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Britain should offer right of abode to BNO passport holders, says Lord Ashdown as he sets up Hong Kong Watch

Britain should offer Hong Kong’s BNO passport holders right of abode in the UK if in the future conditions deteriorate in the SAR as it reintegrates with China, says former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown.

Lord Ashdown spoke about China's rise and its effect on world peace. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Lord Ashdown spoke about China’s rise and its effect on world peace. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

The former Royal Marine, in Hong Kong on a fact-finding exercise, said he would “favour very strongly the BNO being extended to the right of abode if it is the case that the conditions in Hong Kong are created by whatever force that enables those who hold the BNO passport to feel so vulnerable that they can’t live here any longer”.

However, the SAR passport “is probably a better travel document than the BNO”, he added.

The BNO (British Nationals Overseas) passport was created in 1987 and is issued to permanent residents of Hong Kong. Holders can visit the UK for up to six months.

Lord Ashdown revealed that he was in Hong Kong to set up a parliamentary system called Hong Kong Watch. He said: “It’s not just directed at one side of the joint agreement, it’s there to act as a prod for the British Government too. The British Government is now obsessed with Brexit (and) trying to build trade deals – it’s a huge plum for the British to have a trade deal with China.

“We must ensure that Britain fulfils its legal and duty of honour to Hong Kong and we’ll be doing that. It will look at the actions of both sides and it will act as a whistleblower.”

Lord Ashdown criticised Britain’s handling of Hong Kong’s handover to China, saying there was a degree of hypocrisy beneath its calls for democracy.

“British rule in Hong Kong was economically successful. But politically it was shameful,” he said, adding that a promise that the city “would never have to walk alone” is not a promise that “can be broken because it proves inconvenient to a British government obsessed with finding trade deals because it wishes to be outside Europe”.

“What happens next here in Hong Kong will be judged by a watching world,” he said.

Opening his speech at the sold-out November 28 club lunch, Lord Ashdown discussed China’s rise as a super-power and its effect on world peace. He said Hong Kong would be the testing ground for President Xi Jinping’s vision of “socialism with a Chinese face”.

“We live in one of those periods of history where the structures of power in the world shift,” he said. “How new powers rise and old powers fall is one of the prime determinants of peace in times like this. The Pacific basin is to be the cockpit in which this drama is about to be played out.”

Lord Ashdown said on many levels China appeared to be moving in the right direction: intent on building its reputation as a good world citizen, seeking to consolidate its trading strength and fill the “vacuum of leadership in regional and global multilateral institutions left by President Trump’s retreat from this space”.

“I do not think China’s true long term interest lies in responding to Donald Trump’s invitation to a dog fight, albeit one which appears to have been postponed after Mr Trump’s effusive glad handling with Chairman Xi,” he added.

However, he said China’s curbs on freedom of speech could not be sustainable: “It is just not in human nature, whether Chinese or otherwise, to be content for long with glorious freedom in one aspect of your life and permanent voicelessness in the other.”

During the question and answer session at the end of the talk Lord Ashdown said he felt the United States was a greater threat to world peace than China, citing the unpredictability of President Trump.

When asked about Brexit, Lord Ashdown predicted that it would not happen: “My view is that on balance, narrowly, I now think Brexit will not happen – not because it could not be done but because the government is too incapable to deliver it. The House of Commons will not vote for a hard Brexit, they will not vote for a throw-ourselves-over-the-cliff Brexit. They could vote for a soft Brexit but the government is too incompetent and too divided to be able to deliver any kind of soft Brexit that I think will make sense.”

He predicted an election next year that would see a new government, and that the process would “collapse in on itself”.

Censorship: How China is tightening its grip on Hong Kong

Hong Kong is feeling the creeping hand of censorship from President Xi Jinping as he exercises a tightening of control over the city and mainland China, said expert Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom spoke about how censorship works in China. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Jeffrey Wasserstrom spoke about how censorship works in China. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

The disappearance of the Hong Kong booksellers, the silencing of previously vocal critics of China, and the flooding of pro-China posters around the city during the 20th anniversary of the Handover celebrations are all signs of tightening control, said Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California at Irvine.

During his appearance at the club on November 3, Wasserstrom detailed censorship in China through the decades, outlining how traditionally Communist Party leaders had swung between a tightening and loosening of control over the information people shared and received. He told how in the era of Deng Xiaoping, Chinese citizens were not free enough to publicly criticise him, but they were not forced to praise him either. He said in the 1990s political jokes were rife, with citizens allowed to be apolitical, with less pressure to express their loyalty.

