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China escalated its crackdown on press freedoms this year

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The most prominent pro-democracy media outlet still operating in Hong Kong is being forced to shut down. Stand News will end its operations after their offices were raided by police, assets were frozen, and journalists were arrested on sedition charges. It's all part of a crackdown that has intensified pressure on independent journalists throughout China. One of them is David Rennie. He's the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist, and he joins us now. Hello.

DAVID RENNIE: Hello.

MCCAMMON: One of the senior editors at Stand News called this the saddest year for Hong Kong's media. Can you put that into perspective for us?

RENNIE: It's not hyperbole. I mean, it had been an extremely bleak year, and it's ending on a particularly bad note. So you have seen the last few Chinese language pro-democracy newspapers and websites crushed with this dawn raid with 200 officers at Stand News. But early we saw this raucous tabloid, Apple News (ph), being shut down. The tycoon who owns that has just been sentenced to another prison sentence for essentially a peaceful protest about Tiananmen Square. And it follows a whole bunch of moves by the central government basically ordering the local government in Hong Kong to crack down.

In December, we saw essentially a fake sham election for the mini Parliament. We saw a famous memorial to the Tiananmen Square massacre taken away in the dead of night from the main university in Hong Kong - and just generally, a sense that the government in Beijing is feeling simultaneously very confident that the outside world is not going to push back very hard on all of this and very paranoid that foreign forces might still try to use Hong Kong as a way to spread sort of trouble. And that mixture of confidence and paranoia, I think, is where we are at the end of December.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, I want to elaborate on that a little bit. That crackdown you mentioned on the press escalated in Hong Kong after dissent erupted over the enactment of a new national security law. But this really goes beyond Hong Kong, doesn't it?

RENNIE: That does. And you know, one of the extraordinary things about Hong Kong is that after the British gave it back to China in '97, for a very long time, you had free internet. You could go interview people. They - you had people willing to criticize the government publicly. You had opposition politicians. It was not free, wasn't a full democracy, but it was by far the freest press environment in, you know, in China and pretty free for Asia.

That really ended with the passage of the national security law, which was in the summer of 2020. That was China's response to the protests that your listeners will remember in 2019, anti-government protests. And since then, they've been gaining and gaining in confidence, willing to use this, not just in Hong Kong, but even - you know, recently, we saw some newspapers like The Wall Street Journal in the States published an editorial saying that the recent election in Hong Kong was a sham. And so maybe people might want to protest by casting a blank ballot or boycotting, just not voting. They got a letter from the Hong Kong government saying under Hong Kong law, even saying that in the United States is illegal. You can't incite people not to vote in a patriots-only election.

So they are very willing to threaten foreign media, even big-name foreign media, which really says that the old argument that maybe foreign bankers and businessmen in finance would leave Hong Kong, and that would hurt China and stay their hand - that argument just doesn't work anymore. China is done with being criticized by the West.

MCCAMMON: And briefly, David, in just 20 seconds or so, what's it like for you as a foreign journalist in China right now?

RENNIE: It's not great. We've had a lot of colleagues, particularly Americans, expelled. We're getting attacked a lot by the state media. But look; it is far, far worse for my Chinese colleagues. And, you know, I'm still remarkably privileged as a foreigner here with a British passport. I don't want to claim, you know, that I'm the victim in all this. But China is cracking down because it feels the West shouldn't criticize it and the West is weak and in decline, and so China can make its move.

MCCAMMON: David Rennie with The Economist in Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "LUX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.