Where Foreign Correspondents Capitulated to Autocracy

Hong Kong’s main press club has given up in the face of a new, repressive regime.

A face-mask-wearing man walks outside the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club.
Tang Yan / Sipa / AP

When Allan Au didn’t post his Wordle score on Facebook one morning this month, his friends began to worry. For Au, a longtime journalist and media trainer in Hong Kong, the ritual was less about flexing his vocabulary skills than a deliberate way to indicate that he was still free. His friends, it turned out, had cause for concern: Au had been arrested on suspicion of committing sedition.

The next day, I drafted a statement about his arrest on behalf of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) press-freedom committee, of which I was a member. By then, Au had been released on bail, but members of the committee agreed in our Signal group chat that it was important to call attention to the situation. If the arrest of a journalist doesn’t merit words of concern from a press club, after all, what does? My draft detailed a few of Au’s accomplishments: He had worked for a variety of outlets over several decades, was a consultant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s journalism school, and served as a judge for the Human Rights Press Awards, which are organized by the FCC and have run continuously for more than two decades.

The statement, just 110 words in all, ended by saying, “The continued arrests of journalists are contributing to the deterioration of press freedoms in Hong Kong, which, the FCC notes, are safeguarded under the Basic Law,” the city’s mini-constitution. After a few small tweaks by committee members, it was sent for approval to the club’s board, composed of journalists from outlets such as The New York Times, the Finnish business newspaper Kauppalehti, CNN, and others, as well as a handful of individuals who do not work in the news industry. This had in the past been a perfunctory step, but after a few hours of silence, we were informed that the board would not approve the statement and that it would not be released.The nebulous explanation given later was that the statement would draw unwanted attention to the club. (Similar prior ones have drawn rebuttals from the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing.) I asked in our group chat whether anyone could remember a time when this had previously happened, and the longest-serving member, on the committee for more than a decade, responded that it was a first.

Less than a month later, the board voted to suspend the Human Rights Press Awards. Members were concerned that recognizing winners from Stand News, an independent news outlet whose staff members had been arrested and operations halted last year, could put the club in legal danger. Only one person opposed the move. He subsequently resigned from the board. Award winners from The Wall Street Journal, Agence France-Presse, The Los Angeles Times, Stand News—where Au had previously worked—and other publications would never formally know of the honors granted to them by the judges. (The Atlantic received a merit citation for a story about the plight of China’s Uyghur Muslims.) In a vague statement, the club’s president said that the club did not “wish unintentionally to violate the law” and, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary and without any explanation of how, claimed that it would “continue promoting press freedom in Hong Kong.”

The FCC’s moves are emblematic of the broader tension that now exists across Hong Kong, where Beijing has imposed a new political order. Red lines are deliberately left blurry, including the definition of foreign collusion and what, exactly, constitutes subversion. So institutions across the city have had to play guessing games, stabbing around in relative darkness, figuring out for themselves what their risk appetite is, ultimately exposing how willing some of them are to collaborate in actions that undermine democracy.

And like Hong Kong’s other once-respected institutions—such as schools, universities, and professional bodies—the club has capitulated to the new, more repressive regime.

By self-censoring, cowering, and hiding behind empty platitudes, the FCC risks carrying on as little more than a decorative carapace that serves to conveniently disguise the corrosion occurring inside. The message delivered by the club’s board is that Hong Kong has changed. No one would dispute this. How could they? But instead of confronting these changes with honesty and transparency, the FCC—like so much else here—is hoping that people will believe in the fiction that it can continue to fully serve its mission while at the same time appeasing the authorities.

The FCC describes itself in promotional materials both as “the most famous press club in the world” and, in only slightly less laudatory terms, as “probably the most famous press club in the world.” The club has been housed since the early 1980s in a refurbished dairy depot with a distinct bandaged brickwork facade and a stately if well-worn interior, anchored by an enormous wooden bar. The walls are decorated with journalism memorabilia and old newspaper front pages. Near the entrance is a plaque that commemorates reporters affiliated with the club who were killed while on assignment. Its longevity and profile have created an outsize reputation: In The Honourable Schoolboy, John le Carré wrote of it as a place where “a score of journalists, mainly from former British colonies … fooled and drank in a mood of violent idleness, a chorus without a hero.” (The “score of journalists” has shrunk over the years, a result of the changing economics of the news business, but I've found the mood inside to be generally upbeat.)

In my time in Hong Kong, the FCC has been more than just a watering hole, though, organizing an array of thoughtful discussions with analysts and officials from Hong Kong and elsewhere, and pushing for media freedoms—not always with positive consequences. In 2018, the FCC hosted a member of a relatively unknown party pushing for Hong Kong independence, a talk that resulted in the event’s moderator, a journalist for the Financial Times, being expelled from the city. (Despite the name, many members of the club are in no way affiliated with journalism; they work in banking, law, and other professions. Some were perturbed that the club had gone along with the event despite warnings, fearful that it might jeopardize the club’s lease.) At the time, the expulsion seemed shocking, but in fact, it pointed to Hong Kong’s direction of travel.

The pandemic forced the club to transition its offerings online, but when it reopened to public events, Hong Kong’s prodemocracy protests were finished—and so, too, was much of Hong Kong’s opposition. A stream of speakers arrived one after another to applaud Hong Kong’s new political regime, lawmakers, high-profile lawyers, businesspeople, and film producers among them.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with their views being heard in a press club whose stated mission is the promotion of free speech and journalism. The problem comes when the other side cannot respond. Prominent prodemocracy and opposition figures are in jail, are in exile, or have retreated from public life to protect themselves from possible legal ramifications. Activists who could join events remotely are deemed too problematic for the club. The cold shoulder extends to less radical figures. Former FCC President Steve Vines, a longtime journalist and the author of a recent book, Defying the Dragon, left Hong Kong saying he was fleeing possible persecution, and has not been invited to discuss his book.

The decision to cancel the awards is a blow for would-be award winners, none so much as local journalists, who in prior years saw their work praised and elevated alongside some of the biggest news organizations in the world. Foreign correspondents operate from a position of privilege, and press clubs must use this position to try to expand the space for free speech in their host countries, the calculus being that these governments are less likely to pursue foreign outlets with global reach and deep pockets as aggressively as local ones.

When the awards were suspended, I and seven other members of the press-freedom committee resigned in protest of the club’s purposeful drift from its professed values. None want to see the club close and its staff be forced from work, rather that it come to truthful terms with its new position as solely a social institution.

After the announcement of the suspension of the awards, one of the first people I heard from was Ronson Chan, the head of the biggest journalism union in the city, the Hong Kong Journalists Association, and a former editor at Stand News. The journalists’ association, and Chan personally, had been hounded for months by pro-Beijing media. Authorities are probing the association's finances and past events. He was arrested earlier this year. His former colleagues are in jail. Chan, true to his gregarious nature, sent me a string of voice messages about the awards’ cancellation. “I’m quite sad about this. This is the last time for my colleagues to get recognition for their hard work,” he said. “It seems like the chance has been taken away.”

That feeling of dismay and frustration was mirrored by many Hong Kong journalists, and could be summed up in a cartoon in the Chinese newspaper Ming Pao on Tuesday. It showed the club, a white flag flying over it.