But the era of Xi Jinping and “his elevation in status” has not only seen a crackdown on freedom of expression and information, but also increased pressure to praise China’s leader or risk being seen as disloyal, he said.

And he warned that a general concept that, until now, applied a different set of rules to Hong Kong was coming to an end. Wasserstrom described how, rather than One Country, Two systems – the framework around which Hong Kong will be reintegrated with the mainland – there had been One Country, Three Systems. He explained this as one set of rules applied in Tibet and Xinjiang; a second set of rules applying to the mainland; and a third set of rules that allowed Hong Kong media to freely report on issues including the pro-democracy movement. But the case of the missing booksellers, along with a push for a China-approved national curriculum, was a sign that this third rule no longer applied to Hong Kong.

The event, titled Xi’s Dreams, Orwell’s Nightmares: Censorship in Today’s China, compared the dystopian visions of writers George Orwell and Aldous Huxley to make the point that China’s censorship campaign is two-pronged: it blocks information coming in but at the same time bombards its citizens with the propaganda it wants them to see – “a culture of distraction and entertainment”. While Huxley’s Brave New World was seen as a critique of capitalism an imperialism, Orwell’s 1984 had much darker undertones.

Wasserstrom also touched upon a recent article by journalist Louisa Lim, who commented on new research on the effects on China’s censorship on its young people which revealed that many of those who were given unlimited access to the internet failed to use it. The report quotes American writer Neil Postman: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who would want to read one.”

He noted the increase in China-centric posters around Hong Kong suggested efforts to spread propaganda had become more obvious, and said future signs to look out for would be banks in the city using the Belt and Road Initiative to promote themselves

Referring to Hong Kong and the silencing of some well-known anti-establishment figures, Wasserstrom used the metaphor of the canary in the mineshaft: “One other thing that can happen to a canary is it can find it possible to keep breathing but is unable to sing,” he said, before adding: “We need not just to keep watching the dramatic moments when the canaries disappear and die, but when they stop singing.”

FCC expresses concern over the exclusion of major news organisations from China’s political unveiling

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, is concerned at the unexplained barring of several major international news organisations from the most important political event in China in the last five years.

The BBC, the Financial Times, the Economist, the New York Times and the Guardian were all denied access to the unveiling of the new Politburo Standing Committee in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP The BBC, the Financial Times, the Economist, the New York Times and the Guardian were all denied access to the unveiling of the new Politburo Standing Committee in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP

The BBC, the Financial Times, the Economist, the New York Times and the Guardian were all denied access to the unveiling of the new Politburo Standing Committee in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on the morning of October 25.

Chinese government officials did not explain why these particular news organisations were all excluded from the carefully stage-managed event attended by some 2,000 journalists. A statement from the congress media centre said that space was limited on Wednesday and noted that the media concerned had been able to attend previous briefings.

However, it seems almost certain that they were likely barred simply because of their, at times, critical coverage of China and Chinese politics.

As the Foreign Correspondents Club of China noted in a statement yesterday: “Using media access as a tool to punish journalists whose coverage the Chinese authorities disapprove of is a gross violation of the principles of press freedom.”

Restricting media access to key political events is an ominously retrograde step for a country and government that claims to be open and transparent. Moreover, it contrasts sharply with the relatively free and open access given to foreign journalists at Communist Party Congresses in the 1980s and 90s when the country was just re-emerging on the world stage.

If China wants to be seen as responsible leader of the global community it should honour President Xi Jinping’s claim that the country “welcomes objective reporting and constructive suggestions” and allow both domestic and foreign journalists to do their job.

Video: Everything you need to know about China’s upcoming 19th Party congress

Four China experts discussed their views on who’s in and who’s out as the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China approaches.

The debate at the FCC on October 3 featured panelists Dr. Willy Lam of Centre for China Studies and the History Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Dr. Jean-Pierre Cabestan, Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University; Dr. Chloé Froissart of Tsinghua University Sino-French Centre in Social Sciences in Beijing; and Dr. Bill Taylor of the Department of Public Policy, City University of Hong Kong.

