club featuring a speech by then HK National Party chair Andy Chan Ho-tin. In the same HKJA Press Freedom Index, 81 percent of journalists surveyed said that press freedom has deteriorated in HK over the past year. Both the public and journalists blame the deterioration on the influence of the Chinese government.
Mainland companies refuse to print Demosistō’s logo and Democratic Party’s satirical banners for New Year’s Fair
29 January 2019, Censorship: Three mainland manufacturers refuse to print pro-democracy parties’ products to sell at the New Year’s Fair. In one case, Demosistō say two mainland companies refuse to print its logo on a bag, although one printed the bag without the logo. The group say the companies told it they had received “official documents” telling them what logos must not be printed. In the other case, Democratic Party say a mainland manufacturer refused to print satirical banners about HK politicians. Censor: Mainland companies, apparently at the behest of Party authorities. Outcome: Demosistō’s bag is printed without the logo. Democratic Party also had toilet paper with former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s face on it seized by mainland authorities in 2015. Whereas in that case, the toilet paper was printed and then seized by mainland authorities; in this case, the companies themselves refused to print the products.
Delivery service SF Express refuses to send books about China and political topics
14 January 2019, Censorship: In two separate cases, delivery service SF Express refuses to send books. In one case, the sender attempts to send books from Taiwan to Hong Kong. Three books are rejected on grounds that they constituted“sensitive content”. The SF Express employee who rejects them explains “no books are allowed right now, especially ones about China.” In the other case, SF Express refuses to send two books from Hong Kong to South Korea, telling the sender this is because the books constitute “sensitive content”. Censor: SF Express, a mainland-owned company with a large presence in Hong Kong. Outcome: In Taiwan, SF Express refuses to acknowledge the incident. In Hong Kong, SF Express makes no comment on the specific case. The books are not even ones generally recognized as the sort Chinese authorities would deem “sensitive” or “prohibited”. It is unclear whether the refusal to send books is related to company policy of any kind, but the fact that two separate incidents are reported, along with the company’s reticence, raises the question.
China spies on Wall Street Journal reporters in Hong Kong
7 January 2019, Censorship: News emerges that in 2016 China “was surveilling the [Wall Street Journal] in Hong Kong at Malaysia’s request, including ‘full scale residence/office/device tapping, computer/phone/web data retrieval, and full operational surveillance’”. Censor: Chinese authorities Outcome: The news is based on notes taken by the Malaysian government and shown to WSJ, from a meeting with Sun Lijun, the then head of China’s domestic-security force. A variety of groups have called on the Hong Kong government to investigate the report, but the government has given no sign that it is or will. In the wake of the abductions from Hong Kong of Lee Bo and Xiao Jianhua by mainland agents, the Hong Kong government and police have a poor track record of getting to the bottom of reports of mainland security agents and spies operating in Hong Kong, and many people have little to no confidence that they can or will do so. While it is debatable whether spying per se constitutes censorship, in this case it is certainly a restriction on freedom of the press, especially with the news coming in the wake of the Hong Kong government’s refusal to renew the visa of Victor Mallet. It has a chilling effect on the environment for foreign reporters in Hong Kong.
Independence advocacy banned from Civic Square
Eddie Chu barred from running for village representative
2 December 2018, Censorship: Eddie Chu Hoi-dick is barred from running in an election for village representative in Yuen Long on grounds that he advocates self-determination and believes Hong Kong people have a right to choose independence (although he doesn’t advocate that himself). This is in spite of the fact that he is a sitting Legislative Council member. In fact, in the 2016 Legco election, he received more votes than any candidate ever. Censor: Electoral Affairs Commission of the Hong Kong government. Outcome: Chu becomes the eleventh candidate to be barred from running on political grounds; the second in a row, after Lau Siu-lai, to be barred from running due to self-determination advocacy even though both were allowed to run (and won) in September 2016; the first sitting Legco member to be barred from running in an election; and the first candidate to be barred from a non-Legco election. The Party and HK government are intent on excluding self-determinationists from all elections, though there is no law against advocacy of either self-determination or independence, and no court has ever ruled that advocacy of either is “against the Basic Law”, as the government claims. (In fact, the right of self-determination is enshrined in Basic Law Article 39.) The “red line” is arbitrary and shifting, and elections in HK are further compromised.
