Self-censorship in Hong Kong: how prevalent is it?
The Asian American Journalists Association organized a roundtable at the Foreign Correspondents Club tonight on self-censorship in Hong Kong, an issue which is prescient in light of the recent Chief Executive election, national education protests, scandals involving coverage in the South China Morning Post, the increasing “Mainlandization” of Hong Kong, and upcoming Legco elections.
Make no mistake: Hong Kong is now hyper-political. As I write this, thousands of people remain outside the Legco complex in Tamar to protest Beijing’s move to introduce “patriotic” “national” education in the city. This, only a few months after the largest July 1 protest in more than 10 years, and the famous “locust” ads which loudly complained about the increasing number of Mainland tourists being allowed to visit the former British colony.
So how is the media handling this? Many say with coverage that too closely reflects Beijing’s objectives. To discuss the issue, Albert Cheng, the former talk show host and founder of the Digital Broadcasting Corporation; Claudia Mo, a freelance journalist and lecturer; Mak Yin Ting, the Chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association and correspondent for Radio France International; Allen Cheng, Asia Bureau Chief for Institutional Investor; and Paul Mooney, the long-time Beijing correspondent for the SCMP and now freelance writer shared their thoughts on the state of journalism in Hong Kong.
It is no surprise that, considering the backgrounds of the speakers, there was almost unanimous consensus that self-censorship is a problem in Hong Kong. In fact, Mak Yin Ting reiterated a 2012 study which showed that 86.9% of people believe press freedom has “eroded significantly” in Hong Kong, up from 58.4% in 2007, ten years after the city’s handover from the United Kingdom. She claims over half of the senior management and executives at Hong Kong media organizations have either been appointed to the NPC and CPPCC, or earned a medal from the Hong Kong government, which indirectly influences their views and leads to pro-establishment coverage. Among her more eyebrow-raising claims is that the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong makes “daily” calls to senior editors at news organizations to influence coverage, sometimes indirectly; she alleges dirt is dug up on certain Legco candidates, for instance, and sent to editors with a wink and a nudge. It’s hard to verify this claim without editors admitting it, something I imagine few – if any – would be willing to do. While I would no doubt expect the Liaison Office to step up its efforts at influencing Hong Kong media, I would be surprised if it did it so brazenly and so frequently.
Still, the cozying up to Beijing is a problem, especially when it comes to freedom of the press in Hong Kong. The South China Morning Post is on the front line of these concerns, in light of its appointment this year of CPPCC delegate Wang Xiangwei as its Editor in Chief. Paul Mooney joined the discussion from Beijing by Skype, and largely reiterated the points he made in a recent scathing article about Wang, which included the fact his stories were spiked once Xiangwei became China Desk editor and coverage of China has become much more positive under his watch.
Mooney says he still gets the daily emails from the SCMP highlighting their top China stories of the day, but laments that it used to contain five great stories, while now three or four of them are “soft pieces”. Even worse, he said, staff at the SCMP are “under pressure from management to do less, do positive stories, do less human rights, and it’s not a positive way to work.” He said the paper has turned a corner, and he fears it’s too late to turn it around.
Albert Cheng, a former talk show host and founder of the Digital Broadcasting Corporation, spoke next. He reiterated his story in which he was beaten only 13 months after the handover in 1997, was fired in 2004 despite having a highly-rated an profitable talk show, applied for a digital broadcasting license four years later, and then had his digital radio station shut down a few months later. (That’s the Coles Notes version, you can view the extended cut here). Cheng sees the hand of Beijing behind his firing and demise of his digital broadcasting business, and there may be some truth to the case. Unfortunately for Cheng, he’s a radio talk show host who lost his job, and is still complaining about it eight years later. At one point, about his firing, after noting his show was highly rated and profitable, he asked: “Would that happen in any other countries? No.” Well, it does, and quite frequently; the bottom line is Beijing may have had a role to play in Cheng’s firing and the downfall of his digital business, but talk show hosts are often fired for all kinds of other reasons, too, including incendiary on-air comments, being difficult to work with, salary pressure, and others. Cheng, at least on initial impressions, seemed to be a quintessential talk show host in the Rush Limbaugh or Rafe Mair mold: if something wrong happens to them, it’s a conspiracy. It might be, but I’d hedge my bets.
In one of the more awkward moments of the roundtable, Cheng asked for a video to be shown to the audience. It was an animated sing-song about the lack of proper reporting in Hong Kong, which the moderator, Angie Lau from Bloomberg, tried to stop. She was overruled and it played for a few more seconds before she again asked for the video to be stopped, saying “I think we got the point.” That infuriated Cheng, who stood up and proclaimed Lau’s stance was “censorship” and would leave if his video wasn’t played. Lau, who was perhaps lacking the decisiveness required of a moderator, waffled and eventually turned to the audience for their opinion. After a handful of people clapped to show support for watching the rest of the video, she then called for a show of hands. She claimed one-third of attendees supported Cheng so the video wouldn’t be shown, and Cheng stormed off stage. Cheng’s behaviour should not discount his claims of censorship, but it does a raise red flag that he might not be telling the whole story and does lend credence to the theory that he might not be the easiest person to work with.
