HK journo incommunicado, feared detained
Senior South China Morning Post reporter Minnie Chan has been incommunicado since traveling to Beijing to cover a regional security forum in October, prompting growing concern that she has been detained.
Kyodo News reported on Nov. 30 that Chan, a senior defense and foreign affairs reporter, had been unreachable for a month.
Chan is the first Hong Kong journalist to go missing while working in China since former Straits Times reporter Ching Cheong was handed a five-year jail term for “espionage” in 2005 after gathering material on late ousted Premier Zhao Ziyang.
The South China Morning Post, owned by Chinese tech giant Alibaba, responded to a query on Friday with a brief statement that Chan is “on vacation,” that she is currently safe, but has asked the company to “respect her privacy.”
“The safety of our journalists is of paramount importance, and we will continue to maintain contact and communication with Minnie Chan’s family and provide them with all the support they need,” the paper said.
Repeated calls to Chan’s family members and to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Tammy Tam, rang unanswered during office hours on Friday.
Press freedom in Hong Kong has taken a nosedive amid an ongoing crackdown on criticism of the authorities under a national security law and colonial-era sedition laws, with more outlets now offering mainland Chinese content and state-backed propaganda to viewers and listeners.
A source familiar with the situation told RFA Cantonese that “other parties” are working with the authorities, in a bid to minimize public reaction to Chan’s disappearance.
The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association said in a statement on its website that it was “deeply concerned for [Chan]’s safety,” adding that it has requested more information from the South China Morning Post.
Hong Kong Journalists’ Association Chairman Ronson Chan said he had received no further news of Chan when contacted on Friday by RFA Cantonese.
“There is so much I want to know, but there is still no news, nothing specific,” he said. “We are very concerned about her situation, and hope everyone can lend a hand, so she can come back home and be reunited with her family as soon as possible.”
Ranked near the bottom
He said both Ching Cheong’s sentencing and Chan’s disappearance highlight the dangers of reporting in China, which ranked 177th out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ global press freedom index last year, with more than 100 journalists currently behind bars.
Chan was last heard of publicly as she reported on the Xiangshan Forum, which ran in Beijing from Oct. 29-31.
Her last Facebook post was on Nov. 11, where she posted a number of selfies, leading defense expert Andrey Pinkov to ask her where she was.
Pinkov commented in a later Facebook post: “She is a very polite person. I often pass on Facebook content to her and other friends that I think is important and she always replies with a like.”
“She hasn’t liked anything or read anything [I have sent] since the beginning of November,” he said. “I’m starting to think that this is weird.”
“I read her coverage all the time, her coverage is not political at all, and the South China Morning Post is a Chinese[-owned] newspaper,” Pinkov wrote, adding that Chan frequently interviews military figures about Chinese military developments.
Foreign journalists working in China continue to face government interference when trying to do their jobs, amid “battered morale” linked to repeated journalist expulsions and visa woes, according to a March 2023 report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, while Chinese nationals working for foreign media organizations are also frequently harassed and detained.
Ching Cheong declined to speculate on the specifics of Chan’s situation.
But he said there has been a growing emphasis on “national security” under President Xi Jinping.
“Under such circumstances, journalists can easily be investigated by the Ministry of National Security if they are not careful,” he said. “There are people who are specially tasked with keeping an eye on every overseas reporter.”
“After you arrive in China, every move you make will be under surveillance,” Ching said. “Reporters in China walk on thin ice – it’s very dangerous.”
Ching said the Hong Kong authorities – who are now themselves engaged in hunting down every form of dissent – are unlikely to be of much help to Chan, if she has run afoul of the authorities.
“The government no longer dares to step up, and civil society has been defeated – if the same thing happened to me now, I wouldn’t get anything like the kind of support I had from Hong Kong back then,” he said.
Independent political scholar Chen Daoyin agreed, adding that any topic regarded as sensitive by the government can be treated as a “national security” matter.
“Even scooping the government by releasing information ahead of them will seem like a challenge to their authority and make them feel insecure,” Chen said.
“When the government starts looking for absolute security, then no industry is safe,” he said.
Hong Kong current affairs commentator To Yiu-ming said recent amendments to China’s Counterespionage Law could mean that more activities are likely to be seen as “espionage” by the Chinese authorities – including journalism.
“It might not be this journalist [who is accused of] spying – they may be going after whoever provided her with information,” To said. “It could be an official, maybe someone from a think tank.”
But, “generally speaking, even normal reporting activities are often regarded as extraction of official secrets, and could fall under the investigative scope of the Counterespionage Law,” he said.
Asked for information on Chan, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Friday: “I’m not aware of that.”
–RFA report, Dec 1, 2023
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