China Leans on Hong Kong’s Press

By Cyril Pereira 7 February 2014

Hong Kong has one of the world’s highest newspaper readership densities. Its freewheeling press has six free newspapers, five communist dailies, three general dailies, two financial papers, two religious journals, one robustly pro-democracy icon plus two English-language papers and three global ones. Hong Kong citizens enjoy the full spectrum of the good, bad, trusted and spun press. This unbridled feistiness is an integral part of what defines their city.

But Beijing is not amused. The paralysis of the CY Leung administration is blamed on a critical press – often ferreting out stuff which makes officialdom look duplicitous and untrustworthy. This kind of whistle-blowing is not acceptable. Beijing believes it makes Hong Kong ungovernable. Locals see the cleavage dividing citizens from government as a consequence of lack of trust, transparency and accountability abased by self-serving Beijing appointed enforcers.

The central government’s long-evaded promise to allow direct election of the Hong Kong chief executive has been reluctantly conceded by the National Peoples’ Congress for 2017 – a full two decades after the liberation of the territory’s compatriots from “150 years of shame” amid promises of ‘one country two systems’ and ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’.

Universal Suffrage

The government duly published a consultation document (Dec 4, 2013) soliciting public input on how the legislative council should be elected in 2016 and the chief executive in 2017. Political pundits in the press and on radio have shaken out the contradictions in the government’s consultation paper, questioning its sincerity. They say it is a fake consultation process when officials warn the public that any deviation from Beijing’s rigged formula is invalid. They wonder why the charade?

Rimsky Yuen, Secretary for Justice, urged Hong Kong citizens in the South China Morning Post on Feb. 4 to accept the ‘imperfect’ electoral system proposed – citing risk to the territory’s international investment rating if it is not implemented. The Post had a cartoon on its Op-Ed page mocking that illogic, when Singapore and China suffer no lack of foreign investment despite their shambolic politics. Money flows for profit, not principle.

Having admitted that the formula tabled is ‘imperfect’ on such a vital issue as universal suffrage, Rimsky even made the daft suggestion that the rigged electoral formula could be reformed in later years beyond 2017. Such double-speak by appointed officials rarely goes unchallenged by the Hong Kong press. This is precisely what irritates Beijing, whose rubber-stamp legislatures are streamlined to endorse whatever its leaders propose and obedient media cheerlead. The press in Hong Kong is seen as troublesome and untamed.

Apple Daily upsets Beijing

Apple Daily is particularly irksome. It has declared the public consultation document a sham and campaigns vigorously for ‘true democracy’. It seems to have informers everywhere and no back-room deal is safe. It takes a shrill attitude to official malfeasance. It supports pro-democracy politicians, the Occupy Central planners and the student movement Scholarium which opposes patriotic education. It ridicules pro-Beijing politicians. It vilifies Hong Kong’s compromised tycoons who have pulled out about HK$100m in annual advertising from the paper. It refuses to die or go away.

In the Chinese University’s annual media credibility survey conducted since the handover, the South China Morning Post and the Ming Pao Daily consistently lead the rankings. In the latest survey, Ming Pao slipped to third place below the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

‘Grey Lady’ Unloved by Owner

South China Morning Post is the “grey lady” of Hong Kong. It has been the paper of record for 110 years. It is sober and staid. Malaysia sugar tycoon Robert Kuok’s purchase of the paper from Rupert Murdoch in 1993 was hailed as a major coup by a friend of Beijing. Kuok has expanding hotel, property and other interests across China.

Kuok terminated journalists who failed to heed the new order. Cartoonist Larry Feign’s gag-a-day World of Lily Wong series, which ran for eight years on page 2 of the SCMP, was stopped in May 1995 after his graphic take on harvesting executed prisoners’ organs for sale to rich patients in need of transplants. Lame justifications such as budget cuts made by editor Jonathan Fenby were believed by none in the newsroom, nor indeed, by himself.

Willy Lam Wo-Lap served the paper for 12 years. He was China editor for a decade. Willy had the uncanny ability to get “fly on the wall” intelligence about sensitive gatherings of civilian and military chiefs in Beijing. His disclosures were astonishing. No one knew where they came from. His reporting was resented by Beijing but never challenged for accuracy. They made the SCMP editors and proprietor cringe.