The roundtable continued with Claudia Mo, who gave an impassioned speech about how Hong Kong is under threat from the Mainland. She called ATV’s story on the national education protest “absolutely disgraceful”. She noted when Jimmy Lai started his media empire, he famously said Bank of China would never be an advertiser and it believed he wouldn’t succeed. But he’s surviving and thriving without the support of Mainland companies. She said the CPC wants to change Hong Kong, “Mainlandize” the city, and water down Hong Kong’s identity. Mo noted fewer western tourists are coming to the city, which is now overwhelmed by visitors from the Mainland. As more Mainland people visit and live in Hong Kong, the media will begin serving and reflecting their points of view, which will dilute Hong Kong’s core values, she said.
Allen Cheng spoke last, and gave a speech largely about China’s current socio-economic development, which, while interesting, didn’t directly relate to self-censorship in Hong Kong (or if it did, I missed the connection). He did make one memorable point though: he said the pro-Communist papers Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po were initially launched in the 1930s, and competed with papers funded by the Kuomintang. He said Hong Kong journalists have always self-censored, it just depended on who was funding the paper and who ran the territory. He didn’t directly say it, but he seemed to be indicating that with China’s increasing control and influence of Hong Kong, it’s a natural evolution that local media would begin reflecting Beijing’s wishes.
I found the discussion interesting, although it didn’t really address the overall point: is self censorship getting worse, and what can be done? On reflection, Mooney and Albert Cheng – while their contributions were valuable – definitely had axes to grind that may have tainted their opinions. Mooney was let go by the SCMP while Cheng was fired by his radio station, and both saw growing censorship as the reason. Both also heavily criticized their former employers. A compelling case could be made that radio journalism in Hong Kong remains diverse and lively, while the SCMP’s recent headline story on the ferrari crash in Beijing certainly shows the paper isn’t shying away from journalism which could upset the senior Chinese leadership. (Although one story does not an unbiased paper make.)
The very nature of self-censorship means it is hard to quantify. While Mooney makes excellent points on the SCMP’s changes under Wang Xiangwei, it amounts to changes of degree rather than a complete overhaul. The paper may be doing fewer hard-hitting stories and more puff pieces, but it’s still doing stories that challenge the status quo and upset Beijing. For this reason, it’s hard to throw stones at the SCMP. Only if a proper study of the paper’s coverage is conducted could we really ascertain whether the SCMP’s coverage has changed over the years to become more Beijing-friendly and by how much. One thing we do know, though, is that despite some softball stories it remains far from a Beijing mouthpiece.
Claudia Mo may have been the most interesting. However, she has a long history of being very pro-Hong Kong and teetered on the brink of overt anti-Mainlandism when making comments about too many Mainland tourists invading the city. Allen Cheng seemed to stray off topic, although his insights into factionalism in China and the influence of Sina Weibo were nonetheless interesting. The moderator, Lau, let the panellists speak too long and failed to forcefully direct the discussion.
It would have been great to hear the thoughts of somebody from the Liaison Office, as well as some people working in mainstream Hong Kong news organizations, like RTHK or the Apple Daily. Wang Xiangwei was invited, but declined. Perhaps the issue is too sensitive for current management of media organizations to participate, but that itself would indicate there’s a problem regarding self-censorship. The result was a panel made up of a representative of a special interest group, a freelance journalist, an overseas journalist, and two people who were fired. Not one is closely involved in the day-to-day machinations of a Hong Kong newsroom.
That’s not to say this issue isn’t of vital importance; as I said at the beginning, Hong Kong is in a hyper-political environment and the media is increasingly factional. Beijing’s influence – currently playing out in the national education dispute – fills people with anxiety about the territory’s future. But a very strong case could be made that Hong Kong’s media remains remarkably free considering it has been 15 years since the handover: reporting on the Chief Executive election was strong, anti-Mainland sentiment is well-covered, criticism of Beijing is common, deaths like those of Li Wangyang receive widespread coverage, and even June 4 vigils still make front pages 23 years after the fact. If the Liaison Office is calling reporters with dirt on Legco candidates, I’m not surprised; find a US political journalist who hasn’t received dirt from a campaign on a rival candidate. At one point, Mak Yin Ting noted the Hong Kong government scheduled an important announcement on a Friday evening, and on the same day the Shenzhou 9 astronauts were visiting town, to bury the news. Well, welcome to strategic government communications. That happens everywhere.
It’s not that Hong Kong media aren’t self-censoring, it’s that this forum didn’t do a good job of shining a light on the practice or telling us what can be done about it. For the record, I do believe self-censorship is a concern, precisely because more and more media bosses aim to cozy up with their overlords in Beijing. That will, eventually, lead to compromised reporting. But Hong Kong remains a free market and any investor is welcome to start their own newspaper or website; they can also rest assured knowing there is a vast audience for pro-Hong Kong stories that are critical of China (both the Oriental Daily News and Apple Daily are the two kingpins in town, and both are far from Beijing loyalists).
Concerns about self-censorship mirror concerns about nearly everything in Hong Kong, including Mainland tourists, values, school curricula and the Cantonese language. Hong Kong people realize – rightly – that they must remain vigilant to maintain the system they have. This hyper-vigilance can sometimes go astray and lead people to find demons where there aren’t any, but it’s far better than the alternative: meek submission to Beijing and the extinction of what is very special place.