Hong Kong journalist Ronson Chan: planting a flag for persistence

From Ronson Chan’s Facebook page, with his permission

I was recently invited to take part in a panel discussion about the Future of Press Freedom in Hong Kong and was asked to specifically address the situation that local journalists are facing. To help prepare for the panel, I spoke to the new Chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association(HKJA) Ronson Chan Long-sing.

Chan agreed for me to share the contents of our conversation, which I have edited for clarity and length. He was speaking in a personal capacity and as chair of the HKJA, but not on behalf of his employer, Stand News.

The new executive committee of the Hong Kong Journalists Association was elected last month, was it more difficult to find people to come forward for election and take up posts this year?

Of course, it was harder. Some people we approached didn’t dare to agree, some agreed but then became worried because of reasons to do with work; some needed time to discuss it with their family members. Some said their family members would only agree to them being ordinary executive committee members but not office bearers (note: vice-chair, secretary, treasurer). So this year, we don’t have a vice-chair, and if anything should “happen” to me, the executive committee will have to elect another chair.

The new HKJA Executive Committee was elected in July. Ronson Chan is third from the right in the back row (Pic: Ida Chan)

It’s been a year since the implementation of the National Security Law (NSL), a year in which we’ve also seen the forced closure of Apple Daily and major upheavals at RTHK, i-Cable and Now — how would you describe the mood and mentality of Hong Kong journalists right now?

I think journalists are just doing their best. Everyone knows the space [for press freedom] is shrinking, they know the rainstorms are coming, they know they can’t be sure how long they can hold on for. But journalists will do what they can from their own position. Of course there’s only so much you can do.

Let me put it this way, if [they work for] the media that the China Liaison Office is able to “suppress”, they will try to do their best. But for those of us who work in media that isn’t influenced in that way, then every day we can persist is another day.

I’d like you to convey how really grateful I am to my peers for their hard work. Take Ming Pao’s pages — they really strive hard to make sure there are voices from both sides, Ming Pao is the outlet that probably interviews me the most. For newspapers, it’s Ming Pao and TV, it’s i-Cable.

I haven’t been interviewed by TVB or Now. I do understand, Ronson Chan is too provocative. But for the recent HKJA Annual Press Freedom Report [press conference], Now used a very long sound-bite. I know peers are working really hard, you can see how everyone is working so hard in the narrow crevice, to “chabianqiu” (literally play line-balls).

As for myself, at Stand News nobody will stop me from pursuing any news story but you don’t know how long this freedom can be exercised.

An interesting aside on how the closure of Apple Daily is impacting actually existing journalism on the ground

Today Chen Fen was in court — the defendant in a rape case, the investigation of which revealed three senior disciplined services officials had attended a deluxe hotpot dinner in breach of Covid social distancing regulations — and we were the only people who pursued Chen as he left the court. You can imagine that if Apple Daily was still around, Oriental Daily would have pursued him too, HK01 would have too and probably Ming Pao as well. But now, none of them did.

What further steps do you see authorities taking against the media, how can the media and journalists respond? How can they prepare for the next stage of “rectification”?

You’ll hear various commentators giving different predictions. In fact it’s not so hard to guess what the CCP will do. You can refer to CCP history and see what they’ve done before — what they can control, they will control even more, they will tighten their grip.

After they’ve done that, they will come after us (Stand and other online media). What can we do about it? I don’t know. Will they shut us down, forbid us from publishing? Will they DQ (note: disqualify) us? Take us off the list of Government News and Media Information Service recognised media? In fact it’s all much of a muchness — these things we can predict. The worst case scenario is that we’ll have to shut down. I just take one step at a time.

The good thing about me is that I don’t have any long-term goals, my long-term goals are measured in three weeks or three days. I just plan for three days. Now that I’m HKJA chair, it’s a bit longer, it’s seven days.

What will happen in the future? I don’t know. I have my own worst case planning. In this scenario, I’ll be arrested and jailed, I’ll be denied bail.

But I seriously think that we shouldn’t leave [the profession]. I really feel that with Apple Daily gone, Stand News is the last straw, everyone has big expectations of us.

We’ve worked hard to navigate the times. Like HK people, we make the most of what we’re best at — in our case, it’s reporting — to expand the space for survival. The anti-extradition movement created a wave [of support] that gave us very good resources to develop. So we are very much a media for Hong Kong people. I very much hope that if we can persevere for one more step, then we can take one more step.

[I feel the current situation is] like the 800 heroes of Shanghai, defending a warehouse with just over 400 people, delaying the offense of the Japanese forces by two or three months. In the end, Shanghai still fell to the Japanese, the brigade ended up in the British concession where they were disarmed and disbanded, their leader was killed by collaborators. But their actions showed the Chinese people’s resolve to resist Japanese aggression.

It’s like we’re planting a flag to tell people, if we can persist, then we should persist, even if we’re just left with the narrowest crevice, we need to carry on living. We’ll only retreat or leave when we really are out of ideas, when we have no choice. We [need to] tell people that we’re not going to pack up and leave before the wave hits.

Becoming like the Mainland

I’d say that in terms of the media ecology at this moment, we’re beginning to resemble the Mainland more and more. Of course in the Mainland, there are also differences between cities and regions. I remember [political commentator] Johnny Lau said that in the Mainland you can’t report about scandals in your own province but you can report on those in the neighbouring province.

I think we’re starting to learn about how to operate in the cracks.

Do you see many journalists leaving the profession, emigrating?

Some are emigrating, what’s interesting is that most of those leaving are people in technical, rather than editorial positions. I see that most of them are in their 30s and 40s, people with children. So they may not be leaving because of the profession but because of their children.

I respect those who leave, I would leave if I had kids, but I don’t. So I’ll work hard to stand firm in my position.

Cherish the moments

Ronson Chan in goal, picture from Chan’s Facebook page

I guess it’s not very rational, but my personality and propensity is to not plan beyond three days, seven days. What I most treasure now is to spend time with my family, my wife, to play football. I very much cherish each moment I have to freely have fun and do the things I like, the time I have to read the books I like, see the people that I like.

I have no idea what the future looks like, and I don’t need to know. What do we need to guess at? In fact we all know how bad things can get, when journalists like Lo Fung, Cheung Kim-hung and Chan Pui-man (note: senior former Apple Daily journalists arrested for allegedly violating the NSL)can be arrested, forbidden from leaving Hong Kong.

There’s no need to imagine how bad things can get, there is only the need to ask yourself how long you can persist and if you will persist.

Journalist. Lecturer at the Dept of Journalism at City, University of London, formerly taught at CUHK. Hongkonger. South Londoner.