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Journalists under threat from China's media crackdown are leaving Hong Kong

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

In just a little over a year, life in Hong Kong has changed dramatically. That's because of a national security law that went into effect last year, one that's already had troubling effects on the semiautonomous region - semiautonomous meaning Hong Kong had some independence from the strict laws governing mainland China, part of the accord that led to Hong Kong's handover from the United Kingdom to China a generation ago. Those rights are now under sharp attack. Earlier this week, the State Department expressed concern over, quote, "the continued erosion of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong. We note in particular the increase in politically motivated prosecutions targeting Hong Kong's teachers, lawyers and individual citizens," unquote. And among the most concerned about the law and among the most scrutinized by authorities are journalists.

Joining us to explain and to explore, Mark Clifford, a veteran journalist in Hong Kong and a past editor-in-chief of The South China Morning Post. Mark Clifford, welcome.

MARK CLIFFORD: Thank you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: First, can you tell us a bit about the national security law itself? What are its major tenets and its stated goal?

CLIFFORD: Well, its major tenets are to criminalize anything that the government doesn't like. Its stated goal is to bring Hong Kong very much under the thumb of authorities in Beijing. They didn't like the fact that it was, as you said, a semiautonomous region that had its own way of thinking about things. And that included massive street protests of a million, 2 million people and a really freewheeling atmosphere that was unlike anything in the mainland, and ultimately, the mainland authorities couldn't stomach that.

FOLKENFLIK: When we talk about semiautonomy for Hong Kong, that meant, you know, somewhat democratic local elections, press freedoms, a more liberalized economy than on the mainland. This new security law has transformed much of that. What are the biggest tangible changes you've noticed so far?

CLIFFORD: Well, the biggest tangible change is that there's a climate of fear that pervades anyone who's involved with political media, civil society issues. I was on the board of directors of Next Digital, which published the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper. A pretty tangible demonstration of the reach of the new law came when 500 armed police raided the newsroom, questioned journalists, froze bank accounts and put us out of business. So I could go on and on. There are dozens of examples like that of civic organizations, newspapers, pretty much everybody who occupied the political space that was in the pro-democracy sphere - which, by the way, 6 out of 10 Hong Kong people consistently have supported since elections began about 30 years ago.

FOLKENFLIK: You talked about what happened to Apple Daily. What are you hearing from journalists there now?

CLIFFORD: It's scary. People are afraid. Some people have fled. One friend of mine literally heard of another colleague of his being arrested and got a COVID test and headed to the airport and got the last seat out that night. This was a couple of months ago. That's an extreme example. Most people are taking a little bit longer. And some, of course, are staying and hoping against hope that there can be a little space that's carved out, but it looks like the crackdown on journalism will continue and will get worse. And we have seven journalists from Apple Daily and its parent company in jail right now being held without - essentially without bail. And it'll probably be years until their trial comes up. And they're effectively serving a life sentence because they're presumed guilty rather than innocent before a trial, and the trial can take place whenever the authorities want it.

FOLKENFLIK: Mark, you've lived in Hong Kong for decades. You are a permanent resident of Hong Kong, but I think it's important to note for our listeners you're an American citizen. I assume many folks would imagine that you would be able to operate more freely than your Hong Kong and Chinese counterparts there. How has this affected you?

CLIFFORD: For me personally, I left Hong Kong at the end of October, just short of a year ago, and planned to come back for a long end-of-the-year vacation. But when the chairman of Apple Daily, where as I said, I sit on the board of the parent company, was put in jail - a man named Jimmy Lai, longtime pro-democracy advocate - put in jail, manacled, denied bail and my name was thrown around in court hearings as a result of some interviews I've been doing with him, I decided it might be wiser not to go back. I don't know what would happen to me if I went back.

I am the subject of a number of investigations because of the destruction of Next Digital. Authorities stole the company, froze our assets, kept our 600,000 subscribers from being able to enjoy the news that Apple Daily provided. And yet authorities are going after the board as if somehow the board is responsible for the company's destruction. It's an extraordinary situation, and it's discouraging. It's personally extremely time-consuming for me to be dealing with these regulatory inquiries. But at the end of the day, I am an American citizen, and thankfully, I'm in the United States at this point.

FOLKENFLIK: Mark Clifford, let me ask you this. The Chinese government says, our country, our rules. Hong Kong has to exist closer in line with their counterparts in mainland China. They cite national security concerns. They cite the concerns of terrorism. Those threats are faced by democracies and autocrats alike. What reply do you offer to that?

CLIFFORD: Well, China has effectively torn up international agreements that it's signed. It signed an agreement with a British before Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese control. So if China can't be trusted to keep its word in a prosperous, modern, civil, peaceful society like Hong Kong, where can it be trusted? It has signed numerous international agreements on human rights and other protections, and it seems to be ignoring all of them. It says it doesn't matter. It says that it can make up its own rules. And I think what we're seeing in Hong Kong is a China that wants to set the rules for the world. And it's a dark, authoritarian, techno-driven, surveillance-intensive set of rules. And I don't think most people want the China model. But I think what we're seeing in Hong Kong is a very clear disjunction or split between what China offers the world and what a prosperous, open, free city like Hong Kong had enjoyed. And I think the world can see what's at stake, and they should see that it's much more than Hong Kong that's at issue here.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been hearing from Mark Clifford. He's the president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong and also is the past editor-in-chief of The South China Morning Post. Mark Clifford, thanks so much for your time.

CLIFFORD: Thanks so much for your interest, David. I really hope that the people of Hong Kong are remembered. The world needs to know and remember that people in Hong Kong still believe in freedom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.