Willy triggered an acrimonious carpeting of editor Robert Keatley by a livid Robert Kuok, for his front page commentary on the high-profile banqueting of 30 selected Hong Kong tycoons in mid-2000 by president Jiang Zemin in Beijing. Willy said it was a quid-pro-quo barter of access to China business for support on political development in Hong Kong. It was, as Willy saw it, a tycoon mission to sell out Hong Kong for private profit. He resigned in 2000.

A train of 11 editors wheeled through SCMP in rapid succession over 20 years. Western editors were deemed not to understand the “China factor” in the media equation. Advisors, editors and CEOs from Malaysia and Singapore with appeasement expertise were imported, to little effect. Finally, almost in despair, China editor Wang Xiangwei from the Beijing bureau was promoted to editor-in-chief in 2012. He had the ultimate credentials to satisfy Beijing: former staffer at state-owned China Daily and former member of Jilin Province’s Political Consultative Congress.

Baptism of Fire

Wang got fire-bombed by newsroom staff and international media when he returned past midnight to remove a first edition story on the death in custody of a dissident re-arrested for speaking to a Hong Kong TV station. Chinese prison authorities claimed Li Wangyang committed suicide by hanging himself. His family said that was preposterous as the man was blind, almost deaf and could hardly walk without assistance – from previous prolonged abuse in custody.

Editor Wang had reduced the tragedy to a 100-word brief for the final edition while the story ran prominently in other Hong Kong papers. He was shocked by the domestic and global fury over his intervention, admitting that it was “a bad call.” He pledged to stay true to the paper’s benchmarks of journalism and its readers’ expectations.

The SCMP continues to serve robust China news and commentary even if its editorials seem overly cautious and tentative. A 110-year journalistic tradition seems difficult to snuff out even after 20 years of self-censorship and with a mainlander in the editor’s chair.

Kuok bought a 35 percent controlling stake of the paper in 1993 at HK$8 per share. It now stands at HK$1.88. The share value has shrunk 77% in 20 years. Without China publishing access, potential investors do not see growth prospects. It is ripe for takeover by China proxies. Even red capital would think twice about paying more than its current market value – while Kuok cannot sell for less than he paid for it.

Ming Pao Switches Editor

Ming Pao Daily is currently mired in controversy over the replacement of its editor Kevin Lau Chun-to by a Malaysian, Chong Tien-siong, who previously was chief editor of the Nanyang Siang Pau in Singapore. Chong was cited by SCMP as advocating compulsory patriotic education for Hong Kong – shelved last year after outraged parents marched on the streets to reject political indoctrination in schools.

Under Lau as chief editor since 2012, Ming Pao broke the story of chief executive hopeful Henry Tang’s undeclared illegal structures below his home. That torpedoed his bid. It then discovered that C Y Leung who rubbished Henry, also had undeclared illegal structures at his home on the Peak.

Ming Pao also gave extensive coverage to the failed bid for a TV license by HKTV – after its principal was invited by a senior government official to apply. There is suspicion that Beijing is unenthusiastic about expanding mass media franchises it cannot directly control. Most recently, the paper participated in an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, into offshore billions stashed away by politically connected elites in the PRC and Hong Kong. Officials at the highest level of the Communist Party were implicated.

Sin Wan-kei of the “Ming Pao Concern Group” declared that editor Lau “resisted pressure from the invisible hands who try to meddle in the newsroom at critical moments.” The majority of Ming Pao’s 270 editorial staff signed a petition demanding an explanation from management and assurances of journalistic integrity. A spokeswoman for the management reiterated media independence for the paper and said there was no change to editorial policy.

Ming Pao was founded in 1959 by Louis Cha, prolific author of highly popular martial arts novels. Tiong Hiew King, a Sarawak-Malaysian tycoon with vast timber, oil and gas interests in Borneo, Myanmar, Fiji, China and Africa bought a controlling stake in Ming Pao Group in 1995. Together with his consolidated Chinese media holdings in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Canada and the USA, Tiong is probably the world’s largest and richest international Chinese press baron.

Such concentration of mass media ownership brings influence and also political obligations which the tycoon fully appreciates. His papers are facing reader and advertiser resentment in Malaysia after rooting for the race-baiting UMNO ruling party during the 2013 GE. His investments in China are vast and growing too. The removal of Kevin Lau as chief editor fits a business-first pattern.