Tai Kwun bars Ma Jian events at Hong Kong International Literary Festival, then relents
10 November 2018, Censorship: Tai Kwun refuses use of its venue on grounds Ma Jian is too “political”. Then the alternative venue, the Annex at Nan Fung Place, also refuses use. Tai Kwun backtracks and agrees to hold the two events involving Ma Jian after a public outcry. Censor: Tai Kwun & the Annex at Nan Fung Place. Outcome: The events are held, in the only clear case in Hong Kong of a censor reversing its decision, but doubt is cast over Tai Kwun’s and more broadly Hong Kong public cultural institutions’ commitment to freedom of expression.
Badiucao art exhibition at Free Expression Week closed after threats
2 November 2018, Censorship: Badiucao receives unspecified threats from Chinese authorities. He first decides not to come to HK to attend the exhibition for fear for his safety. Then the exhibition is cancelled entirely. Censor: Chinese authorities. Outcome: The rest of Free Expression Week goes ahead as planned. The main organizer, Hong Kong Free Press, announces it will be bigger next year.
Lau Siu-lai barred from running for November Legislative Council by-election on political grounds
12 October 2018, Censorship: The Electoral Affairs Commission bars Lau Siu-lai from running in a Legislative Council by-election to fill a seat vacated by her disqualification in 2016. Its grounds are her previous advocacy of self-determination. Censor: Electoral Affairs Commission of HK government. Outcome: Lau is the tenth candidate in all to have been banned on political grounds, preceded by six in 2016 Legco elections and three in March 2018 by-elections. She probably would have won the seat which she won in 2016, when she was not barred from running even though she advocated self-determination then, the moving goalposts a clear sign of the Party and HK government’s shifting, arbitrary and hardening “red line”. The only free and fair elections in HK, for Legco geographical constituencies, have been substantially compromised by political screening, leaving probably at least one-fifth of the electorate effectively disenfranchised.
Hotels refuse rooms, actors pull out of RTHK “Beneath Lion Rock” episode
October 2018, Censorship: The director reports hotels not allowing the iconic program, “Beneat Lion Rock” to book a room for shooting and actors changing their mind and declining to participate. The episode is about bookseller Lam Wing-kee’s return to Hong Kong after his detention in China, and is therefore apparently considered “sensitive” by some. Censors: Hotels and actors. Outcome: The incident is an indication of creeping self-censorship within the tourism and entertainment industries. The episode is aired on RTHK.
Demosistō submission to UN Universal Periodic Review of China’s human rights record blocked by UN human rights office
September-November 2018, Censorship: Apparently at China’s request, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights removed the submissions of Demosistō and six other groups from its stakeholder summary for the UN Universal Periodic Review of China (including Hong Kong and Macau). Eventually, it reinserted reference to the submissions of five of those groups, but not those of Demosistō and one other. Censor: Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, apparently at China’s request. Outcome: Demosistō and the other groups were effectively excluded from the UPR, by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights no less, even though that office in the past has continually stressed the importance of civil society participation. Doubt is cast on the independence and impartiality of that office, and there is growing suspicion that UN human rights mechanisms are being undermined by China.
HK National Party banned
24 September 2018, Censorship: The HK government bans HK National Party for its advocacy of independence, on grounds it endangers national security and public order. To do so, it employs a never-before-used provision in the Societies Ordinance. Censor: The HK government Outcome: This is the first time ever a political group has been banned for any reason. HK National Party is appealing to the Executive Council, but its chances of success are considered exceedingly low.
Independence advocacy on campuses condemned by university heads
September 2018, Censorship: Baptist University removes “politically sensitive” portions of the student union president’s speech from the program for the school year opening ceremony. Polytechnic University removes independence-related content from the student union’s Democracy Wall, sparking protests and hunger strike. Censors: Baptist and Polytechnic universities. Outcome: PolyU eventually comes to an agreement with the student union to return to the previously agreed rules for the Democracy Wall. The atmosphere for freedom of expression on university campuses worsens. Independence advocacy is driven further underground.
