FT journalist denied entry to Hong Kong after author talks cancelled

Laura MANNERING
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Hong Kong's Tai Kwun arts centre has cancelled appearances by dissident Chinese writer Ma Jian, the author said

Hong Kong refused entry to a senior Financial Times journalist Thursday hours after an arts centre hosting the city's high-profile literary festival cancelled appearances by exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian, as Beijing tightens its grip.

Asia news editor Victor Mallet had already had his work visa renewal denied last month and had left semi-autonomous Hong Kong, but the British national was barred by immigration Thursday when he tried to come back in as a visitor, according to a report in the FT.

The Hong Kong government did not give an explanation for his original visa denial but it is widely believed the decision was linked to Mallet's chairing of a press club talk by a Hong Kong independence activist.

The decision to effectively blacklist Mallet prompted a backlash against an unprecedented challenge to freedom of the press in the city.

The FT said Mallet had been turned away Thursday after several hours of questioning by immigration officers.

British citizens are usually allowed into Hong Kong without a visa and are permitted to stay for 180 days under immigration rules.

It came on the same day the Tai Kwun arts centre, a major new cultural hub in Hong Kong, pulled talks by dissident author Ma, with venue director Timothy Calnin saying it did not want to become "a platform to promote the political interests of any individual".

Ma responded on Twitter saying he was a "novelist not an activist" and was simply attending the festival to discuss his new work.

He is due to land in Hong Kong Friday afternoon and expressed concern he would be refused entry to the city but said he was still determined to try.

Hong Kong International Literary Festival said late Thursday it had found a new venue for the talks, the Annex event and exhibition space in the Central district of Hong Kong island, adding that it "stands by the principles of free speech and cultural expression".

Ma, who now lives in London, writes dark and satirical works depicting life in China and his books are banned on the mainland.

He is due to promote his latest novel "China Dream" at festival events Saturday, a title that plays on Chinese President Xi Jinping's rhetoric of national rejuvenation and is described by publisher Penguin as "a biting satire of totalitarianism".

Ma said it was Tai Kwun, not the festival, that had pulled his events.

Rights group Amnesty International said Tai Kwun's cancellation was more evidence that freedom of expression in Hong Kong was "under attack".

Tai Kwun is the result of a multi-million-dollar renovation of a colonial-era prison and police station, led by the government and the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

- Arts under attack -

Hong Kong has rights unseen on the mainland, protected by an agreement made before the city was handed back to China by Britain in 1997, but there are fears they are being steadily eroded.

A highly anticipated art show by Chinese political cartoonist Badiucao was cancelled last week with Hong Kong organisers citing safety concerns due to "threats made by Chinese authorities relating to the artist".

The city's publishing sector has taken a hit since five booksellers known for printing gossipy titles about China's leaders disappeared in 2015 and resurfaced in custody on the mainland.

Since then some of Hong Kong's bookshops selling works banned in China have closed, and chain stores have removed the titles from their shelves.

Ma Jian said on Twitter last week that for the first time he had been unable to find a Hong Kong publisher for the Chinese language version of his new book.

In neighbouring Macau, also a semi-autonomous part of China, three writers including bestselling "Wild Swans" author Jung Chang -- who has been highly critical of China's political system -- stayed away from the city's literary festival in March after authorities there said they were likely to be barred.

The Hong Kong literary festival attracts leading authors from around the world and this year features Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh and bestselling American author Cheryl Strayed.