By former club chairman Matt Driskill
In Ernest Hemingway’s novel The sun also rises, there is a famous phrase about going bankrupt that could be an analogy to China and its brutal crackdown on the once free press in Hong Kong. “How did you go bankrupt? Bill asked in the novel. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
The analogy is apt for the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong (FCC), which I joined in 1997 and later served as president in 2004-2005. The club was then no longer the center of the universe for China watchers, as the continent had opened up and correspondents were settling in Shanghai and Beijing. But Hong Kong and the club were still places where a free press and free speech could be practiced without Beijing’s heavy hand interfering. The club was world famous for hosting speeches from popular and less popular – and often controversial – politicians, artists, writers, business people and thousands of others who were able to criticize China without fear. to end up in jail.
Unfortunately, those days are long gone in Hong Kong, and I fear the days of the FCC itself are numbered. The possible end of the club began gradually years ago due to a decline in the number of Hong Kong-based correspondents which saw them outnumbered by the lawyers, bankers and businessmen who make up most of the members. The end could come suddenly, given the news on Monday that the club had canceled its annual human rights press awards due to the ‘red lines’ China has drawn on what is allowed to be published and the club’s concern that the prizes may inadvertently turn into dangerous territory for the club, its members and the prize participants.
China’s actions against club members began in 2018 with a speech to the FCC by pro-independence activist Andy Chan, chairman of the then legal Hong Kong National Party.
Chan and his party, which was banned soon after his speech, were advocating for Hong Kong independence from China, which Beijing has seen as a red line. Beijing objected to the club hosting Chan, the Hong Kong government wanted his speech canceled and pro-China protesters tried to shut it down, but it went ahead anyway. The FCC has never shied away from controversy and prides itself on being a haven for free speech.
There was of course a price to pay. This price was taken from Victor Mallet, then- FinancialTimes Hong Kong Correspondent and Vice Chairman of the FCC, who moderated the speech. After the speech, Mallet returned from a trip and was informed that his work visa would not be renewed, effectively banning him from the city. The Hong Kong Journalists Association, which mostly represents local journalists, called the move “a death knell for free speech” in the city.
In the three years since, Hong Kong (and China) has effectively and ruthlessly used its draconian national security law to kill any semblance of a free press in a city that was once a haven for journalists and editors who could freely exercise their profession. Pro-democracy newspapers like the Apple Daily were shut down and its owner, Jimmy Lai, is now in jail, convicted of organizing illegal protests and facing additional charges that could see him remain in prison for the rest of his life. Online news sites have not been spared either. Hong Kong police raided Stand news in late December and arrested several of its editors and employees using a colonial-era law charging them with “conspiracy to publish a seditious publication”. Other smaller online publications followed, and RTHK, the government-funded broadcaster, was once fiercely independent but has now become a pro-Beijing mouthpiece.
The end of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong is not something I am happy to predict, and no doubt some of my fellow club members will disagree. But it’s only a matter of time, and I will miss the many people I’ve known there over the 10 years I’ve lived in Hong Kong. Among those who passed through the doors of the FCC was Clare Hollingsworth, a Revolutionary War reporter and the first correspondent to report on the outbreak of World War II. Hugh van Es, a Dutch journalist who took one of the most famous photographs of the fall of Saigon when he snapped a photo of a helicopter loading evacuees from the CIA annex, was a regular at the bar major.
Politicians like FW de Clerk, South Africa’s last president during the apartheid era, spoke there. Nancy Kwan from The world of Suzie Wong fame has spoken, as have Shanghai Tang founder David Tang, Michael Palin of Monty Python fame, and many others, including Anson Chan, the first woman and first Chinese to hold the position of chief secretary of Hong Kong. The club has been featured in books such as John le Carré’s 1977 novel The honorable schoolboy and in movies like chinese box and Love is a resplendent thing.
In 1949, FCC members knew their time was up on the mainland and decamped to Hong Kong to create today’s modern club. Today’s FCC correspondents are fleeing now because the free Hong Kong that existed under the British – and seemed to be free during the early years of handover to China – is no more. Many have moved to places like Seoul, closed their offices in Hong Kong, or are relying on self-censorship to survive. China may not have to do anything other than what it is doing now to shut down the FCC. There may be no more journalists to run the club if Hong Kong continues to jail reporters and editors. Or Beijing could tell Hong Kong to cancel the club’s government-held lease, leaving the FCC homeless. A long-time FCC member and reporter in Asia told me he too feared for the future of the club, but said China could use the club as a fig leaf to claim they still respect freedom of press.
When I arrived in Hong Kong at the end of 1997, Britain had completed the handover of Hong Kong to China and everyone thought they could believe China’s word that it would abide by the Sino-British joint declaration that would allow Hong Kong to be “self-reliant with a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years under the mantra of “one country, two systems”. But China’s actions, not its words, reveal its true intentions.
One night at the FCC’s main bar, shortly after I arrived in town, a photographer I had just met told me that I had “missed the story” by showing up after the handover. I replied that I thought “Hong Kong’s story has only just begun”. Unfortunately, I think the story of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, at least in Hong Kong, will soon come to an end. The great city I knew and loved has already been lost and the best gin joint in the world, I fear, will soon follow.
Matt Driskill is currently a multimedia journalist based in Asia. Previously, he worked as an editor for Reuters, the International Herald Tribune/New York Times in Paris and Hong Kong, and from 2004 to 2005 he was chairman of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.