It was mid-morning Wednesday when Kevin Lau Chun-to stepped out of his car near a Hong Kong restaurant he frequents for breakfast. Lau, the well-known former chief editor of the Chinese-language daily Ming Pao, was savagely attacked by a man wielding a meat cleaver that sliced through his back and legs.
Thankfully, Lau was rushed to a hospital and survived surgery. No one has been arrested, but the circumstances suggest something sinister. This may have not been just a brutal attack on a single person but rather an assault on the free press in Hong Kong, a chilling message for all who care about democracy.
Lau was dismissed in January from his post at Ming Pao, prompting street demonstrations by those – including his colleagues – who expressed the fear that he was removed in another quiet but notable effort by authorities in Beijing to dampen Hong Kong’s spirit of freedom and to quash independent reporting about them anywhere in the world.
The newspaper had carried out several groundbreaking investigations under Lau’s leadership. It participated in a probe by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that cast light on how the world’s super-rich, including thousands of Chinese, have embraced the use of global tax havens. That was one of several recent penetrating articles by journalists, including those at Bloomberg and The New York Times, to probe the connections of wealth and power in China. Under Chinese pressure, Bloomberg appears to have backed down from such reporting, and China has withheld visas from some New York Times reporters. The material the ICIJ published in January showed that relatives of several senior Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping and former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, owned stakes in companies registered in offshore tax havens.
It is no small feat for Western journalists, working inside a partially closed society like China, to expose such murky dealings. It is even more difficult for a newspaper such as Ming Pao. Although Hong Kong is regarded as one of the most transparent and open economic zones in the world, politically it remains in a grey zone. The former British colony was turned over to China in 1997; today it is a semiautonomous Chinese territory. The promise made by China’s rulers at the time was “one country, two systems” – they would allow Hong Kong’s freedom to flourish. Hong Kong’s democracy advocates work hard to safeguard that independence, but it is continually under pressure from Beijing.
Even though there is no evidence yet of who carried out the attack, the meat cleaver put between Lau’s shoulder blades will send chills through all who care about Hong Kong’s future. It will spread fear and deter journalists from spending time and effort to investigate officials in Beijing. The news accounts of the assault on Lau suggest it was intended to maim but not kill. It mustn’t be allowed to maim or kill the spirit of Hong Kong or the efforts, around the world, to report truthfully on the world’s most populous country.