Recently, academics and leading journalists from Hong Kong gathered at a conference in Hong Kong to reflect on the woeful state of this city’s news media. Their genuflection focused on declining ethical standards. Hong Kong’s journalists themselves admit that the media here—like their
Dissident Wei Jingsheng at home in Beijing in 1994 shortly before his rearrest and imprisonment. Photo by Philip Cunningham.
counterparts in America—are more prone than ever to promote salacious stories over “hard” news, twist or outright fabricate their facts, and invade the privacy of the people they cover. Amazingly the conference, sponsored by the Freedom Forum, almost entirely ignored the question of how free Hong Kong’s press remains under Chinese rule.

The omission may have resulted from the conclusion—not entirely outrageous, at first glance—that Hong Kong’s press freedom is self-evident, almost a non-event. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Imposed censorship hasn’t shut up Hong Kong’s boisterous press, but self-censorship has softened its tone and restricted the depth and direction of its coverage.

That’s not to say reality hasn’t turned out better than expected prior to Hong Kong’s historic July 1, 1997 transfer from British to Chinese sovereignty. Hong Kong’s most outspoken newspapers and magazines—including those run by unapologetic anti-Communist Jimmy Lai—continue to publish. Reports about political dissidents in China, articles about the Dalai Lama, and news from Beijing’s archenemy, Taiwan, are all widely available. No reporters or editors in Hong Kong have been sent to prison for reporting on politically sensitive issues.

“Certainly, of all those terrible scenarios, none of them materialized,” says Kin-ming Liu, Chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA). “For that we have to give credit to China.”

This is all the more remarkable considering that Beijing is waging a severe political crackdown on the mainland. In December, three dissidents hoping to organize Communist China’s first real opposition party were jailed for up to 13 years; in January, authorities also imprisoned an entrepreneur accused of selling Internet E-mail addresses to an overseas political group.

Yet Beijing has avoided making overt moves to curb the Hong Kong press. The result is that in certain respects, Hong Kong journalists appear to enjoy a lot of freedom. That’s particularly obvious in the relish with which many newspapers have criticized the government of Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa. Tung and his administration are satirized and lambasted frequently for their handling of crises such as the crash in Hong Kong’s stock and property prices, a near epidemic of bird flu last year, and the disastrous July opening of Hong Kong’s new airport.

Hong Kong newspapers appear free likewise to carry news on political developments in China. Take the December trials of Chinese dissidents. When a Chinese court sentenced Xu Wenli to 13 years in jail for the crime of “subversion,” the English-language South China Morning Post put the story on its front page, just like The New York Times and The Washington Post. Hong Kong’s top Chinese-language papers—Oriental Daily News, Apple Daily and Ming Pao—ran the story either on page one or page two.

Coverage of other dissident stories has also been extensive. When Wang Dan, a prominent June 4, 1989 democracy activist, was released from prison and exiled to the United States last April, Hong Kong’s top newspapers all splashed it across their front pages. Oriental Daily boasted about getting an exclusive interview with Wang after his arrival in America. Apple Daily reprinted some of Wang’s writings. Mainland Chinese newspapers mostly steered clear of this subject altogether, highlighting their reluctance to tread on politically sensitive ground on which the Hong Kong press apparently feels at ease.

Despite this, self-censorship clearly thrives. In fact, its existence has been a fact of life for Hong Kong’s press since years before the handover. Under British rule, reporters from newspapers that criticized China too frequently weren’t invited to important press gatherings organized by China’s political authorities in Hong Kong. Those same newspapers also rarely, if ever, received lucrative advertising revenues from China-backed companies that have become increasingly important in the Hong Kong business community.

Today, self-censorship remains in the degree to which Hong Kong’s media is willing to probe and analyze, rather than simply relate. The news reports on China “are all factual and safe,” says Claudia Mo, a television anchor, radio host and columnist. “What puts me off is there’s very little commentary.”

