The brutal attack on the former chief editor of a major Hong Kong newspaper has appalled and shocked this city, where violent crimes are rare. Kevin Lau Chun-to, a veteran journalist who had just stepped down as the chief editor of the respected Ming Pao Daily, was stabbed six times in a hit-and-run attack last week. Fortunately, following surgery, Lau’s condition has now stabilized. But for Hong Kong, the wounds will be more lasting. Not only did the attack leave a permanent scar on the freedom of the local press, it may have also laid bare the erosion of Hong Kong’s self-autonomy under the phony One Country Two Systems.
The cause of the attack is still unknown. Sadly, as the hit men are believed to have fled to Mainland China, the hunt for suspects has become more challenging. It is likely, therefore, that the brutal assault might well remain unsolved – a grisly addition to the city’s poor record on cracking media-related attacks. Over the past few years, there have been seven other reported incidents in which media professionals and outlets critical of the Hong Kong government and the Beijing authorities were threatened or attacked; none have been solved by the otherwise effective police.
Lau was at the eye of a storm just two months ago when he was removed from chief-editorship after serving for only two years (his predecessor had held the post for 15 years) and transferred to a non-editorial position. The plan is to replace him with a Malaysian editor who seems to have little experience in Hong Kong news reporting. Pundits have linked the unusual personnel shift to Ming Pao’s owner, Zhang Xiaoqing, a Malaysian billionaire with business ties in China, who may been seeking to tone down the critical character of the newspaper. Although many Ming Pao journalists resisted the move, the soft-spoken Lau accepted it without open opposition. That is why people were shocked not just by the attack itself, but also by the fact that the target was Lau, seen among journalists as a moderate personality. Even though Ming Pao largely retained its critical voice under his leadership, Lau, who is well connected with government officials and politicians from across the spectrum, seems unlikely to have been seen as a “problem child” in the eyes of the authorities.
Dwindling Press Freedom
What is most troubling, therefore, is that even such a moderate liberal style can attract such brutal violence; a “lesson” that might well have long-term repercussions for critical journalism. The implications are important. The generally moderate Ming Pao has been renowned for its investigative journalism on socio-political affairs in both Hong Kong and China. Among its outstanding coverage under Lau, the paper worked with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) as the only Chinese media company on a project about offshore money leaks, which led to a story in mid-January about the offshore holdings of former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s family members. Similar reports that exposed the enormous wealth of high-ranking Chinese officials that have appeared in foreign media, namely The New York Times and Bloomberg News, have also resulted in reprisals such as visa delays from Beijing. Although there is no evidence to link that particular Ming Pao story to the assault, the ICIJ report has certainly attracted the most speculation.