Left to right: Dr. Bill Taylor, Dr. Chloé Froissart, Dr. Jean-Pierre Cabestan, and Dr. Willy Lam. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Left to right: Dr. Bill Taylor, Dr. Chloé Froissart, Dr. Jean-Pierre Cabestan, and Dr. Willy Lam. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

Dr Lam, author of several books on China including his most recent Routledge Handbook of the Chinese Communist Party, went so far as to predict the top seven Politburo Standing committee members to be unveiled at the congress which begins on October 18.

The panel speculated on how the policies due to be announced at the congress would affect China’s population, and its international relations.

Watch the debate below

Democracy across Southeast Asia is in danger – but all is not lost, says armed conflict mediator

Michael Vatikiotis discussed Southeast Asia's political and economic issues at the FCC. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC Michael Vatikiotis discussed Southeast Asia’s political and economic issues at the FCC. Photo: Sarah Graham/FCC

A “democracy deficit” fuelled by conflict, religious division and widespread corruption has led to instability in Southeast Asia – and things will improve but at a cost, according to a mediator in armed conflict.

Michael Vatikiotis, whose new book Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia examines the region’s dynamics of power, said that in the next 30 years Southeast Asia will look like it did before it was colonised by European powers.

But currently, he warned: “Across Southeast Asia, democracy is in peril.

“Myanmar’s democratic transition is faltering; Thailand is enduring fourth year of military rule; Cambodia has launched an aggressive campaign against the opposition and threatens to wage war if it loses elections in 2018. Malaysia’s angry electorate is unlikely to be able to vote out of power a ruling party that has governed the country since independence; whilst in the Philippines, the number of people killed without due process this past year has already exceeded the total number killed by Marcos the dictator in the 1970s and 80s.

“Even in Indonesia, where democracy seems secure, there are indications that popular demand for equality and security are starting to outweigh respect for one-man one-vote.”

Factors contributing towards this “democracy deficit” in a region of 600 million people include enduring impunity and lack of accountability of governments; unresolved violent conflict; chronic levels of corruption; and alarmingly high levels of economic inequality, said Vatikiotis, who is Mediator in Armed Conflict, Asia Regional Director at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Scroll to the bottom to watch Michael Vatikiotis at the FCC

“Despite the gloomy perspectives elaborated above, I am reasonably confident that the region will continue to prosper; its people will achieve significant levels of wealth and security. But there will be costs.”

He said the democracy deficit would deepen; sectarian and ethnic strife would intensify; and China would dominate the geo-political domain. He added that there would be less tolerance of the region’s traditional balancing of powers impulse; less economic and financial autonomy; and the threat of China’s particular form of extra-territoriality with regard to the overseas Chinese.

Why such a pessimistic outlook?, asked host and board member Victor Mallet (read his Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia review here). Vatikiotis cited Cambodia as an example: economic growth of over 7% which has been a huge benefit to workers who have been pulled out of poverty. “Yet you have a PM that doesn’t believe anyone has the right to turf him out of power,” he said, adding: “He’s decided if the opposition wins the election he’ll go to war.” Vatikiotis said this undermines stability in society and sets up inevitable conflict.

On China, Vatikiotis said that President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) had stirred suspicion in Southeast Asia that the chief beneficiaries would be further away – South Asia and beyond. He added: “For the time being it’s mainly seen as a metaphor for China’s strategic ambitions.”

He said there was a great fear in the region that if China’s economy “went pair-shaped” there would be mass migration that would affect its neighbours.

Despite the gloomy outlook for the region in the interim, Vatikiotis believes that ultimately stability will return.

He said: “Fortunately, both access to technology and a sufficient degree of what I call ‘demi-democracy’ will enable civil society to address to a degree the need for some capacity to represent people, and push back on the state. This is ‘democracy you can eat’; it bypasses the political parties that have failed to deliver to communities at the grass roots, it ignores increasingly onerous security restrictions, and asserts popular will.”

Trump and China: OPC group discusses relationship that’s ‘simply too important’ to fail

This article by Eric Westervelt is reproduced with permission from the Overseas Press Club of America 

Left to right: Xiao Qiang, John Pomfret and Mary Kay Magistad. Photo: Eric Westervelt Left to right: Xiao Qiang, John Pomfret and Mary Kay Magistad. Photo: Eric Westervelt

Despite Donald Trump’s tough talk about China, author and journalist John Pomfret told an OPC/West gathering in the San Francisco area in early January that history shows that the relationship is deep, complex, and “simply too important” to fail.

