HONG KONG — Hong Kong authorities have denied a visa extension for a Financial Times journalist who hosted a controversial talk in August with a pro-independence activist, heightening concerns about the territory’s status as a free speech bastion and encroaching Chinese government influence.
The Financial Times said Friday that Hong Kong authorities rejected a work visa renewal application for Victor Mallet, its Asia news editor. The newspaper said it has not been given a reason for Mallet’s rejection, but the news comes weeks after Mallet defied requests from the Hong Kong and central Chinese governments to cancel a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club with Andy Chan, an activist who called for Hong Kong to declare independence from mainland China.
“This is the first time we have encountered this situation in Hong Kong,” the Financial Times said in a statement. A spokeswoman declined to say when Mallet, a veteran foreign correspondent and editor who has worked more than a decade on and off in Hong Kong, would have to leave.
Mallet’s rejection is seen as an exceedingly rare development and could reinforce perceptions that the former British colony — which the Chinese government promised semiautonomous status and freedom of speech as part of a handover agreement in 1997 — is gradually losing its status as a freewheeling publishing haven and political forum insulated from Beijing.
In August, Mallet and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a journalist association of which he is vice president, became the focus of a political maelstrom when it announced plans to host Chan, the 27-year old leader of the Hong Kong National Party, for a lunchtime talk.
Officials from Hong Kong and the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged the club against providing a platform for Chan, with one former city leader equating it to hosting a criminal. Mallet and the FCC followed through and defended the event as an opportunity to freely exchange ideas on critical local issues.
Weeks later, the Hong Kong government outlawed Chan’s political party on national security grounds, the first time it had done so.
The Hong Kong chapter of PEN, the international writers’ association, said Friday that Mallet’s visa rejection appeared to be “naked retaliation” by the authorities to punish the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
“As Beijing constantly moves the red lines on what topics are ‘sensitive’ and out of bounds, the pressure for institutions and individuals to engage in self-censorship increases significantly,” said Jason Ng, PEN Hong Kong president. “The threats to free expression and a free flow of ideas directly harm Hong Kong’s image as an open, ‘world’ city that abides by the rule of law.”
The Hong Kong government did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Beijing views Hong Kong independence as a particularly sensitive issue, and leaders including President Xi Jinping have publicly vowed to snuff out any separatist activity. Hong Kong officials allied with the central government have also warned that advocating independence would fall beyond the scope of free speech liberties.
Friction between the government and campaigners like Chan have only intensified in recent years and, in many cases, emboldened a generation of young activists who are running for office.
Economic frustrations and perceptions that Beijing has reneged on its promises of noninterference and hampered the city’s free elections have fueled discontent among some Hong Kong youth, seen most vividly in 2014 when huge pro-democracy protests seized the financial hub’s boulevards.
Protesters also took to the streets in 2016 following the disappearance of several booksellers who sold gossipy volumes about Chinese Communist Party leaders. The Hong Kong publishing industry that pumped out paperbacks about Chinese politics saw its output and sales plummet after the disappearances, which were widely seen as the work of Chinese security agencies.