Ever since Beijing’s imposition of a new national security law in Hong Kong earlier this summer, the city’s freedom of press has come under threat. On August 10, Jimmy Lai, founder of the popular newspaper Apple Daily and a prominent critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), was arrested on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces.” But there is a dark, historical irony to the CCP’s efforts to curtail Hong Kong’s free press, especially through the charge of collusion with foreigners. In an earlier era, the CCP itself used Hong Kong as a haven of press freedom from which to solicit foreign support for its efforts to overthrow China’s Nationalist government. Even if history doesn’t repeat itself, the parallels are striking nevertheless.
In May 1946, the CCP founded its first English-language magazine, New China Weekly, in Shanghai. At the time, the CCP was engaged in a civil war against China’s ruling, U.S.-allied Nationalist Party for control of the country. The goal of New China Weekly was to expose the harsh repression of the Nationalist government to international audiences, particularly in the United States. But the magazine quickly ran afoul of Nationalist censors, and was shut down by Shanghai police after the publication of only three issues.
Unable to evade censorship in Shanghai, the CCP turned to Hong Kong, which had recently been returned to British colonial rule after being occupied by Japan during World War II. In December 1946, it founded a new English-magazine in Hong Kong called China Digest. The Nationalist government likewise attempted to ban China Digest (which it misidentified as a China Democratic League publication) for “attacking the government, vilifying allies, extolling traitorous bandits, and intending to overthrow the government.” But from the relative safety of Hong Kong, China Digest continued publication until 1950 and was distributed throughout the United States, Britain, China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia.
Perusing old copies of China Digest is like listening to a greatest hits album of subjects that the CCP would rather avoid today. For example, the magazine sharply condemned the Nationalist (“Kuomintang”) government’s draconian efforts to quell student protests:
The Kuomintang cannot eliminate knowledge and ideas from the minds of youths and replace this with the Kuomintang doctrine of slavery. So they are resorting to force to crush the freedom of thought among the young intelligentsia. (April 20, 1948)
China Digest also published effusive paeans to those who had been arrested or killed by the Nationalist government for political reasons, whom it called “martyrs of democracy”:
As long as the Kuomintang Government rules, there can be no protection to individual rights and lives. Nevertheless, when each man or woman falls for his cause, he or she sows the seeds of opposition to tyranny in the hearts of the people. The martyrs have not died in vain. (July 15, 1947)
The magazine also trumpeted the importance of Hong Kong’s liberal press in light of strict censorship in China:
[T]he value of Hong Kong lies in its service as a sounding board back to China and the outside world. When there is practically a black-out on news in China (other than the Kuomintang approved versions), Hong Kong liberals supply food and nourishment to the intellectually starving public at home. (December 16, 1947)
Moreover, China Digest explicitly solicited American help in subverting China’s Nationalist government. To be sure, the magazine repeatedly criticized U.S. imperialism and demanded that the United States stop interfering in China’s internal affairs. Nevertheless, China Digest published letters from Americans who promised to “urge upon our Government that it intervenes to put an end to the murders and civil war primarily by withdrawing American support to the existing undemocratic Chinese government” (July 15, 1947). It even helped coordinate the shipment of banned books and magazines to Chinese students in Xiamen.
As Jeffrey Wasserstrom emphasised in his recent book, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, “History does not repeat itself.” The CCP of today is not the same as the Nationalist Party of the 1940s. Still, the parallels are striking. As Beijing circumscribes free speech in Hong Kong today, it is important to remember that the city once provided the CCP with a sanctuary from which to criticize the Nationalist government for suppressing democracy, applying excessive force against young protestors, and abolishing freedom of the press.
It is perhaps also instructive to remember how the CCP once reacted to its own encounters with state censorship. After Shanghai police shuttered the CCP’s short-lived first English magazine, New China Weekly, Yu Tu, the magazine’s business manager, went to the police station and proclaimed, “This proves that the government has already abolished the people’s rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.” The police officers responded that they were simply carrying out orders from above. Not yet satisfied, Yu Tu added one final thought: “If you suppress the people’s freedom of speech like this, do you not fear that in the future you will be punished by the people?”