The fight over democracy in Hong Kong took a brutal turn Wednesday with the stabbing of journalist Kevin Lau, a prominent critic of government policy. Mr. Lau was chief editor of the Ming Pao newspaper until his firing last month, which touched off protests over the decline of press freedom and other civil liberties in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. He is now hospitalized with life-threatening injuries.
The attack occurred in broad daylight on a sidewalk near Mr. Lau’s apartment. A man in a helmet stabbed the journalist six times before escaping on a motorcycle driven by an accomplice. Police are reviewing security cameras for leads on suspects. Hong Kong is an exceptionally safe city, and random crime—especially of this magnitude—is almost unheard of. So suspicion that the attack was politically motivated is widespread and warranted.
Such fears are fueled by the victim’s high profile as critic of the governments in both Beijing and Hong Kong. As editor of Ming Pao, Mr. Lau investigated the suspicious 2012 death of former political prisoner Li Wangyang, which Chinese authorities called a suicide though it appeared to be a murder. He also recently joined with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in exposing the offshore bank accounts where China’s top leaders stash their enormous family wealth.
Former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau Associated Press
Mr. Lau was a particularly strong opponent of the Hong Kong government’s 2012 attempt—at Beijing’s urging—to impose a program of “national education” on public schools. When Hong Kongers learned that teaching materials promoted the Chinese Communist Party as a “progressive, selfless, and united ruling group,” they massed in protest and eventually forced local officials to scrap the scheme.
After Mr. Lau was fired last month and replaced with a Malaysian journalist who had supported “national education,” more than 90% of Ming Pao’s staff filed a petition demanding an explanation. Four columnists protested by leaving their spaces blank—among them Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee —while some 110 staffers dressed in black and held a silent protest outside the newspaper’s office.
The attack on Mr. Lau is especially alarming because it’s part of a pattern. Recent years have seen a spate of physical attacks on Hong Kong media critical of China’s ruling Communist Party and its local allies. These include the baton beating of iSun Affairs publisher Chen Ping, the theft and burning of some 20,000 copies of Apple Daily newspaper, and the failed attack on the home of Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai. Many such cases go unsolved. Police “can’t chase people into mainland China,” Mr. Lai has said, “and that is where these attacks come from.”
This pattern of violence—along with the recent firing of Mr. Lau and others—brought an estimated 6,000 Hong Kongers into the street for a “Free Speech, Free Hong Kong” rally on Sunday. In the wake of Wednesday’s stabbing, tens of thousands could march this weekend.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, denounced Wednesday’s attack as a “savage act” and visited Mr. Lau in the hospital. “Hong Kong is a lawful society and we will not tolerate violence,” he said.
Perhaps Mr. Leung realizes that any appearance of political violence threatens Hong Kong’s reputation for civic and commercial freedom, along with Beijing’s reputation both among the territory’s citizens and global investors. Bringing swift and transparent justice to the attacker and anyone who may have participated in Wednesday’s stabbing is the only way to start restoring that reputation.