Co-opting Tycoons and Media Owners

Beijing has systematically co-opted tycoons and media owners from Hong Kong into various advisory bodies and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). A number have even served on the National People’s Congress (NPC). Most have significant business interests on the mainland. The advisory bodies have negligible influence on PRC politics but are useful badges of access for business deals.

Apart from Apple Daily being punished by withdrawal of advertising, free newspaper AM730 boss Shih Wing-ching also complained last month that advertising budgets were being cut by mainland companies and his paper was under financial stress. Shih said his journalists would not be censored. He runs the successful Centaline and Ricacorp property agency businesses.

When the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) assembled evidence in 1996 to prosecute Sally Au Sian of Sing Tao Group for fraud and corrupt practices at her English language newspaper the Hong Kong Standard, her membership of the NPC was thought to have saved her from being charged. Elsie Leung, then Secretary for Justice claimed insufficient evidence and ‘public interest’ for not prosecuting Au. A former secretary and two other staffers were charged and sent to jail instead. Alan Armsden, then publisher of the Standard, bolted to his native Australia in good time.

RTHK Next?

Pro-Beijing forces have been clamoring for RTHK to be brought to heel like radio and TV on the mainland. They simply cannot fathom how a government station can allow diversity of opinion and debate which did not glorify the administration. A career civil servant Roy Tang with no media experience, was appointed to head RTHK in 2011 to appease the Beijing lobbyists.

After proposing that RTHK be turned into an independent public service broadcaster in 2009, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau which originally proposed it, substituted a charter in 2011 redefining RTHK’s mission to include promoting ‘one country, two systems’ under China.

The RTHK staff union and the Hong Kong Journalists Association have cited instances of political interference by Roy Tang to turn RTHK into a pro-Beijing government mouthpiece. Roy Tang discontinued the contracts of two popular talk-show hosts in November 2011 but the introduction of a new ‘Face to Face’ format with an aggressive interviewer has somewhat allayed public fears of wholesale capitulation.

The broadcaster operates under a ‘framework of reference’ as a government department, not an independent charter like the BBC in the UK or NHK in Japan. It enjoys no legislative protection and is open to administrative manipulation. RTHong Kong remains vulnerable.

When the pro-Beijing camp attacked the broadcaster after the handover in 1997, then chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-san vigorously defended it, urging its journalists to “continue to write editorials that deserve to be written responsibly, without fear or favor”. She prophetically added “How well RTHK does its job will, to a large extent, decide how our other freedoms will be protected.”

Legislation to Checkmate Media?

Other Singapore-proven weapons Beijing may wish to deploy are press licensing and media legislation to criminalize investigative journalism in politics. For that it needs to pass security laws which can be used to intimidate journalists and citizens with sedition and to close down non-conforming press on national security grounds.

The reason more than half a million Hong Kong citizens took to the streets in 2003 was precisely their distrust of the intent of the Article 23 Security Bill which the CH Tung administration declared would be passed into law. Regina Ip as Secretary for Security championed the Bill in a spectacular strutting display to impress Beijing. When the scheme fell apart on the outrage of citizens on the streets, she resigned but is now back as an elected legislator and executive council member, heading the New Peoples Party.

The Security Bill hovers in the background waiting for the other chess pieces to be moved into place before Hong Kong is checkmated.

Is that surprising? The CCP has failed to honor China’s own Constitution since 1954 and the current 1982 version which guarantees rights of citizens to freedom of speech, press, assembly and demonstration along with a 2004 amendment which protects human rights. The 1982 Constitution also explicitly states that it is supreme over all organizations and individuals in the PRC. One reads that as including the Party.

The Stalinist absolute power model so admired by Mao Zedong stays resolutely in place in defiance of China’s Constitution. There is continuing unresolved debate between scholars and reformers against ideologues, on whether the Party should be above the Constitution or subordinate to it.

However, when that debate moves into activism, champions like Xu Zhiyong get sent off to the Gulag for asking that citizens’ Constitutional rights be enforced. His family and friends get persecuted too. The ‘foreign forces’ argument is advanced to justify this persecution: foreigners will use China’s Constitution to undermine its progress. Xu Zhiyong is an agent of foreign powers. That settles state terror on citizens. The Party remains glorious and above the law.