No News Is Bad News in Hong Kong

by Sophie Richardson Sophie Richardson is the China director at Human Rights Watch. A graduate of the University of Virginia, the Hopkins-Nanjing Program, and Oberlin College, Dr. Richardson is the author of numerous articles on domestic Chinese political reform, democratization, and human rights in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Vietnam. She has testified before the European Parliament and the US Senate and House of Representatives. She has provided commentary to the BBC, CNN, the Far Eastern Economic Review, Foreign Policy, National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Dr. Richardson is the author of China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence(Columbia University Press, Dec. 2009), an in-depth examination of China's foreign policy since 1954's Geneva Conference, including rare interviews with policy makers. 05.08.2014

Terror, fear, and paranoia: These are some of the factors cited by a founder of the popular Hong Kong news site House News explaining the decision to close the publication.  The site’s finances were also reportedly in jeopardy – despite its popularity, House News, like a number of other Hong Kong publications with similarly progressive political views, couldn’t seem to attract much advertising revenue.

But the closure, announced July 26, seems to be about more than finances. A few days after the massive July 1 pro-democracy protest, a House News founder, Tony Tsoi, reportedly “went missing” for days, according to Next Magazine. In mid-July, when a House News editor met with a contributor, Evan Fowler, instead of speaking the editor scribbled down in handwritten notes the words “massive,” “crackdown,” and “not secure.” Tsoi, in his announcement to shutter House News, wrote that as someone with businesses in China, he is “very scared” every time he is to cross the border between Hong Kong and China.

The terror, fear, and paranoia aren’t just felt by House News’ founder and staff members—they’re also felt by some of the subjects of its coverage.  In the days ahead of Tsoi’s stunning announcement to close the publication, the outlet had run a story detailing efforts by authorities to pressure mainland students in Hong Kong to sign pledges against pro-democracy movements in the territory.  Attacks and restrictions on the press in Hong Kong have come at a furious pace over the past year, ranging from, hacking of major news outlets, advertising boycotts, and dismissal of outspoken journalists. There have even been horrific physical assaults on prominent editors that are widely suspected to be politically motivated. All of these tactics are commonly used in mainland China.

If Hong Kong is left with a press that only the Chinese government likes, everyone loses. The business community relies on the free flow of information to make function effectively, Hong Kong people are accustomed to news from a variety of perspectives, and Beijing itself will not be able to accurately ascertain local developments.  A few years ago, it seemed inconceivable that the vibrant Hong Kong media could be strong-armed into obedience. But it now seems disturbingly possible that a few years from now we might not even know an outlet like House News had ever existed.


Dr. Sophie Richardson is the author of China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence(Columbia University Press, Dec. 2009), an in-depth examination of China's foreign policy since 1954's Geneva Conference, including rare interviews with policy makers.


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