Talk by Andy Chan, head of HK National Party, at HK Foreign Correspondents Club condemned by authorities
14 August 2018, Censorship: Communist Party and HK govt demand FCC cancel event on the ground that it would provide a platform for independence advocacy. Censor: Communist Party and HK government. Outcome: The event goes ahead as planned. On 24 September, HKNP becomes the first political party ever to be banned in HK. On 5 October, news emerges that the work visa of Victor Mallet, vice-chair of FCC who hosted Chan’s talk, was not renewed. He becomes the first foreign journalist effectively expelled from HK on political grounds. On 9 November, Mallet is barred from entering HK.
RTHK decides not to livestream Andy Chan’s talk at FCC
August 2018, Censorship: RTHK director Leung Ka-wing orders that Andy Chan’s talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club not be livestreamed, saying that “the station cannot provide a platform for Hong Kong independence.” Censor: Leung Ka-wing, RTHK director Outcome: The broadcaster was allowed to broadcast the talk, just not stream it live. (This incident might not have been excluded except for the fact that the director’s reported reason for not allowing a livestream was clearly political and not having to do with, for example, the newsworthiness of the occasion.)
Yabuli Youth Forum 2018 tells journalists to let it vet news reports
June 2018, Censorship: A forum organized by a mainland think tank tells journalists to sign a declaration giving the organisers the power to edit and approve their reporting on the event and to not report on some of the Party officials attending. Censor: Yabuli Youth Forum 2018. Outcome: Journalists ignores the directive, instead publicizing the censorship attempt.
Benny Tai’s speech in Taiwan condemned in orchestrated attack
April 2018, Censorship: The HK government leads a campaign against HKU law professor and former leader of Occupy Central, Benny Tai, after a speech he gave in Taiwan. The Communist Party and Party allies in HK shrilly participate in this orchestrated condemnation, falsely claiming he advocated HK independence; in fact, he merely discussed the hypothetical possibility of HK independence if China one day becomes a democracy. Censor: HK government, the Party and HK Party allies. Outcome: Though some critics call for Tai’s dismissal from his professorship at Hong Kong University, HKU takes no action. Because Tai is known as a consummately moderate pro-democracy advocate in quite a traditional mold, the fact that he was singled out as an individual by the HK government for criticism over something he never even said was taken as a sign by the pro-democracy movement that in these days, the government may declare open season on anyone.
CCP emissaries say calling for an end to one-party dictatorship in China will be grounds for disqualification from Legco
March 2018, Censorship: Following changes to the Chinese constitution, HK National People’s Congress delegate Tam Yiu-chung & a Party official say candidates may be barred from running for Legco if they call for an “end to one-party dictatorship”, a common demand in HK. Censor: Former DAB Legco member and current NPC delegate Tam Yiu-chung and Chen Sixi, deputy director of the Liaison Office in Macau. Outcome: No one has (yet) been barred on these grounds, but the statements cast doubt on the candidacy later in the year of Lee Cheuk-yan, a leader in HK Alliance, which organizes the June 4 candlelight vigil and has always called for an end to one-party dictatorship. Lee is the replacement candidate for Lau Siu-lai, after she is barred for advocating self-determination. Lee is eventually allowed to run. This is part of a general trend of a variety of political opinions being deemed by the Party, the HK government and Party allies as unacceptable for holders of elected public office, casting a pall of censorship over politics and of uncertainty over elections. Increasingly, the suspense of these compromised elections is not who wins but which pro-democracy candidate manages to thread the needle of the acceptable.
Three candidates for March Legislative Council by-elections barred from running on political grounds
January-February 2018, Censorship: The Electoral Affairs Commission bars three candidates from Legislative Council by-elections, Agnes Chow, Ventus Lau and James Chan. Chow is barred because her party, Demosistō advocates self-determination, and Lau and Chan because of supposed independence advocacy. Chan was also barred in 2016. Censor: The Electoral Affairs Commission of the HK government. Outcome: Up to now, nine candidates in all have been barred on political grounds in 2016 and 2018 elections. Agnes Chow probably would have won a seat. She was running to replace Nathan Law, who was expelled from Legco in 2016 due to his expression during oath-taking, right after winning the election. He was allowed to run for Legco though their party advocates self-determination, but Agnes was barred on those grounds, another sign of the shifting, arbitrary and hardening “red line”.
