Since 1949, Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club has offered a refuge to international journalists: offering talks, exhibitions, or just a place to relax and chat with others in the trade.
But its lease renewal has some questioning whether the club — which historically defends free press principles — can survive in Hong Kong.
Since 1982, the club has been located in the city’s business district, where it leases from the government a converted 19th century brick building that is now dwarfed by towering skyscrapers.
But when it came time to renew the lease, the club was offered a new deal: They could sign for three years, instead of the usual seven, on condition the members agree to abide by a national security law for the province. Hong Kong introduced the law in 2020 as a measure to bring stability after anti-government protests. Broad provisions in the legislation ban acts authorities deem as secession, subversion, foreign collusion or terrorism.
Keith Richburg, the club’s current president, confirmed to VOA that the new lease is signed and that they had “agreed to obey the law” which Richburg stated was “standard with any lease.”
“We’re glad we got a three-year renewal on the clubhouse because we weren’t in a position to move for the moment,” he said.
But Richburg, who has been club president since February 2021, came under criticism for renewing the lease in spite of the security clauses.
“Some people say, ‘How can you possibly sign something saying you’re going to obey the national security law? Aren’t you selling out?'” he told VOA. “My question is, ‘Are you planning on violating the national security law? If you are, you should quit the FCC now.’
“People are not seemingly getting it through their head that the national security law is the law of Hong Kong. It doesn’t make any sense for people to say we shouldn’t sign any provision that says we should obey the national security law,” he said.
Chris Pat, a spokesperson from the Information Services Department, told VOA via email that the lease duration is in line with “all historic buildings let out by the Government Property Agency.”
“The government has introduced standard clauses in the new tenancy to safeguard national security and to sufficiently protect the government’s rights and interests,” Pat said, adding that all new agreements with the agency have “standard clauses to safeguard national security.”
But Eric Wishart, a former president and three-time vice president of the club, told VOA the renewal indicates that the club may be on borrowed time.
A three-year lease, he said, “means in just two years’ time the board is going to be already again in discussion of, ‘Are we going to get the lease renewed?'”
Wishart questioned how tenable it would be to keep the press club in Hong Kong under such terms, saying, “It’s a short lease and an even shorter leash.”
This not the first time the club has made changes with the national security law in mind.
In April, the club scrapped its Human Rights Press Awards after the board cited concerns they could violate the law.
When the club announced the awards were suspended, eight members, including Wishart, quit.
“I felt it [the club] no long stood for the principles I fought for, as a president once and vice president three times,” Wishart told VOA.
Earlier this month, the advocacy organization Human Rights Watch, along with the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, announced they will now run the awards.
Events at the club put it at odds with authorities even before the national security law was passed.
In August 2018, Andy Chan, of the now banned pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, gave a speech at the club that Beijing tried to block.
Later that year, the Financial Times’ Victor Mallet, who at the time was vice president at the Foreign Correspondents Club and had chaired the discussion, had his Hong Kong visa renewal denied without explanation.
The city at the time told media that visa applications are processed in accordance with local laws.
Dan Kubiske, a U.S.-based journalist and co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists International Community, said the club has always been “walking a fine line” in Hong Kong.
“You could always lose your license, through whatever legal means, whichever government wanted to do, it could have been the British government, it could have been the Chinese government. That’s always been a fine line they’ve always walked,” he told VOA.
Kubiske, who was a board member at the FCC while working as a freelance journalist in 2000, says the national security law has impacted the club.
“If the Hong Kong government decides to pull the lease even at the end of the three years, that would be the final nail in the coffin for the death of the international perspective of Hong Kong as a place to operate for freedom of speech, freedom of expression and free press,” he said.
“If they were to do that, that would just make Hong Kong another large Chinese city rather than a unique Chinese city.”
The law — with its broad provisions on what constitutes foreign collusion or a threat to national security — is already having a limiting effect, analysts say.
In the two-and-a-half years since it was implemented, 12 media outlets have closed, and Hong Kong for the first time was featured on the annual census of journalists imprisoned for their work. As of December 1, eight were detained in Hong Kong, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
A spokesperson for the Hong Kong Security Bureau has dismissed concerns that the law is affecting a free press, telling VOA recently, “The media landscape in Hong Kong is as vibrant as ever.”
In an emailed statement, the spokesperson said that media are free to report “as long as this is not in violation of the law.”
Richburg believes the club’s iconic status could have played a part in the government renewing the lease.
“They probably realize it would send a bad signal to be kicking out the FCC … it’s an icon here, and that would probably send a horrible signal to foreign investors, financiers to say come here and invest,” he said. “They may not like us here, but they also recognize we also play a role here too.”
Editor’s Note: Tommy Walker joined the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club in 2020 but has been inactive while based outside the area.