Today’s Hong Kong press is less free than the Manchu

Hong Kong police deployed 500 police officers early Thursday morning to arrest five senior executives, three of them journalists, for allegedly violating Article 29 of the National Security Law, “conspiracy to collaborate with foreign countries or forces outside the country to endanger national security”. This is another major case involving press freedom after the police raided the Apple Daily building in August last year and arrested the founder of Next Media, Lai Chi-ying, and four top executives of Next Media on charges of violating the Hong Kong version of the National Security Law. Looking at the freedom of the press in Hong Kong today, it is not as good as in the late Qing Dynasty.

On June 13, 1898, the Guangxu Emperor promulgated the “Edict on the Establishment of the State”, announcing the change of laws, and one of the new policies was to allow the private sector to run newspapers and magazines, which led to the flourishing of the modern Chinese newspaper industry. Wang Tao, Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Tang Caichang, Huang Zunxian, Wang Kangnian, and Mai Menghua were all famous independent newspaper writers.

In the early twentieth century, during the Manchu government’s preparations for constitutionalism, as “communication between the upper and lower classes” was regarded as an important goal of constitutionalism, running a newspaper was considered an important means to open up the people’s wisdom, and the Qing government not only continued to encourage the private press, but also confirmed and guaranteed by law for the first time the right of the people to run a newspaper freely.

Article 2 of the Qing Newspaper Law, promulgated on March 14, 1908, clearly stipulated that all Chinese who had the following three conditions were eligible to establish newspapers: “First, nationals over twenty years of age; second, those who are not mentally ill; third, those who have not been sentenced to imprisonment or more.” In the “Qing Dynasty Newspaper Law”, the third requirement above was amended to read that the person was not “deprived of public power or has now ceased to have public power”. The “Qing Dynasty Newspaper Law” also provides that anyone who is qualified to run a newspaper is only required to submit the name, style, name, curriculum vitae and address of the publisher, editor and printer, as well as the name and address of the issuing office and printing office, “to the governor of the province by the local magistrate, for the record of the Ministry of Civil Affairs” before the 20th day of publication.

With the lifting of the Qing government’s ban on private newspapers, the rapidly developing private press gradually became a free forum and public space for intellectuals in the late Qing Dynasty to express their thoughts and discuss social affairs, greatly stimulating the spiritual awakening of Chinese scholars to speak independently and creating the so-called “literati on politics” in which they stood on a private standpoint, did not attach themselves to any party, and independently applied the principles of freedom to express their political views. The tradition of “literati discussing politics” was started. When we look at the newspapers and magazines at that time, we can see that some advocated reform, some advocated revolution, and some advocated royalism.

Looking back at the past, can we not sigh?