Posted: Feb. 27, 2014
Yesterday afternoon’s post was too accurate for humor. Unfortunately the lead paragraph does signify, for better and for worse, the environment settling over Hong Kong’s media. Mainland-style physical assaults against journalists here have increased during the past year although no one anticipated anything as extreme as the attack on Kevin Lau Chun-to [ 劉進圖 ].
Lau was in critical condition yesterday afternoon after being waylaid on the street by two men near a restaurant he frequents. It was a Chinese underworld Triad-style hit, not with guns but meat cleavers, meant not to kill but to punish, warn, and intimidate. He suffered serious stab wounds to his legs and back, executed with surgical precision. Nerves in both legs were severed and the back wounds were deep but manged not to puncture anything vital. Since the attack occurred only about 15 minutes by ambulance from a major hospital and he himself called for help immediately before losing consciousness, everything proceeded like clockwork. So far, there are only questions but no answers: who ordered the hit and why?
Kevin Lau is the liberal journalist whose sudden transfer, from chief newsroom editor at Ming Pao Daily to the company’s digital publications unit, sparked a rare staff insurrection in January. Ming Pao is Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy Chinese-language newspaper. Concern about his replacement, a Malaysian editor with little Hong Kong experience and a conservative background, was one of several issues that provoked last Sunday’s rally in defense of press freedom organized by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (Feb. 26 post).
Neither Lau nor anyone at the paper has yet explained the transfers but management stood firm in the face of staff protests. Word circulated that the paper’s founder, Louis Cha, had given his blessing to Lau’s demotion, which was allegedly sparked by a disagreement between him and the editor-to-be for which Lau was responsible. The editor-to-be is a friend of the paper’s current owner.
While editor-in-chief, Lau oversaw among other things investigative reporting on the two main candidates in Hong Kong’s 2012 Chief Executive selection campaign. The reports helped destroy Henry Tang’s candidacy and later embarrassed Chief Executive-elect Leung Chun-ying as well. More recently Lau was allegedly responsible for playing up a controversial Leung administration decision on television licensing.
Not surprising, then, that the Chief Executive was among the first on the scene at Hong Kong’s Eastern District Hospital. He was blamed at Sunday’s demo for failing to concern himself in any way with the growing threats to media freedom and tried to redress the balance yesterday with some strong words of condemnation for the “savage act.” The police also made brave statements about leaving no stone unturned in bringing the culprits to justice. They are no doubt already long gone across the border and the apparent Triad link will only add to Leung’s embarrassment. One of many items in the case critics have built against him is the support he enjoys from borderline “water margin” types whose underworld associations are always assumed.
The authorities unfortunately don’t have a very good track record in apprehending those responsible in such cases. Several have gone unsolved or the masterminds have disappeared leaving only underlings to take the rap. This case has a curious twist though. Triad societies don’t usually concrn themselves with anything as esoteric as press freedom, or political news coverage whether cross-border or here. So if it really was a political hit then the beginning of the end for Hong Kong’s freedom of political expression is already upon us. But if it was a political hit, why attack Lau who was the loser in Ming Pao’s personnel shakeup … and had already accepted his punishment by agreeing to be sidelined instead of quitting in protest? Leaving such questions unanswered is, of course, what political thuggery aims to do: punish one to intimidate others.
Students at the Chinese University were among the first to organize a protest. Their slogan: “We are all Lau Chun-to and they can’t kill us all.”