Demosistō application to register at Companies Registry rejected
January 2018, Censorship: The HK government refuses to allow Demosistō to register as a company, issuing notice nearly two years after it had applied. It usually takes the registry a matter of days to respond to an application, one of the reasons HK often bills itself as the easiest place in the world to start a business. Censor: The Companies Registry of the HK government. Outcome: Demosistō is effectively denied legal recognition, making it impossible to set up a bank account in the party’s name and more difficult to accept funding. Its leader, Joshua Wong, has applied for judicial review of the decision. Some fear this is a step toward banning the party altogether. There is suspicion about the timing, with the rejection coming two years after the application and in the same month that Agnes Chow is eventually barred from running for Legco on the grounds that her party advocates self-determination.
Independence advocacy on university campuses condemned
September 2017, Censorship: HK university heads issue a joint statement condemning independence advocacy after anonymous banners appear on university campuses, especially at Chinese University. University officials threaten to remove them and students vow to prevent that. Censors: HK university heads, backed by the HK government. Outcome: Independence advocacy continues but is driven underground and is often anonymous. At the start of the following academic year, more advocacy of independence occurs and there are more attempts by university authorities to prevent it. This is the first instance of university heads openly acting jointly to prohibit expression. It is considered a sign of the growing influence of the Party on universities and weakening commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression by university leaders.
TVB suspends political satire show during Xi Jinping visit
July 2017, Censorship: Minutes before it is to air, TVB informs RTHK, producer of well-known political satire show “Headliner”, that the program will be postponed. Xi Jinping is visiting Hong Kong. Liu Xiaobo and views critical of Xi Jinping’s visit are in the program. TVB says the show is postponed to make way for “breaking news”, but the news in question turns out to be a pre-recorded speech by… Xi Jinping, which other stations have already reported on earlier in the day. Censor: TVB. Outcome: RTHK lodges a formal complaint against TVB. The show is aired after Xi Jinping leaves town.
Joshua Wong prohibited from speaking at Asia Society Hong Kong
July 2017, Censorship: Asia Society Hong Kong prohibits Joshua Wong from speaking as part of a book launch. Censor: Asia Society Hong Kong. Outcome: Event organizer PEN Hong Kong relocates the launch to the Foreign Correspondents Club. Asia Society headquarters in New York issues a statement distancing itself from Asia Society HK and ascribing the decision to staff “error in judgment”, but this is the second event Asia Society HK has cancelled for apparently political reasons.
Demosistō and League of Social Democrats members prevented from marching to flag-raising ceremony
July 1, 2017, Censorship: Demosistō and LSD members are attacked by pro-CCP thugs. Then 20 are arrested by police even though they are the victims of the attacks. They were attempting to march to the flag-raising ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the handover where they intended to protest. Xi Jinping is in the city, and large numbers of police officers exert great effort to ensure no protester gets near him, essentially putting the area of the city around official venues under lockdown. There are many other smaller incidents that appear to unduly restrict freedom of expression. Censor: Pro-CCP thugs and the HK police. Outcome: All 20 pro-democracy protesters are released without charge. Police say they arrested the demonstrators “for their own safety”. Joshua Wong unsuccessfully tries to sue the police for unlawful arrest and injuries sustained while being arrested.
National Party prevented from holding demonstration
June 30, 2017, Censorship: Police prevent the HK National Party from holding a public gathering to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover, even though the party tries to hold the gathering in two places in Tsim Sha Tsui that are far away from any venues where official commemorations are due to be held. It appears the mere fact of Xi Jinping being in the city means the National Party will not be allowed to appear anywhere in public. Censor: HK police. Outcome: The National Party eventually finds a room to meet at Baptist University, thanks to the student union there. This incident proves to be one of many steps taken by authorities to persecute the party, leading to banning the party altogether, the first time any political group has been prohibited from existing in HK.
