Free Speech In Hong Kong, Then And Now : Parallels NPR's Frank Langfitt has traveled to Hong Kong since 1997, when the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule. Back then, residents spoke openly and gave their full names. Not anymore.
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Free Speech In Hong Kong, Then And Now

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Free Speech In Hong Kong, Then And Now

Free Speech In Hong Kong, Then And Now

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We report next on a telling detail about the protests for democracy in Hong Kong. Our colleague, Frank Langfitt, has been reporting on those demonstrations over the past several weeks and has noticed a change. Many people are no longer willing to give their full names when they talk about politics. Frank explains the reasons for this change from one of Hong Kong's main protest camps.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: A couple of nights ago, I was interviewing a real estate agent in a pinstriped suit. We were standing on an elevated walkway. In the distance, police battled and pepper sprayed demonstrators. The man, 27 years old, wasn't a protester. But he supports the pro-democracy movement and explained why. At the end of the interview, I did what I always do.

Can I ask your name?

WU: Yeah, my name is Wu.

LANGFITT: Do you have an English name?

WU: No.

LANGFITT: He refused to give me his first name, even when I suggested he could use an English name, which might provide more anonymity here in Hong Kong.

Explain to our listeners why you wouldn't want to tell us your full name.

WU: The speech freedom is just fading out. I'm very confident about Hong Kong when 10 years ago. But things change very quick. It's going worse. Everything is going worse, and I have to protect myself.

LANGFITT: Protect him from possible punishment for his views. If you were 17, 10 years ago, and I came and asked you questions about politics, would you have given me your name?

WU: Maybe. Maybe yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAW)

LANGFITT: In the protest zone, volunteers continue to build desks. And they've created a giant study hall in the middle of a now empty highway, so protesting students can keep up with their homework.

ABE: I have no experience in carpentry or anything of that thing at all.

LANGFITT: This is one of the desk builders. His name is Abe, and he's Hong Kong-Canadian. Abe works with mainland manufacturers and wants to keep his identity secret.

ABE: I like to go to China. And they will put me on a watch list.

LANGFITT: Abe's afraid if an official in the Communist Party hears this story, he could be barred from entering China.

ABE: I think as Hong Kong is having more economic ties with China, a lot of people are employing self-censorship. That's the bottom line is that everyone is just self-censoring.

MAYA WANG: I think freedom of expression and freedom of the press were freedoms that were taken for granted. And I think in Hong Kong, it was just part of daily life.

LANGFITT: Maya Wang lives here and is a researcher with Human Rights Watch. She says under British colonial rule, Hong Kongers spoke their minds. When Hong Kong returned to China, Beijing promised the territory could keep its way of life for 50 years. But Wang says free speech and a free press are under threat. She cites the case of Jimmy Lai, the owner of the Apple Daily newspaper and a huge pro-democracy supporter.

WANG: For example, you know, there have been men armed with knives going to in front of his residence, also threatening some of his workers to boycott of advertisements from certain banks in Hong Kong because of the paper's pro-democracy stance.

LANGFITT: Or take the case of Kevin Lau. A hired assailant nearly hacked him to death this year with a meat cleaver. Lau's a Beijing critic and a highly respected former editor of Ming Pao, which has heavily covered the pro-democracy movement. Lau insists he was attacked for his journalism. Again, Maya Wang.

WANG: So these two incidents against Jimmy Lai and Kevin Lau are very chilling incidents to the rest of the Hong Kong people. If you have lots of money and you speak on democracy, you could be subjected to these kind of attacks. What happens to the kind of the small, ordinary people who have neither the money or the fame to protect them?

LANGFITT: The answer? They're more careful about what they say and more reluctant to give their full names, just like the people across the border in mainland China. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Hong Kong.

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