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Hong Kong protest book authors unable to return due to crackdown – Radio Free Asia

The authors of a new book on the Hong Kong protest movement say they won’t be able to return to the city now, for fear of reprisals under a draconian security law.

Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin, whose in-depth portrait of the 2019 protest movement “Among the Braves” was published recently in New York, said they had realized while researching the book that there would likely be a trade-off between ease of access to the city they once called home and their ability to write freely about the movement.

“I think we knew when we started doing this that it would mean giving up our ability to go back,” Mahtani told a recent seminar at New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute. “But then it was reflected back to us in the decisions of others, [who were] like, we will definitely help you, this is important, but we need to be anonymous.”

“And it was pretty clear that this is sort of the price,” she said, adding that she and co-author McLaughlin had “started experiencing some issues with visas” while they were living there.

She said Hong Kong’s national security police, who are tasked with prosecuting speech and actions anywhere in the world deemed subversive or overly critical of the authorities, had also complained about a story McLaughlin – who writes for The Atlantic – had published recently.

‘A trade-off’

“Tim got a complaint on a story from the [Hong Kong] national security police, though nothing came out of it,” she said in a reference to their decision to move out of the city.

“I think we took the decision to leave before we were forced to,” she said.

“We won’t be able to go back; we won’t be able to report on the ground, and that really limits you as a journalist in a huge way,” Mahtani, who is an international investigative correspondent for the Washington Post, said.

“I think it’s a trade-off.”

On the plus side, Mahtani said she would be able to work on harder-hitting stories from overseas than she might have done while working in Hong Kong.

“We see this book and other stuff we’ve done as our contribution to the narratives around 2019, and if the trade-off is that we can’t continue operating in Hong Kong, then I think it’s worthwhile,” she added.

“Among the Braves” is an in-depth portrait of the 2019 Hong Kong protest movement. Credit: Hachette Books

McLaughlin said the pair had taken legal advice as part of the editorial process, but that it was hard to know exactly which parts of the book were most likely to get them into trouble, as the authorities are still expanding their suite of security legislation.

“The lines around the National Security Law, around the reimagination of sedition, of what could come with Article 23, that they say will be retroactive … [are] very unclear still,” McLaughlin said, in a reference to a recent announcement by Hong Kong chief executive John Lee that his administration will pass new security laws in 2024 under Article 23 of the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

“What’s going on with the law in Hong Kong, in the courts, it’s like it’s not fully formed yet,” McLaughlin told the seminar. “We don’t know all of what we don’t know.” 

“We don’t know how long the trials will take. We don’t know if pleading guilty will get you a good deal. It’s still forming,” he said. “I kind of picture it in my mind as like a blob of clay that hasn’t been fully made yet into what it is.” 

“It’s very unclear, as to what could be deemed illegal now, what could be deemed illegal in the future. A lot of red lines are deliberately … unknown,” he said.

“Among the Braves” is likely to anger officials with its claim that police knew in advance that white-clad mobsters planned to attack protesters and passers-by at the Yuen Long train station on July 21, 2019, because a police detective was monitoring a WhatsApp group chat in which they discussed the operation.

National Security Law

The authors aren’t the first foreign passport-holders to point to the dangers of returning to Hong Kong, where the national security law applies to speech or acts by nationals of any country, anywhere in the world.

Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt, whose “Pillar of Shame” statue commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen massacre was seized by Hong Kong authorities, said it is currently “impossible” for him to travel there, given the current political climate.

In August, U.S. photographer Matthew Connors was refused entry to Hong Kong for the second time after he documented the 2019 protest movement.

Meanwhile, authorities in democratic Taiwan have warned their nationals planning to travel to Hong Kong to avoid carrying electronic tealights, wearing T-shirts referencing the 1989 Tiananmen massacre or possessing “seditious” materials relating to the city’s 2019 mass protest movement.

The national security law – imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong from July 1, 2020 – ushered in a citywide crackdown on public dissent and criticism of the authorities that has seen senior journalists, pro-democracy media magnate Jimmy Lai and 47 former lawmakers and democracy activists charged with offenses from “collusion with a foreign power” to “subversion.” 

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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