Pomfret’s new book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, charts the history of that relationship, and how, from the American Founding Fathers to the present, each country has influenced the other in abiding and often surprising ways, including how the Founding Fathers studied and admired aspects of Chinese culture, and how trade with China just after the birth of the American nation helped the US economy get going.

Donald Trump’s apparent preference for closer ties with Russia may over time prove to be a new twist on an old theme – US presidents coming in with one set of assumptions about China, and adjusting them upon realising how a constructive, multi-faceted relationship with China serves US interests. An added challenge this time is how to deal with China’s efforts to cement its desired role as the region’s predominant military, economic and political power, including by creating islands and putting military bases in the contested South China Sea.

Joining the conversation was Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor in UC Berkeley’s School of Information, and founder and editor-in-chief of China Digital Times.net, which monitors and translates Chinese journalism and social media. He said while many Chinese on social media initially expressed a preference that Trump would win the election, because they figured a businessman would be all about transactional business and not about ideology, the post-election tone has become more uncertain.

“Right now, I see confusion and silence,” said Xiao Qiang, “There is uncertainty…people just don’t know what to do.”

John Pomfret's book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present John Pomfret’s book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present

Xiao Qiang grew up in China and, like Pomfret, was in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 pro-democracy protests, Pomfret as a correspondent, Xiao as a protester. Shortly after, Pomfret was kicked out of the country, and Xiao went into exile in the United States, first helping to lead the human rights group Human Rights in China, and then founding China Digital Times.

Xiao recalled how, growing up under Mao Zedong’s leadership, during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s, he heard plenty of anti-American propaganda, but as soon as China started opening up, American films, music and culture poured in, and his generation – like the pre-Mao generation – couldn’t get enough of them. America was initially idealised and emulated, both at the personal and the official levels – as China rose as a global power and global economy, America set the standard, but was also increasingly – and is still – seen as the competitor to beat.

How that will play out between President Trump and current Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has shown a willingness to be muscular in consolidating power at home and claiming territory in contested waters, will be a critical variable in determining the stability, or lack thereof, in the Asia/Pacific region, and whether the United States might get pulled into a conflict there – or choose to cooperate on an issue like halting North Korea’s progress on building up its nuclear weapons capabilities.

The conversation was moderated by OPC member Mary Kay Magistad, who opened NPR’s bureau in China in 1996, and returned to Beijing for more than a decade for the BBC/PRI program “The World.” She now hosts the “Whose Century Is It?” podcast with The World.

The Center for Investigative Reporting/Reveal hosted the event, attended by more than 30 former foreign correspondents, at its Emeryville headquarters, just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco.

Overseas Press Club of America logo

OPC/West is an informal affiliate of the OPC. The group of about 70 current and former foreign correspondents based in the San Francisco Bay Area, first formed in the spring of 2016. New members are welcome. Interested? Contact OPC members Markos Kounalakis at [email protected], or Mary Kay Magistad at [email protected]

Eric Westervelt served for more that a decade as foreign correspondent with NPR’s international desk, returning to domestic news in 2013 to cover a national beat covering American education.

Revealed: Methods of torture used against China’s officials in corruption crackdown

Sophie Richardson, China Director, Human Rights Watch, revealed how China's corruption suspects are kidnapped and tortured Sophie Richardson, China Director, Human Rights Watch, revealed how China’s corruption suspects are kidnapped and tortured

The methods of torture used to extract confessions from suspected corrupt Chinese Communist Party officials was revealed as Human Rights Watch released its report at the FCC into the shuanggui detention system.

Beatings, solitary confinement, being made to stay in one position for hours, sleep and food deprivation were just some of the ways in which detention officers from the party’s CCDI (Central Commission for Discipline Inspection) coerced confessions.

Sophie Richardson, China Director of Human Rights Watch, called on the Chinese government to immediately abolish shuanggui, its secretive detention system that operates outside of China’s legal system, during the report release on December 6.

When President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he announced a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign with a pledge to eradicate graft once and for all from the Communist Party. The campaign has seen both “tigers and flies” – high-ranking and low-ranking officials – detained and prosecuted for alleged corruption. What is lesser known is how shuanggui officers operate.

