The FCC has behaved like a rude guest, but Hong Kong didn’t need to evict journalist Victor Mallet

Philip Yeung says the Foreign Correspondents’ Club provoked Hong Kong and China when it gave a separatist a public platform. In testing the limits of free speech, the club has contributed to its curtailment, but now is the time for quiet diplomacy to prevail

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 6:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 7:10pm

For Victor Mallet, an award-winning journalist for the Financial Times, things have come full circle. After Hong Kong rejected his visa renewal, he himself has become part of the international news. I feel sorry for him, though I think he deserved a signal of official displeasure, short of rejection, for his role in hosting the Foreign Correspondents’ Club talk by a Hong Kong independence advocate. Making Mallet sweat over the renewal would have been a strong enough message. Hong Kong, as a city beloved by foreign journalists, and China, as a major power, can both afford to be magnanimous. 

Even for a journalist as seasoned as Mallet, as soon as the words “freedom of speech” are trotted out, everyone is expected to kowtow to the concept, and nothing can be ruled out of bounds. Liberty becomes licence.

In extending an invitation to the leader of the separatist Hong Kong National Party, the FCC and its executives had temporarily taken leave of their critical faculties. They were breathing life into a dead issue. When you host a talk on a controversial subject, we expect thoughtful analysis and illumination. In this case, however, the topic was as barren as the speaker himself was ignorant. None of us were any wiser for his presence at the talk. It felt more like a provocation than a thoughtful discussion. The FCC, it seems, has courted controversy for controversy’s sake.

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Now, the FCC has become the club that launched a thousand screams for press freedom, even though the debate has only one unalterable, foregone conclusion: independence for Hong Kong is as impossible as it is illegal. End of debate. The talk was thus staggeringly sterile. All it managed to do was provoke our sovereign and sour the hitherto cordial relationship between the FCC and the host government, which also happens to be the FCC’s landlord.

Journalists pride themselves on their objectivity, but executives at the FCC seem somewhat politically naive and self-righteous. Their peers have been quick to jump to their defence, declaring freedom of speech to be non-negotiable and untouchable. But, in the real world, is this a self-evident truth?

Just consider this parallel: what if an organisation of Britain-based Chinese correspondents had given a public platform to the leader of an illegal separatist party that advocates Northern Ireland’s breakaway from Britain? The Chinese correspondents would no doubt have their motives questioned, and would risk being declared persona non grata by the British government. Except the situation in Greater China is 10 times more vexed than in present-day Northern Ireland.

These are jittery times in China, when Taiwan separatists are sidling up to their American protector who is working overtime to provoke, undermine and encircle China. China has enough headaches in the form of agitators in Tibet and Xinjiang, on top of those in Taiwan, without the stupid talk about Hong Kong separatism.

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Mallet himself now wears a halo as a martyr to the cause of press freedom. I think we can dispense with the heroics

Any dispassionate observer can see China’s international posture is defensive in nature: it will not allow freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and its economic lifeline, to be threatened by American encirclement. The Belt and Road Initiative serves the same purpose. And yet, both Australia and India have swallowed America’s toxic message that China has territorial ambitions, and are banding together in a military alliance against the Middle Kingdom, with the former even taking part in a show of force to challenge China’s claim to the ownership of South China Sea islands.

For the FCC to host a speaker whose organisation risked, at the time, being outlawed is akin to thumbing its nose at the host city and poking the dragon. It might have thought it was courageously standing up to the Hong Kong government, and Mallet himself now wears a halo as a martyr to the cause of press freedom.

I think we can dispense with the heroics. It is in the interest of both parties to play down the incident and lay the controversy to rest. Hong Kong’s point has been made and I am sure taken notice of. No one wants to see the journalists waving a white flag or the authorities being demonised. Let quiet diplomacy prevail.

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To me, this is a phoney fight over a phoney issue. Every country or jurisdiction has the right to expect that its laws will be adhered to and that any non-adherence will have consequences.

Foreign journalists should remember that, without “one country”, there would not be “two systems” and all the freedoms that go with that. If you disrespect one, you diminish the other. By testing the unexamined limits of freedom of speech, the FCC has inadvertently contributed to its curtailment. This episode is far from the FCC’s finest hour, and it was behaving like a rude guest. But, for our part, Hong Kong still has a reputation to uphold as a gracious host.

Philip Yeung is a ghostwriter to university presidents and business leaders. [email protected]