BEIJING – The journalistic assignment had been to write a simple tale of youthful reminiscence, but the reporter’s first draft attracted a suspicious gaze from his editor. Was there a subversive message hidden within the apparently innocuous prose, he wondered, some implicit criticism of the Chinese government?
First, the numbers 6, 8 and 9 were removed, just in case they are seen as a reference to the massacres in Tiananmen Square in June, 1989. More revisions were demanded. The reporter, keen to please his boss, censored himself further. Finally, his work was reduced to just five, innocuous words.
“My mother was a woman.”
The absurd scene comes from a new play written jointly by 11 playwrights in Hong Kong that was performed in the semi-autonomous region of China for the first time on Sunday, to protest against what they see as a growing threat to the territory’s cherished freedom of expression. The play is based the true story of Kevin Lau Chun-to, the former chief editor of a newspaper in Hong Kong that has frequently been critical of the Chinese government. Lau was sacked as editor of Ming Pao newspaper in January. On Feb. 26, three days after a large demonstration in Hong Kong in support of press freedom, Lau was attacked by two men and stabbed six times in the back and legs.
The play opens with a recording of Lau, made just a few days after the attack. “Violent attacks make us scared. But if we are scared, we will lose our freedom. So I hope our news professionals do not fear. We should believe that justice will be done,” he said. “Only when we use the pen in our hand to write the truth, can we safeguard freedom.”
Each of the playwrights wrote a different scene, in support of a new group called Freeatre in Action, a loosely organized group formed in February to raise awareness about freedom of expression.
Although police arrested several people in relation to the attack on Lau, they denied the attack was linked with press freedom, blaming organized crime gangs, or triads, instead. In one scene in the play, no matter what examples people give of journalists being attacked or killed, a police spokesperson keeps denying the incidents have anything to do with press freedom.
During a discussion after the first performance of the play, Sin Wan-kei, a reporter with Ming Pao, said the absurdity of the play might make people laugh, but reporters who face that absurdity every day couldn’t laugh, according to a video recording of the event available online.
Hong Kong ranked 61 out of 180 countries and regions on the World Press Freedom Index 2014 compiled by Reporters Without Borders. That is a drop of three places since 2012, and of 43 places compared since 2002, when it ranked 18. “China’s growing economic weight is allowing it to extend its influence over the media in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan,” the Paris-based group said in its report.
Several major banks pulled advertisements from Hong Kong newspapers known for taking a critical position against the authorities late last year, while Li Wei-ling, a host who often criticizes the Hong Kong government, was fired in February by Commercial Radio Hong Kong, although the company denied it was a political decision. After the premiere of a ballet performance last November, a 12-minute scene that contained images from China’s Cultural Revolution was censored and removed, according to Hong Kong media, although the production company later issued a statement blaming a “technical error.”
“For me, the freedom of expression and speech is a core value that needs to be fought for and needs to be guarded,” said Bernice Chan, a playwright and founder of Freeatre, speaking by phone from Hong Kong.
While Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, many people feel their civil liberties are increasingly threatened by the Beijing government. Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have threatened to stage a mass sit-in this summer if China does not grant the territory genuine democracy and universal suffrage during elections for a new Chief Executive due in 2017.