Chief Executive Carrie Lam today dismissed the suggestion authorities had helped create an atmosphere of self censorship in the city, reiterating the government had “no involvement” in a recent row over the appearance of exiled Chinese writer at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival.
In the latest of several episodes that have called into question the extent of freedom of expression in the SAR, planned events featuring novelist Ma Jian were thrown into doubt last week when the venue announced on Thursday it would not host the writer because of his “political views.”
The venue, Central’s newly revamped heritage and arts center Tai Kwun, later backtracked and Ma’s appearances on Saturday went ahead, however the furore added to concerns that figures critical of Beijing were facing increasing censorship in the city.
Speaking at a press conference this morning, Lam — who earlier this year backed an unprecedented move to ban a pro-independence political party — rejected a suggestion from a reporter that authorities were undermining freedom of expression in the city.
“First of all, I said categorically that the government had absolutely no involvement in this Tai Kwun incident,” she said.
“I only came to know about this when it was reported in the media, that’s point number one. Point number two, by definition you are referring to self censorship, so how could the government be involved in any self censorship exercised by the individual entities.
“Thirdly, under the Basic Law, we safeguard freedoms, freedom of expression, freedom of journalism, freedom of gathering and as the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, I take the constitutional obligation very seriously. So I would defend those freedoms in a very responsible manner.”
However, critics see a pattern of increasingly harsh treatment of figures perceived as critical of Beijing.
Ma Jian — a Hong Kong permanent resident based in London — is particularly disliked by the central authorities, who banned him from entering the mainland in 2011.
His latest book, China Dream, is about a provincial leader in mainland China who is falling apart psychologically as he’s haunted by nightmares of a corrupt and violent past.
The book has been described as a satire of Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the title itself inspired by a slogan Xi first used in a speech in 2013, a term China watchers say is shorthand for Xi’s vision of China as a dominant superpower.
Only a week before the controversy surrounding Ma, an art exhibit by mainland artist Badiucao, known for targeting Xi in satirical paintings — one of his works shows Xi examining the mounted head of Winnie the Pooh — was abruptly canceled the day before it was to have taken place.
This followed on from last month’s de facto expulsion of Financial Times Asia editor Victor Mallet, a longtime Hong Kong resident, whose routine renewal of his work visa was rejected without explanation after he hosted a Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) talk with the leader of a small (and now banned) independence party.