The Human Rights Watch report, titled Special Measures: Detention and Torture in the Chinese Communist Party’s Shuanggui System, is based on 21 interviews with four former detainees as well as family members of detainees, 35 detailed accounts from more than 200 Chinese media reports, and analysis of court verdicts from across the country. It outlines how suspects are led under false pretences to a meeting place where they are then spirited away for prolonged periods of time, their families not knowing where they are or why they have disappeared. They are then taken to shuanggui facilities, which the report stated have padded walls in order to prevent detainees from committing suicide, where they have no access to lawyers.

A drawing of a room used for shuanggui detention by a former detainee. A drawing of a room used for shuanggui detention by a former detainee.

One detainee, a former police chief from Jiangxi Province, recalled: “For nine days and nine nights I sat in tiger chairs; and urinated and defecated into adult diapers…for over a hundred hours, whether it’s day or night, they took turns interrogating me.”

Accounts from former detainees detail the various abuses inflicted by officers to extract confessions from the suspects, who are then typically brought into the criminal justice system where they are convicted and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

Ms Richardson called on China to abolish shuanggui, saying: “President Xi Jinping has built his anti-corruption campaign on an abusive and illegal detention system. Torturing suspects to confess won’t bring an end to corruption, but will end any confidence in China’s judicial system.”

She added: “Nobody, not even guilty Chinese Communist Party officials, should be denied basic fair trial rights or tortured.”

Figures in the report show that in 2015, 336,000 individuals were punished internally in the war against corruption. A further 14,000 were handed over to the courts for prosecution.

Guangdong on track to become leading science and tech hub

Professor Huang Ningsheng talked about Guangdong's bid to become an innovation hub Professor Huang Ningsheng talked about Guangdong’s bid to become an innovation hub

Investment in Guangdong’s scientific research and development is expected to take up 2.58% of the province’s total GDP for 2016, according to the Director-General of its department of science and technology.

It is a figure that looks set to increase over the coming years as the province, which neighbours Hong Kong, seeks to enhance its competitiveness and further cement its reputation as an up-and-coming scientific and technical innovation hub.

During the November 30 club lunch, guest speaker Professor Huang Ningsheng told the audience of the push to not only attract talent to the province, but also to produce talent by way of creating new R&D institutions and universities.

The former Dean of the Guangdong Provincial Academy of Sciences said that support from the Chinese Government had been essential in making Guangdong province home to some of China’s fastest growing tech companies. He added that even President Xi Jinping had ‘provided us with a lot of guidance’.

He said that the NPC Standing Committee of Guangdong Province was this week reviewing legislation that could speed up the transfer of science and technology findings into business results. Guangdong Province will also benefit from the Chinese government providing subsidies for venture capitalists who invest in R&D institutions and tech companies.

“We’re seeing the new round of technical revolution and industrial revolution,” he said.

Professor Huang said the key factors in ensuring the province’s continued growth as a tech hub were the creation of more incubators – which help turn research findings into products that businesses can sell – and laboratories to engage in basic applied research. He added that legislation to protect intellectual property rights was also essential in attracting talent and investment to the province.

The focus for Guangdong is the production of smart robots, telecommunications and life science and health.

Keith Richburg: In this digital age we need to get back to good, old-fashioned journalism

Keith Richburg recalls pivotal moments from his long career during the club lunch Keith Richburg recalls pivotal moments from his long career during the club lunch

Put down your devices, get out reporting and speak to real people: that was the advice of renowned foreign correspondent and former FCC president Keith Richburg as he addressed members at a lively club lunch exploring the internet’s effect on press freedom.

The former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, who is now director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at HKU, said that while the digital revolution brought huge benefits in terms of instant access to news events, it also meant that journalism was suffering. Trying to be first with news is affecting the basic tenets of journalism, such as fact checking, he said.

“Lack of time is the enemy of journalists,” he told a packed meeting.

In a career spanning four decades, Richburg spoke of the rise of social media and how it had changed the way in which news organisations operate. He said that ‘people power’ uprisings in South East Asian countries including the Philippines during the 1980s had led him to form the opinion that other less open countries would follow. As the internet held democracies to account around the world, so it would also happen in China, he thought.

“But I was wrong,” he admitted.

Keith Richburg at the FCC. Keith Richburg at the FCC.

Richburg returned to Hong Kong in time for the handover in 1997. He was also FCC president at the time. As it turned out, the fear and angst of before the handover faded and, for a journalist, the lack of drama meant the handover story also faded quickly.

