A court in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on Tuesday jailed two veteran journalists from neighboring Hong Kong after they sent their political magazines to subscribers across the internal border in mainland China.
Wang Jianmin was sentenced by Shenzhen’s Nanshan District People’s court to five years and three months’ imprisonment.
Fellow defendant Guo Zhongxiao, a former editor at the weekly news magazine Asiaweek, was jailed for two years and three months on the same charge.
The sentences come amid an ongoing crackdown by Chinese authorities on the media and publishing industry in the former British colony.
Both men, who pleaded guilty at their trial last November, had edited and published New-Way Monthly and Multiple Face magazines, which were published in Hong Kong, but had some subscribers in mainland China.
Hong Kong-based veteran journalist Ching Cheong said the sentences come amid a concerted campaign by the Chinese government targeting “banned” publications that began with the jailing of 79-year-old Hong Kong publisher Yiu Man-tin for 10 years after he edited a book highly critical of President Xi Jinping.
“Starting with Yiu Man-tin, they have been using such charges to refer to any activities linked to what they regard as banned books,” Ching said. “We have seen this so many times that we are used to it now.”
“But this is an attack on freedom of speech and publication in Hong Kong, because it is a direct threat to the exercise of our freedoms,” he said.
Jimmy Pang, who heads the alternative news site Subculture, called on the court to make public the evidence used to prosecute Wang and Guo.
“Otherwise, people in the Hong Kong publishing industry will be very worried, because they won’t know which actions are considered to be a crime,” Pang told RFA.
“If we don’t know what constitutes a criminal action … how will we take decisions in future?” he said.
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its existing freedoms of press, publication and assembly for at least 50 years.
But the cross-border detentions last year of five Hong Kong booksellers accused of selling “banned books” to customers across the internal border in tightly controlled mainland China have rocked the once-freewheeling city.
Wang, who holds a U.S. passport, was also found guilty of two other charges—bid-rigging and bribery.
The two magazines were both published by the Hong Kong-registered company National Affairs Ltd., while Wang and Guo had permanent residency in the city.
They often carried exposes of factional strife and internal power struggles at the heart of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Local media reported that the magazines only had eight subscribers in mainland China, while the defense team argued that they were legally published in Hong Kong, and that the impact of their mainland Chinese sales was too small to constitute such an offense.
According to the defense, Guo edited the magazines, and had nothing to do with the business side of their operations, nor did he know about the mainland Chinese subscribers.
Guo’s shorter sentence means that he may soon be up for release, as he has already spent two years and two months in pretrial detention.
The court also handed down a one-year suspended sentence Wang’s wife Xu Zhongyun, who helped send the magazines, and a two-year suspended sentence to freelance writer Liu Haitao.
None of the defendants plans to appeal, according to the Hong Kong-based Initium news site.
Under the terms of the handover and the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, China has promised to allow Hong Kong to continue with its existing way of life until 2047.
The “one country, two systems” policy pledged to allow the city to continue as a separate jurisdiction for law enforcement and immigration purposes, and with wide-ranging freedoms of expression and association.
But the detention of Causeway Bay Books publisher Gui Minhai at his Thai holiday home last October, followed by the detentions of four of his colleagues, prompted a public outcry.
Store manager and British passport-holder Lee Bo, 65, went missing from his workplace in Hong Kong on Dec. 30, while general manager Lui Bo (also spelled Lui Por), and colleagues Cheung Chi-ping and Lam Wing-kei were detained after they crossed the internal border into China from their usual base in Hong Kong.
The U.K. government has said in an official report that Lee was “involuntarily removed” from the city, while the U.S. State Department said in its Hong Kong Policy Act Report in May that the booksellers’ detentions “have raised serious concerns in Hong Kong and represent what appears to be the most significant breach of the “one country, two systems” policy since 1997.”
Earlier this month, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) called on the city’s government to do much more to protect press freedom, citing a “grave threat” to its traditional freedoms of expression and association.
In a report titled “One Country, Two Nightmares,” the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA) said the city’s government should take a “much more robust approach towards the protection of press freedom and other rights integral to Hong Kong’s success.”
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.