Editorializing, in particular, has become extremely sensitive business. To their credit, some newspapers do indeed publish critical opinion pieces about Beijing’s policies. The day after the sentencing of Xu and his colleagues, Ming Pao’s editorial warned that “the heavy sentencing of Xu Wenli will exact a high cost,” and that “the enlightened, open image that [Beijing] has recently built up within the international community will suffer as a result of this.” An editorial in Apple Daily remarked that Xu’s treatment “makes a joke of the human rights covenant” that Beijing signed last year.

Yet the same events elicited a different reaction—or lack thereof—at The South China Morning Post, where the editorial page remained silent on Xu’s sentencing. The Post’s one English-language competitor, The Hong Kong Standard, chose to editorialize, but with a message quite different from the one at Apple and Ming Pao. “Dissidents,” The Standard declared, “Must Heed History.” China has come a long way, and the livelihood of its masses has improved dramatically under Communist rule, the editorial noted. “The dissidents,” The Standard concluded, “would be better off making a thorough study of the mainland’s needs before blindly pushing for full adoption of the Western system without any modifications whatsoever.”

If some areas of coverage require Hong Kong’s press to tread lightly, others appear to be practically off-limits. Consider two of China’s most powerful organizations operating in Hong Kong: Xinhua news agency and the Hong Kong office of China’s Foreign Ministry. Xinhua, China’s de facto embassy in Hong Kong under British rule, is still believed to be the central coordinator of Communist Party activity in the territory today. The head of the Foreign Ministry office, Ma Yuzhen, is nominally China’s top-ranking representative in Hong Kong. Yet newspapers rarely, if ever, report on what these bodies do. “These kinds of taboo subjects, no one will touch them,” says Liu of the HKJA.

Fear of crossing the line in political coverage ultimately stems from an unnervingly ambiguous section of the Basic Law, China’s mini-constitution for Hong Kong. That section, known as Article 23, notes that Hong Kong is expected to enact laws to prohibit acts of “treason, secession, sedition [and] subversion” against the Chinese state. As yet, those laws haven’t been passed, and the definition of those terms remain a mystery. Could an investigative article about Xinhua, or an editorial calling for a Chinese leader to resign, be “subversive”? No one knows. Cheung Man-yee, director of broadcasting at Radio Television Hong Kong, calls Article 23 the “one thing that hangs over our heads.”

Whatever void of politically sensitive stories exists within Hong Kong’s media has been filled with coverage of sex scandals, violent crime and society gossip—thus the wringing of hands over media ethics at that Freedom Forum conference. It’s hard to conclude that fears of covering certain political issues alone has prompted the push into sleaze. Intense competition within an overcrowded industry is no doubt a more important factor. Some 20 newspapers compete for the eyeballs of Hong Kong’s 6.6 million residents, driving many to make sex and crime a higher coverage priority than politics. Market-driven journalism, frets Raymond Wong, Assistant General Manager at Hong Kong’s largest television station, Television Broadcasting Ltd., “has more potential to sabotage than to serve the public interest.”

A few bad scandals have especially tarnished the industry. Among the worst of these took place after a Hong Kong woman killed herself and her two sons late last year. Apple Daily photographed her laborer husband in bed with prostitutes—and later confessed to having paid the man to pose for the picture. Incidents like these explain why, in a survey last November by the University of Hong Kong’s Social Sciences Research Center, more than one-in-three respondents found Hong Kong’s news media to be “quite irresponsible” in their reporting.

If all the agonizing at the Freedom Forum conference has its intended affect, Hong Kong’s media may move toward a greater respect for public ethics and morality. Perhaps, also, toward greater professionalism. The University of Hong Kong is soon starting a journalism degree program—the territory’s first.

It’s unlikely, however, that this will coincide with the media becoming more outspoken on political issues. The delicate reality of Hong Kong’s situation as an autonomous region that answers to an autocratic state makes that inevitable. So does the self-interest of Hong Kong’s media magnates, many of whom hope to make fortunes expanding their business into the mainland market. For that to happen, their safest bet is to avoid ruffling Beijing’s feathers with aggressively critical commentary and “unpatriotic” reporting. “If I were an editor,” admits Mo, the journalist, “I’d do the same.”

Peter Stein is Managing Editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal, based in Hong Kong.

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