Pro-democracy Legco member Kenneth Leung sued by CE for defamation
6 March 2017, Censorship: Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying sues pro-democracy Legislative Council member Kenneth Leung for defamation over a claim Leung made that the CE is being investigated by overseas tax authorities in relation to a business deal concluded before Leung Chun-ying became CE. Censor: Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying Outcome: The case has yet to go to trial. This is the first time a CE has sued anyone for anything, though Leung threatened to sue Apple Daily in 2016 for defamation over claims made in regard to the same business deal.
Party agents threaten pro-CCP Sing Pao Daily
February 2017, Censorship: After pro-Communist Party Sing Pao Daily publishes articles critical of HK Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, CE candidate Carrie Lam, Party leader Zhang Dejiang and the Liaison Office, its website is attacked and its staff receive threats. Evidence suggests the attacks and threats had to have come from Party agents. Censor: Probably Communist Party agents. Outcome: The incidents are reported to the police. The conflict is suspected to be a case of factional infighting within the Party. This is the only clear incident of a pro-CCP victim of censorship, but it is for a type of expression that is among the most commonly censored in HK, criticizing the Communist Party.
Youngspiration and National Party stalls prohibited at Victoria Park New Year fair
19 January 2017, Censorship: The HK government terminates license agreements of two political parties led by young people, Youngspiration and HK National Party, for stalls at HK’s biggest New Year fair, claiming they would “very likely endanger public order and public safety”. Censor: The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department of the HK government. Outcome: The two groups are not allowed to appear. The incident is part of a government effort to deny use of public space and participation in government-administered events to groups it considers enemies.
Six elected pro-democracy Legco members disqualified over oath-taking
November 2016-July 2017, Censorship: The HK government brings legal cases against six newly elected pro-democracy Legco members over their oath-taking upon assuming office, Baggio Leung, Yau Wai-ching, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai, Nathan Law and Edward Yiu. In the middle of the trial of the first two, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee passes an “interpretation” of the Basic Law that virtually compels the High Court to disqualify them. Censor: The Communist Party, HK government and High Court. Outcome: Free and fair elections and the rights of voters and candidates have been significantly compromised. Lau Siu-lai is subsequently barred from running when she tries to regain her seat. Agnes Chow is barred from running when she tries to fill party fellow Nathan Law’s seat. A pall is cast over expression of political opinion, in particular those advocating independence and self-determination. Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching lose their appeals. Leung Kwok-hung is still awaiting the High Court hearing of his appeal.
Screening of “Raise the Umbrellas” documentary cancelled at Asia Society Hong Kong
November 2016, Censorship: Asia Society Hong Kong cancels the screening of “Raise the Umbrellas”, a documentary about the Umbrella Movement. Censor: Asia Society Hong Kong. Outcome: Along with cinemas dropping “Ten Years” in spite of its commercial success, this is part of a trend of venues refusing to show films related to “politically sensitive” topics. Independent HK filmmakers are increasingly left with options similar to those on the mainland: to show at universities, private screenings and international film festivals.
Billy Fung and Wang Dan’s ViuTV show cancelled
October 2016, Censorship: ViuTV cancels its episode of “Travels with rivals” featuring Fung and Wang after the two appear at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan and discuss HK independence, even though it was ViuTV itself that arranged the event. Censor: ViuTV. Outcome: The station later apologizes for falsely accusing Fung and Wang of arranging the FCC talk themselves but reiterates “the station’s stance is clear that we do not allow anyone making speeches advocating Hong Kong independence on the channel.”
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying threatens Apple Daily with legal action
October 2016, Censorship: Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying takes the extraordinary step of threatening pro-democracy Apple Daily with legal action for publishing an editorial accusing him of corruption related to a murky business deal Leung was involved in before becoming CE. This is the first time a sitting CE has ever even threatened to sue anyone. Censor: Leung Chun-ying, head of HK government. Outcome: Leung does not eventually sue Apple Daily, but in March 2017 sues pro-democracy Legco member Kenneth Leung for defamation for claiming overseas tax authorities are investigating Leung in relation to the business deal. That case has yet to go to trial. After leaving office, Leung threatens to sue several others, all over alleged defamation. Arguably, the incidence of attacks on Apple Daily has actually declined since the period directly before and during the Umbrella Movement. In those months, Jimmy Lai, the owner of Apple Daily, was assaulted and had his home firebombed and his email hacked, the paper’s production centre was picketed by pro-CCP protesters, and the paper had its deliveries destroyed at drop-off points around the city. The decline in attacks on Apple Daily may be related to its defiant resistance to attempts to muzzle it. For example, in response to Leung’s threat to sue, it posted a video mocking the legal letter by putting Leung’s head on Pikotaro and having him dance a version of “Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen”.
