The New York Times announced Tuesday that it would move its Hong Kong-based digital messaging operations to Seoul, South Korea. This is a major shift by an American news organization as China has stepped up efforts to obstruct the affairs of the Asian metropolis.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, has served as the Asian headquarters for English-language news agencies for decades, attracted by the city’s openness to foreign companies, its proximity to mainland China, and the rich tradition of a free-running press.
A comprehensive national security law that China passed in June, aimed at suppressing opposition and democracy-friendly forces in Hong Kong, has unsettled news organizations and created uncertainty about the city̵
Some Times employees in Hong Kong were faced with the challenge of obtaining work permits, hurdles that are common in China but seldom a problem in the former colony. Given that the city is facing a new era under the heightened Chinese rule, the Times editors found that they need an additional base of operations in the region.
“China’s comprehensive new national security law in Hong Kong has created a lot of uncertainty about what the new rules will mean for our operations and our journalism,” wrote Times editors and executives who oversee the newspaper’s international reporting and operations, in a memo to employees Tuesday. “We think it is advisable to draw up emergency plans and diversify our editorial staff in the region.”
The Times Hong Kong office not only served as a base for reporters and editors in Asia, but has also been an integral part of the newspaper’s 24/7 digital operations in recent years. The editors there monitor the Times online report when employees in New York and London, the newspaper’s other two global headquarters, are deregistered.
The Times announced that the digital journalist team – around a third of Hong Kong employees – will move to Seoul over the next year. Correspondents stay in Hong Kong to cover the city and the region. “We intend to maintain and even improve coverage of the city’s transformation and use it as a window on China,” the memo said.
Hong Kong also houses the print production team for the International New York Times, the newspaper’s European and Asian editions. These employees remain. Advertisers and marketing staff are also expected to remain.
Western companies, including banks, technology companies, and large news organizations, weighed up their presence in Hong Kong when China consolidated power in the former colony. There is concern about the ease of obtaining future work permits, a quality that made Hong Kong particularly desirable for foreign companies.
Some journalists also fear that Beijing will act against activism and language, much like the way mainland news media is treated. The United States and China have had a diplomatic deal with media organizations since February, when China expelled three reporters for the Wall Street Journal.
“Hong Kong has been a leader in supporting free press rights in Asia for decades, and it is important that it remains so,” said Times spokeswoman Ari Isaacman Bevacqua in a statement on Tuesday.
Since the full impact of the new Chinese security law is still unclear, some outlets say they will remain in effect for the time being. Bloomberg News and CNN, both of which have large teams in Hong Kong, currently have no plans to leave the city, according to people familiar with internal discussions.
When looking for a suitable location outside of Hong Kong, the Times considered Bangkok, Seoul, Singapore and Tokyo. South Korea proved attractive, among other things, because of its friendliness to foreign business, the independent press and its central role in several important Asian news reports.
In a Tuesday memo, Times officials said they would “remain deeply invested in Hong Kong as a focus of our journalism and a place to do business.”
But the uncertainties, they wrote, required action. “Any interruption to operations can undermine our journalism, which is more important than ever today,” the memo says.