Gray Sergeant: The expulsion of Victor Mallet has rightly caused an international outcry

It’s an unprecedented move which signals a worrying decline in Hong Kong’s openness - the expulsion of Victor Mallet has rightly caused an international outcry.

Earlier this month Victor Mallet, the Asia Editor of the Financial Times, had his visa request rejected by the Hong Kong authorities. In effect this act expelled him from a city he had been living and working in for many years.

One journalist, ‘what’s the big deal?’ you might ask.

That is clearly the attitude Beijing would like people to take. Yet, as many around the world have noticed, the circumstances surrounding this visa decision have far greater implications for Hong Kong’s future.   

Only a few months ago Mr Mallet, in his capacity as Vice President of the Foreign Correspondence Club, hosted an event with the convener of the pro-independence Hong Kong Nationalist Party (HKNP). Despite protests from the Hong Kong government, who described it as “totally inappropriate and unacceptable”, the talk went ahead.  

FCC, Image: Epoch Times

FCC, Image: Epoch Times

The link here is obvious. Even the British Foreign Office, which is hardly likely to voice wild speculations, has concluded, in light of no explanation from the authorities, that the act was “politically motivated.”

Given previous incidents where Hong Kong authorities have banned figures, politically undesirable to the Chinese Communist Party, from entering into the city this decision should come as no surprise.

The move to expel Mr Mallet has provoked anger from pro-democracy politicians and activists in Hong Kong as well as a number of human rights organisations. They will see this move as yet another attack on Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Naturally, global media outlets and associations have voiced their concerns too. They have warned that the decision sets a worrying precedent and predict it will heighten the chilling effect among journalists in Hong Kong.

From now on journalists, if they want to keep out of trouble, will feel pressure to self-censor. Not only will this damage Hong Kong’s politics and civil society, as a free and vibrant press holds the powerful to account, but also tarnishes Hong Kong’s image across the world as an open global city.   

The editorial board of the New York Times branded the ouster of Mr. Mallet as representing the most “serious and worrisome escalation in Beijing’s campaign to crack down on any dissonant voices in Hong Kong”.

Yet you do not have to be a bleeding heart liberal to care about the Mallet incident. Freedom of speech is not only a moral concern. It is a right which benefits more than a few writers and activists.

Restrictions on speech effect businesses too. Hong Kong is the economic success it is because of its open society which promotes transparency and the rule of law.

As Tara Joseph, President of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), explains: “without a free press, capital markets cannot properly function, and business and trade cannot be reliably conducted”.

In a statement, AmCham go onto say that such incidents cannot be brushed aside. They argue Hong Kong’s reputation as an important global hub depends on the free flow of information and freedom of speech. Other businesses, although not named, agree according to the Nikkei Asian Review.

Many have not been as bold as AmCham. The European and Japanese chambers of commerce have been more muted. When contacted by CNBC the local stock exchange and several major international banks refused to comment. Yet this does not mean that private concerns have not been raised. According to reports, Reuters received multiple messages from foreign banking and legal professionals expressing shock at the decision.

The British Foreign Office has already issued a strongly worded statement and raised Mallet’s expulsion directly with the Hong Kong authorities. Of course, the United Kingdom has special commitments to defending Hong Kong’s autonomy under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. However, the impact which deteriorating freedoms could have on trade and investment should be a concern for more countries across the world.

Hong Kong’s press freedom should be defended out of principle but if foreign government needed some extra impetus to speak up they should listen to the international business community.

Gray Sergeant is a trustee of Hong Kong Watch