TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Foreign journalists seeking to renew their visas in Hong Kong are experiencing delays amid reports of a new immigration unit quietly formed to process "sensitive visa applications," which coupled with Monday's (Aug. 10) raids on the Apple Daily's headquarters, spells trouble for press freedom in the once semi-autonomous region of China.
A number of international correspondents who applied to renew their visas have been waiting for a lengthy period for the applications to be approved without receiving any explanation — unusual in the cosmopolitan city long known as a press hub in Asia. Reporters from the Hong Kong bureaus of The Wall Street Journal and The South China Morning Post have been affected, with The New York Times encountering the most delays, according to The Stand News.
A new "national security unit," established by the Immigration Department in June sans announcement and led by a senior Immigration officer, is in charge of "sensitive" visa applications, such as those submitted by international media and Taiwanese entities, wrote The Standard, citing a source familiar with the unit.
In the past, visa paperwork for foreign reporters was the domain of the Quality Migrants and Mainland Residents (QMMR), which is located on the sixth floor of the Immigration Tower in Wan Chai District. However, a source close to the Immigration Department told The Stand News that the newly formed section of the department is not located among QMMR offices but rather appears to be an internal unit; the source was unable to find any list of its staff.
The "national security" unit is said to be behind the irregularities in the visa process, and it is finding technical reasons to justify them.
For instance, a foreign editor who failed to list "reporting" as a job responsibility on their initial application but who is found to have covered a protest in the city may have their visa applications left in limbo or rejected. According to the report, the unit is also poring over the Mandatory Provident Funds, or pension funds for Hong Kong residents, for gaps between payments that it can interpret to mean an applicant is not continuously employed in the city and thus not in need of a work visa.
The Immigration Department told Taiwan News that "Hong Kong has always adopted a pragmatic and open policy" in employing professionals. "Each application will handle each application in accordance with the laws and immigration policies," it added.
The issue comes after simmering tensions between Washington and Beijing spilled into the realm of reporting earlier this year. One month after requiring five Chinese state-run media agencies operating in the U.S. to register as "foreign agents," the U.S. announced they had to cut their staff by 40 percent; China promptly expelled The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal in reprisal.
Last week, the Foreign Correspondent's Club in Hong Kong issued a statement in protest of the delays and expressed concern that hawkish voices in Beijing, including the editor of Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece the Global Times, have been calling for retaliation against American media operations in Hong Kong as well. It also appealed to both China and the U.S. to deescalate their tit-for-tat actions against media workers, writing that "the downward spiral of retaliatory actions aimed at journalists helps no one, not least of all the public that needs accurate, professionally produced information now more than ever."
Since China's new national security law for Hong Kong went into effect on July 1, the city has seen an unprecedented crackdown on freedom of speech.
Media mogul and outspoken China critic Jimmy Lai (黎智英) was arrested Monday morning under the security law along with his two sons and four Apple Daily employees, and later dozens of police later raided the colorful paper's headquarters. Without citing evidence, the Commissioner's Office of China's Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong on Tuesday (Aug. 11) claimed Lai and a "small handful of other anti-China troublemakers" had been "openly colluding with external forces to endanger national security."