Denise Ho’s music banned on the Chinese internet
September 2016, Censorship: Chinese censors scrub Cantopop star Denise Ho’s music from the internet because of her participation in the Umbrella Movement and her support for democracy in HK. Censor: Chinese internet authorities. Outcome: HK entertainers, many of whom get a significant portion of their income from the mainland, are forewarned that supporting democracy in HK will kill their careers in China. Denise Ho reorients her career and is widely supported by people in HK.
Legco election flyers of Nathan Law and Eddie Chu not approved
August 2016, Censorship: The Electoral Affairs Commission holds up approval of flyers by two Legco election candidates, Nathan Law and Eddie Chu, both of whom advocate self-determination. Censor: The Electoral Affairs Commission of HK government. Outcome: The candidates are forced to revise their flyers or face being ineligible for free postal delivery for Legco candidates. After he is elected, Nathan Law is disqualified from office over his oath-taking, and his party fellow is subsequently barred from running to fill his seat on grounds their party Demosistō advocates self-determination.
Six candidates for September 2016 Legislative Council elections barred from running on political grounds
July-August 2016, Censorship: The Electoral Affairs Commission bars six candidates from Legislative Council elections, Edward Leung, Andy Chan Ho-tin, Alice Lai Yee-man, Yeung Ke-cheong, James Chan Kwok-keung, and Nakade Hitsujiko on political grounds. Censor: The Electoral Affairs Commission of the HK government. Outcome: For first time ever, candidates are barred from running on political grounds. Edward Leung probably would have won a seat. This is the beginning of a string of barrings of up to now eleven candidates and also of the compromising of the integrity and fairness of the only free and fair elections HK had.
Lancôme cancels sponsorship of Denise Ho concert
July 2016, Censorship: Lancôme cancels a Denise Ho concert it was sponsoring after Global Times stokes online calls on the mainland for a boycott of her music for supporting democracy in HK. Censor: Lancôme. Outcome: In protest, Denise Ho goes ahead with a free concert on the streets of Sheung Wan. 3,000 attend. She eventually finds sponsorship from a local company for a concert that sells out 50,000 seats. Supporters protest against Lancôme at its stores. HK entertainers are forewarned to avoid speaking out on any topic which might offend the Communist Party.
“Countdown Machine” removed from the façade of International Commerce Centre
May 2016, Censorship: Hong Kong Arts Development Council cancels the “Countdown Machine” installation on the façade of the International Commerce Centre as the third-ranking Communist Party member Zhang Dejiang is scheduled to arrive in Hong Kong. The “machine” counts down the time remaining before the “one country, two systems” arrangement is due to expire in 2047. Censor: Hong Kong Arts Development Council, an HK government agency. Outcome: Yet another cultural and arts institution in HK is considered compromised when it comes to its stance on freedom of expression on “politically sensitive” issues. A year later, the same building, ICC, displays this (uncensored) message on its façade: “Enthusiastically celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland.”
Ming Pao editor sacked after publication of Panama Papers
April 2016, Censorship: Editor Keung Kwok-yuen, is fired after Ming Pao publishes articles about the major global leak of the Panama Papers, which show HK to be a major conduit for wealthy Chinese to get their money out of China as well as the biggest hub in the world for a variety of shell companies which appear to have as their main purpose to launder money from elsewhere. Censor: Ming Pao. Reporters say the decision was taken by Malaysian chief editor Chong Tien Siong, who is seen as pro-CCP. Outcome: Protests of hundreds against the action and a statement denouncing it from seven HK journalists organizations including Ming Pao’s own staff association. Ming Pao is also seen by many to have declined as a leading and authoritative voice in HK journalism. It is doubtful Ming Pao will collaborate in further ICIJ coalition investigations. (ICIJ’s local partner for Panama Papers was HK01.) In February 2014, Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau was nearly chopped to death in a street attack in broad daylight. This happened weeks after ICIJ published “Leaked records reveal offshore holdings of China’s elite”, a report on which Ming Pao did collaborate. Lau’s attackers were brought to trial and eventually given long prison sentences, but it was never discovered who ordered the attack or why. HK already suffers from a paucity of investigative reporting on corruption and the finance industry, and this case will certainly not do anything to encourage more; if anything, the opposite. In Hong Kong, almost no investigative journalism is produced as a result of the Panama Papers revelations in which HK featured prominently.
