A US photography professor who covered the 2019 protests and unrest has said that he was denied entry to the city earlier this month when he tried to visit for tourism purposes.

Matthew Connors told HKFP that he arrived from Bangkok on August 16 and informed immigration officers that he was a professor and artist who was visiting for the sole purpose of tourism.

Matthew Connors
Matthew Connors. Photo: Matthew Connors.

However, he told HKFP by email on Sunday that officials said he did not satisfy the requirements for entry. “I don’t think anyone I encountered actually had the authority to make a decision about my entry, and am convinced that my refusal was determined prior to even booking my flight,” Connors wrote.

“I suspect my name is on a list of people who are not permitted to enter Hong Kong, perhaps permanently.”

The Immigration Department (ImmD) told HKFP it does not comment on individual cases: “ImmD acts in accordance with the laws and policies in handling each immigration case,” a spokesperson said on Monday. When asked as to whether it could provide data on the number of entry denials, the department said it did not maintain such statistics.

2019 coverage

During the 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations, Connors was arrested after being asked to produce a press pass. He said he did not have one, as he was an independent photojournalist. He was later released without charge, but was denied entry to the city a year later.

When he tried to visit earlier this month, the award-winning photographer said he was, again, questioned and processed in an area separate to other travellers who had been flagged for screening at the airport.

“I believe this to be the area where they process people who they have already determined to refuse entry,” he said. “When I was interviewed, there was a performative nature to their questioning. I’m sure they were gathering information, but at the same time they didn’t seem particularly interested in my answers.”

Immigration logo emblem department
File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The Massachusetts College of Art and Design professor, whose protest shots appeared in The California Sunday Magazine, said his belongings were thoroughly searched twice.

‘Real sign of fragility’

Following his last denial of entry, he attempted to seek assistance from an immigration lawyer, the US consulate and a representative from the local journalists’ association, but was told that the government had full discretion over the borders.

HKFP has seen a copy of his latest denial of entry document and plane ticket.

airport departures immigration emigration
Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The photojournalist said the city’s unwillingness to admit potential critics was a “real sign of fragility on their part.”

“I have visited Hong Kong several times in the past 20 years and have developed a great deal of affection for it. I was looking forward to returning, and had been considering relocating there part-time in the the near future. I miss the energy of Hong Kong and its dramatic collisions of nature and architecture,” Connors added. “[A] societal model that was based in liberty without democracy, clearly seems to be skidding toward subjugation without democracy. From the outside it certainly feels like Hong Kong has become a frontier of a new Cold War.”

In January, Hong Kong denied entry to Japanese national, Michiko Kiseki – another award-winning photographer. At the time, the Hong Kong Journalists Association urged the government to respect free speech and the free press: “[A]s an international financial hub in Asia, journalists or other professionals should be allowed to visit or work in Hong Kong.” 

Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.” 

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.