In a hastily put-together statement issued after midnight yesterday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced a ban on journalists at three top American press media outlets. According to the statement, U.S. nationals working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post have ten days to surrender their press cards and will be prohibited from working in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau.

The decision, which amounts to an expulsion of foreign journalists, was a countermeasure to a recent decision by the US State Department to designate five Chinese state-run media outlets as “foreign missions.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry made no secret of its vindictiveness, calling the ban “legitimate and justified self-defence” in its statement.

National People's Congress npc beijing great hall
File photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

The timing is well-chosen. Beijing has regained its footing from the Coronavirus outbreak, confident that it has emerged from it a hero. President Xi Jinping has been on a victory lap strutting his exemplary disease control effort on one hand and extending a helping hand to Europe on the other hand. Never mind that China has caused the pandemic in the first place. By contrast, America appears to be down on its knees, scrambling to stem devastating stock market losses while trying to make up for weeks of inaction that has allowed the contagion to get out of hand. China is taking a page from Sun Tzu’s Art of War: strike at what is weak.

Still, what’s alarming about the ban isn’t so much its retaliatory nature—by now we have grown accustomed to vitriolic feuds between the two superpowers since the trade war blew up two years ago—but rather its scope. The face of the statement suggests that it extends to Hong Kong and Macau, both Special Administrative Regions that operate under the “one country, two systems” framework.

Indeed, whether and how the Foreign Ministry plans on implementing the ban in Hong Kong has the journalist circle here scratching their heads. For starters, does the embargo apply only to mainland-based journalists or does it cover those currently working in Hong Kong and Macau as well? More critically, how will it all work from an administrative and legal standpoint when local work visas are issued by the Hong Kong Immigration Department?

Beijing can, of course, get around these hurdles by brute force. It can invoke Article 13 of the Basic Law that gives the Central Government exclusive jurisdiction over matters relating to foreign affairs. Mainland officials operating at the Foreign Ministry’s outpost in Wanchai may well intervene by framing the ban as a diplomatic matter or “external affair.” But such a heavy-handed move will be costly: it will invite not only legal challenges but also a serious backlash from civil society in Hong Kong.

The cleaner way to achieve the same purpose without setting off a constitutional firestorm is for Beijing to quietly or publicly “request” that Hong Kong officials “cooperate” with the Central Government. The Foreign Ministry can ring up Chief Executive Carrie Lam on her direct line and ask that she understand the delicacy and diplomatic significance of the matter and make an “independent” decision to take action. But a closed-door request will give Lam a lot of explaining to do, when her immigration chief suddenly and inexplicably denies work permits to specific foreign correspondents who happen to be on the Foreign Ministry’s public hit list.

carrie lam
Photo: Kelly Ho, HKFP

On the other hand, an open request to play ball will add to the optics that Lam is a mere puppet who takes orders from the Central Government even on domestic matters that are well within her remit. Any such move will also be seen as Beijing’s long arm reaching into Hong Kong’s already battered press freedom. Within hours of the statement, social media was abuzz with declarations that our free press is dead. Not since the Hong Kong government expelled Financial Times editor Victor Mallet two years ago has so much spotlight been cast on the city’s beleaguered fourth estate.

Be it overt or covert, this second, softer, “let’s work together” approach will put Lam between a rock and a hard place. It is the last thing she needs. Her credibility has already taken a serious beating after six months of social unrest and an outbreak that has exposed the utter ineptitude of her staff from its failure to source basic medical supplies to delays in bringing stranded citizens from the mainland. Lam’s administration is one political crisis away from collapsing under its own incompetence.

And that’s not all. Whichever way Beijing decides to proceed—whether by force or by coercion—will deal another blow to the “one country, two systems” formula. Extending the journalist ban to Hong Kong will abandon once and for all any pretence that the semi-autonomous territory is permitted to make even run-of-the-mill executive decisions or that there is a firewall separating it from mainland China. Let’s hope that this haphazard midnight statement from the Foreign Ministry is more political posturing than genuine policy, and that Beijing has no intention to actually implement it beyond its own turf.

This latest diplomatic flare-up comes at the time when Beijing is still working hard to sell the “one country, two systems” promise to Taiwan in hope to lure the renegades across the strait to rejoin the Motherland. Or is it? Perhaps after the resounding victory of the independence-friendly Tsai Ing-wen in the January presidential election, owed to a large extent to the political drama in Hong Kong, Xi Jinping has all but given up on using the SAR as bait for peaceful unification.

Jason Y. Ng is a Hong Kong-based lawyer, university professor and writer. He is the bestselling author of Hong Kong State of Mind and No City for Slow Men. His latest tome, Umbrellas in Bloom, is the first book available in English chronicling the 2014 Occupy movement. Ng’s short stories have appeared in various anthologies, and his socio-political commentary blog 'As I See It' and review site 'The Real Deal' have attracted a cult following in the blogosphere. Ng is a contributor to the SCMP, Guardian and Time Out Hong Kong. He is also an outspoken activist for environmental issues, migrant workers' rights, and the city's democratic movement. He makes frequent appearances on university campuses, at literary festivals, and on radio and television shows around Asia.