HK government removes “national” from names of three Taiwan universities in its ads for cultural events
March 2016, Censorship: The Leisure and Cultural Services Department deletes “national” from the names of Taiwan universities in three separate cases of leaflets advertising LCSD-sponsored events involving people from those universities. Censor: The Leisure and Cultural Services Department of the HK government. Outcome: There have been no reports since then of similar occurrences. Perhaps it was an overly worried bureaucrat, though the fact that it happens in three separate cases suggests an order was handed down.
“Ten Years”, dystopian film about HK 10 years from now, dropped by cinemas
Early 2016, Censorship: Though “Ten Years” is wildly popular, outcompeting even the new Star Wars movie at the box office, & awarded “Best Film” at HK Film Awards, HK cinemas stop showing the film after it is criticized by Party-run media in China. Censor: HK cinemas. Outcome: Dozens of free public screenings are arranged throughout the city. Party allies in the film industry call for reform in film awards. HK filmmakers get the message that “edgy” films won’t be shown in cinemas.
Five booksellers from Causeway Bay Bookstore detained in China
30 December 2015, Censorship: Five booksellers from Causeway Bay Bookstore specializing in publishing and selling books “banned” in China are detained on the mainland. One, Gui Minhai, is abducted from Thailand and another, Lee Bo, from off the streets of HK. Censor: Party agents. Outcome: Four of the five are eventually released. Gui Minhai is still in detention. Lam Wing-kee disobeys Party orders and speaks out about his detention when he returns to HK. The incidents are widely regarded as having decimated the “banned book” business in HK and even those not specializing in that genre have been known to have closed down or moved their business away from HK. The incidents cast a chill over book publishing and for the first time give HK citizens the feeling that anyone could be snatched from the streets and spirited across the border. The HK police investigation into Lee Bo’s abduction is closed without identifying any suspects or finding that any crimes have been committed.
M+ museum exhibition of contemporary Chinese art
December 2015, Censorship: The name of a touring art exhibition is changed when it comes to Hong Kong, from “Right and Wrong” to “M+ Sigg Collection: Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art”, apparently for fear of a negative reaction by the authorities to the more strident original title. Censor: M+ museum, a governmental institution. Outcome: While apparently minor, and while “controversial” artists such as Ai Weiwei are still included in the show, the decision fuels on-going worries about the independence and courage of a new major cultural institution even before it opens.
Mainland authorities seize toilet paper and tissues with Leung Chun-ying’s face on it
7 February 2015, Censorship: Mainland authorities confiscate 7,600 rolls of toilet paper and 20,000 packets of tissues with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s face on it. Democratic Party planned to sell it at the New Year Fair. Censor: Communist Party. Outcome: In 2014, Democratic Party made HK$100,000 selling 4,000 rolls of of toilet paper with Leung’s face. The Umbrella Movement appears to be the difference, with mainland authorities becoming more vigilant about HK groups using mainland companies to manufacture “politically unacceptable” wares.
CE criticizes student union magazine in policy address
January 2015, Censorship: Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying criticizes Undergrad, the magazine of the Hong Kong University student union, in his annual policy address for “fallacies” related to a book it published called Hong Kong Nationalism and a cover story called “Hong Kong people deciding their own fate”. This is extraordinary: never before has a CE used a policy address to single out a student publication or organization for criticism. It comes less than a month after the end of the Umbrella Movement, in which students played a major role. Censor: Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying Outcome: No direct action has been taken against Undergrad, but in retrospect, this is the clarion call for attempts to more tightly restrict academic freedom and control universities as well as to attack political speech deemed unacceptable by the Party and HK government.
Hong Kong Journalists Association annual reports
Press Freedom and Censorship page of Hong Kong Free Press