HONG KONG — The Financial Times said in an editorial Sunday that the expulsion of one of its journalists from Hong Kong sends a chilling message about the steady erosion of basic rights in the semiautonomous Chinese city, as more than 15,000 people signed an online petition calling for an explanation from the government.
The newspaper said Friday that Victor Mallet, its Asia news editor, was told his work visa would not be renewed. It is believed to be the first such expulsion of a foreign journalist since Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese control in 1997.
Mr. Mallet returned to Hong Kong after an international trip on Sunday and was allowed to enter the territory on a seven-day visitor visa, The Financial Times said. As a British citizen he would typically be allowed to stay in the territory for up to six months under a tourist visa.
“Immigration officials did not provide an explanation for the shortened visitor visa, and we continue to seek clarification from the Hong Kong authorities about the rejection of his work visa renewal,” the newspaper said in a statement.
Hong Kong’s Immigration Department said Friday that it would not comment on an individual case.
Hong Kong, which is known for its independent judiciary and strong rule of law, has long been a bastion of basic rights in Asia. It has also been a haven for journalists, from when international news media outlets were forced from mainland China after the Communist Party’s takeover in 1949 to recent years, when Beijing has kicked out journalists over coverage of delicate topics within China.
“Hong Kong was, ironically, the place foreign journalists expelled from China would usually end up,” said Keith Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center of The University of Hong Kong and a former longtime foreign correspondent for The Washington Post. “The idea China is going to control which foreign journalists can come into Hong Kong, based on whether or not the Chinese government feels offended by something, to me it’s a definite turning point.”
Pro-democracy politicians, free speech organizations and human rights advocates have warned of growing suppression in Hong Kong under the influence of mainland China’s authoritarian system. Such worries were heightened after several people associated with a Hong Kong publisher of gossipy books on elite Chinese politics went missing in 2015, only to reappear in custody in mainland China.
While the Hong Kong authorities have not given any explanation of Mr. Mallet’s case, it is widely seen to be connected to a talk in August at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club by the head of a pro-independence political party. The government said in July that it planned to ban the tiny organization, the Hong Kong National Party, under a colonial-era law that allows the prohibition of groups out of national security, public safety or public order concerns.
Mr. Mallet, as first vice president for the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, was host of the event and the club’s leading spokesman at the time, while its president was out of town. The event was condemned by Hong Kong and mainland officials.
Leung Chun-ying, who was Hong Kong’s chief executive from 2012 to 2017, seized on the event in saying the government should reconsider the lease on the F.C.C.’s clubhouse in a publicly owned building.
Mr. Mallet said the club regularly hosted events featuring speakers representing a range of voices it neither supported nor opposed, and viewed the talk, by Andy Chan, as part of its normal program of discussions of important events in the city. A month after the talk the Hong Kong government outlawed Mr. Chan’s party, the first such ban since the 1997 handover.
In its editorial, The Financial Times said that Hong Kong independence is an impractical idea without popular support and that it would violate the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s local constitution, and the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which outlined the 1997 handover of sovereignty.
“This newspaper does not support the idea of Hong Kong independence, but it strongly supports the principle of free speech,” the editorial said.
It noted that no criticism had been raised of Mr. Mallet’s work as a journalist.
The expulsion “sends a chilling message to everyone in Hong Kong, highlighting Beijing’s tightening grip on the territory and the steady erosion of basic rights that are guaranteed in Hong Kong’s laws and international agreements,” the editorial said.
Mr. Richburg said worries about how the government would wield immigration laws would reverberate beyond the media.
“People are talking about a chilling effect, but this is more like a deep freeze,” he said. “People will be afraid to have not only a conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club that might offend China — what about academic meetings? Does this mean that the university can’t have a meeting to discuss anything that might offend China? Does this mean that anybody here can’t talk about something that China considers a red line?”
“Refusing a visa in this case, to a bona fide journalist working for one of the world’s leading newspapers, sets a terrible precedent for Hong Kong’s reputation as a place where the rule of law applies and where freedom of speech is protected by law,” the petition said.
Some international news organizations also expressed concerns. “The ability of the press to operate freely and without fear of retribution is vitally important in every country,” Reuters said in a statement. “We are troubled by the reports from Hong Kong and are seeking more information on the situation.”
Eileen Murphy, a New York Times spokeswoman, said last week that any politicization of the territory’s visa process “would be very worrying.”
The British government said it was “concerned” about the rejection of Mr. Mallet’s visa renewal. “We have asked the Hong Kong government for an urgent explanation,” the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a statement. “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and its press freedoms are central to its way of life, and must be fully respected.”
Harvey Sernovitz, United States consulate general spokesman in Hong Kong, said the decision was “deeply troubling.”
“This decision is especially disturbing because it mirrors problems faced by international journalists in the mainland and appears inconsistent with the principles enshrined in the Basic Law,” he wrote in an email.
Locally, questions over the expulsion could distract from Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s annual policy address to Hong Kong lawmakers on Wednesday. Thus far she has not commented on the decision.
Some pro-Beijing politicians have endorsed the visa decision. Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s representative on the standing committee of China’s National People’s Congress, said Monday on a radio show that the expulsion would not affect media freedom in Hong Kong, and warned that those who raise the issue of Hong Kong independence do so “at their own risk,” the Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK reported.
The Communist Party-owned newspaper Global Times said that the expulsion, if it was related to the talk, was a sign that the event was a “political provocation that goes far beyond the scope of freedom of speech.”
“Without Mallet, Hong Kong won’t have any less freedom of speech,” the newspaper said in an editorial. “The city’s future doesn’t need to be the concern of Mallet, the U.K. government or Western media.”
China’s Foreign Ministry office in Hong Kong said Saturday that visa questions “fall within a country’s sovereignty” and that the central government firmly supports the Hong Kong government “in handling the related matters in accordance with law.”
“No country has the right to interfere,” the statement added.
Last month, after the United States ordered representatives for China’s state-run news media to register as foreign agents, China accused the United States of obstructing and politicizing the media.
“Countries should perceive media’s role in promoting international exchange and cooperation in an open and inclusive spirit,” said the Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang. “They need to facilitate, rather than obstruct, media’s normal work, still less politicalizing the relevant issue.”