“The story of 1997 turned out to be the beginning of the Asian Economic Crisis,” he said. “It quickly led primarily to currency devaluations and a loss of faith in governments across the region. It also led to an upsurge of the kind of people-power movements that I thought I was going to see earlier [following People Power in the Philippines].

“You will recall it led to huge street demonstrations in Jakarta which eventually led to the fall of Suharto and the Reformasi movement in Indonesia; in Thailand it led to an outpouring of protests against the government of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. He was toppled and the people pushed for what became known as the people’s constitution that was going to institutionalise change in Thailand.

“We were all swept up in this idea that the economic crisis was going to change the Southeast Asian political landscape.”

Richburg said that at the end of 1997 he wrote: ‘Just as democracy swept through Latin America and the former communist states of East Europe… East Asia too is in the midst of what many are calling a slow but steady move towards pluralism and openness.’

“I was wrong,” he said. “And a lot of what I wrote about has now been reversed in some countries – Thailand for example.”

When Richburg first went to China in 2009, through blogs and Weibo coverage he heard an obscure story about an entrapment operation looking for illegal taxis. So he went to Shanghai and found thousands of people protesting which led to the government backing down.

“I remember thinking ‘something has changed in China’; evidenced by the fact that I could hear about this hundreds of miles away and that the government actually responded to the Weibo pressure,” he said.

This led Richburg to focus on what was happening in China’s online world. “There’s the story of the blogger who looked at official photos where he focused on their wrists to see what watch they were wearing; pricing them and then matching that to officials’ salaries – disciplinary action followed for the officials.” Another blogger did the same for officials carrying handbags and brief cases into the National People’s Congress.

“It was sort of a people’s campaign against corruption,” he said. “I consider this as the free and open Weibo period where people could speak out to power and news could filter through. I thought it was never going to change back again – I was wrong.”

He cited two events in 2011 as having such a profound effect on the Chinese government as to give birth to Internet censorship as we know it today. The Arab Spring, which unfolded on social media as much as it did on an international news level; and the Wenzhou high-speed train crash, which the Chinese government moved to censor as soon as it happened; were two events that led to the government taking a hard line against Internet use.


“This really shook up the regime in China. What I did not anticipate was how effective they would be at this [censorship],” he said of the government’s Great Firewall and the many thousands of people it employs to ensure free speech is stunted, and its own propaganda is spread to “occupy the heights, to occupy this space”.

Richburg thinks his early predictions that the Internet would bring democracy to China and Hong Kong were most likely incorrect because “what’s happening here in Asia does not fit any model that we have had here before. A growing middle class makes countries more democratic was the model I studied. However,  China, and Thailand for that matter, has turned that around, where the new middle class want stability rather than democracy”.

Richburg said that back in 2000, President Clinton said that controlling the Internet would be like nailing Jello to the wall. “The jello is definitely sticking to the wall.”

Sticking to the theme of incorrect predictions, Richburg said that he had believed that incoming president Xi Jinping would usher in an era of less stringent controls on the people of China.

“Another one I got wrong,” he said, adding: “I remember writing that everyone was anticipating that Xi Jinping would be seen as a breath of fresh air. We all thought ‘wow, it’s going to be terrific when Xi Jinping takes over’”. Instead, he said, colleagues were lamenting the era of Hu Jintao.

When asked by an audience member what he thought of the rise of Wikileaks, Richburg said that data dumps still needed journalists to make sense of the information and put it out to the audience. He added that he thought that organisations such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which released the Panama Papers, were the future of journalism. “That is where I think we are heading. That is a model for the future.”

Richburg said that despite being wrong about the Internet in China and the notion that after 1997 it would be Hong Kong who changed China rather than the other way around – with China more interested in pushing One China rather than One Country, Two Systems – “in my defence I would say that I was in good company”.

He said that being naturally an optimist, he saw three grounds for optimism:

First, the level of political interest and engagement in Hong Kong which he hadn’t seen before, particularly the increasing engagement by young people.

Secondly, “I see all these new news websites, blogs and media platforms – not just in Hong Kong. Few are making money, but they are trying and should have our support.”

Third, the students he is teaching. “I am very excited to see so many being excited about journalism, particularly the numbers coming from the mainland – many of whom are journalists who are here to learn best practice in journalism.

“They are the ones who will be telling China’s story. So to arm them with fairness and objectivity for the future makes my decision to change hats [from journalism to academia] worthwhile.”

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