By ex-club president Matt Driskill
In Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, there’s a famous line about going broke that could be an analogy for China and its brutal repression of the once-free press in Hong Kong. “How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked in the novel. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
The analogy is apt for the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong (FCC), which I joined in 1997 and later served as president in 2004-2005. The club then was no longer the centre of the universe for China watchers, as the mainland had opened up and correspondents were basing themselves in Shanghai and Beijing. But Hong Kong and the club were still places that a free press and free speech could be practiced without the heavy hand of Beijing interfering. The club was world-famous for hosting speeches by popular and not-so-popular – and often controversial – politicians, artists, writers, businesspeople, and thousands of others who were able to criticise China without fear of ending up in prison.
Sadly, those days are long gone in Hong Kong, and I fear the days of the FCC itself are numbered. The possible end of the club started gradually, years ago, due to a declining membership of Hong Kong-based correspondents that saw them outnumbered by the lawyers, bankers and businesspeople who make up the bulk of the membership. The end could happen suddenly, given the news on Monday that the club had cancelled its annual Human Rights Press Awards because of the “red lines” China has drawn on what is permissible to be published and the club’s fear the awards could inadvertently cross into dangerous territory for the club, its members, and participants in the awards.
China’s moves against members of the club started in 2018 with a speech at the FCC by pro- independence activist Andy Chan, convenor of the then-legal Hong Kong National Party.
Chan and his party, which was outlawed soon after his speech, were advocating for Hong Kong’s independence from China, which Beijing has deemed a red line. Beijing objected to the club hosting Chan, the government of Hong Kong wanted his speech cancelled and pro-China protestors tried to shut it down, but it went ahead anyway. The FCC has never shied away from the controversial and has prided itself as a haven for freedom of speech.
There was of course a price to be paid. That price was levied on Victor Mallet, the then- Financial Times correspondent in Hong Kong and vice-president of the FCC, who hosted the speech. Following the speech, Mallet returned from a trip and was informed that his work visa would not be renewed, effectively banning him from the city. The Hong Kong Journalists Association, which represents local journalists for the most part, called the move the “death knell of freedom of speech” in the city.
In the three years since, Hong Kong (and China) have effectively and ruthlessly employed its draconian national security law to kill off any semblance of a free press in a city that was once a haven for reporters and editors who could ply their craft freely. Pro-democracy newspapers like the Apple Daily have been shut down and its owner, Jimmy Lai, sits in prison today convicted of organising illegal protests and facing additional charges that could see him remain in prison for the rest of his life. Online news sites have also not been spared. Hong Kong police raided Stand News in late December and arrested several of its editors and staff using a colonial-era law accusing them of “conspiracy to publish a seditious publication.” Other smaller online publications have followed, and RTHK, the government-funded broadcaster, was once fiercely independent but has now turned into a pro-Beijing mouthpiece.
The end of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong is not something I am happy in predicting, and doubtless some of my fellow club members will disagree. But it is only a matter of time, and I will miss the many people I knew there in the 10 years I lived in Hong Kong. Among those who passed through the doors at the FCC was Clare Hollingsworth, a ground-breaking female war reporter and the first correspondent to report on the outbreak of World War II. Hugh van Es, a Dutch journalist who took one of the most famous photographs of the fall of Saigon when he snapped a shot of a helicopter loading evacuees from the CIA annex, was a regular at the main bar.
Politicians like F.W. de Clerk, the last president of South Africa during the Apartheid era, spoke there. Nancy Kwan of The World of Suzie Wong fame spoke as did David Tang, founder of Shanghai Tang, Michael Palin of Monty Python fame, and many, many others including Anson Chan, the first woman and first Chinese to hold the office of Chief Secretary of Hong Kong. The club was featured in books like John le Carre’s 1977 novel The Honourable Schoolboy and in films such as Chinese Box and Love is a Many Splendored Thing.
In 1949, FCC members knew their time was up on the mainland and decamped to Hong Kong to set up today’s modern club. Today’s FCC correspondents are now fleeing because the free Hong Kong that existed under the British – and appeared to be free during the early years of the Handover to China – is no more. Many have relocated to places like Seoul, closed their Hong Kong bureaus, or rely on self-censorship to survive. China may not have to actually do anything other than what it’s currently doing to shut down the FCC. There may not be any journalists left to run the club if Hong Kong continues to imprison reporters and editors. Or Beijing could tell Hong Kong to cancel the club’s government-held lease, effectively leaving the FCC homeless. An FCC member and long-time journalist in Asia told me he too feared for the club’s future but said China may use the club as a fig leaf to claim it still respects press freedom.
When I first arrived in Hong Kong in late 1997, Great Britain had completed its handover of Hong Kong to China and everyone thought they could take China at its word that it would abide by the Sino-British Joint Declaration that would allow Hong Kong to be “self-governing with a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years under the mantra of “one country, two systems.” But China’s actions, not its words, reveal its true intentions.
One night at the FCC main bar not long after I had arrived in the city, a photographer I had just met said I had “missed the story” by showing up after the Handover. I replied I thought the “story of Hong Kong was just starting.” Sadly, I think the story of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, at least in Hong Kong, will be ending soon. The once great city I knew and loved has already been lost and the best gin joint in the world I fear, will soon follow.
Matt Driskill is currently a multimedia journalist based in Asia. He previously worked as a senior editor for Reuters, the International Herald Tribune/New York Times in Paris and Hong Kong, and from 2004-2005 served as president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.
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