Hong Kong Blues

Post-takeover, the media forecast is dark and gloomy.


It's so gloomy," said a longtime Hong Kong media watcher. She was referring to the overcast sky and drizzling rain, seasonable weather there in March.

But with less than 100 days until the British hand over Hong Kong to the Beijing government on July 1, that climate has also settled over Hong Kong's media. And the forecast suggests that the clouds won't be lifting any time soon, either. Although Beijing's designated ruler for Hong Kong, Tung Chee-Wa, has said that freedom of the press will be preserved, he seems to be thinking in terms of the mainland's definition of open dialogue.

Consider these snapshots from the March 19 issue of a leading English-language daily newspaper, the Hong Kong Standard:

? A front-page story about negotiations over whether advance units of Chinese air and ground forces will be on armed patrols–before July 1.

? Inside, on page 2, a brief story about the release of anti-Beijing protesters on bail pending their trial later this year–under Chinese rule.

? Deeper inside, a story about Tung Chee-Wa's claim that it is currently illegal for anyone to say, "Down with the Queen." Chris Patten, the colony's present governor, said Tung was misinformed.

? A short item on the last set of Hong Kong stamps featuring the image of the British queen, an event that led to lines outside of post offices, as thousands of people stood for several hours to try to buy what are soon to become collectors' items. (The Hong Kong government's Commission against Corruption is investigating charges of speculation. They were shocked–shocked!–to find collectors trying to buy the new stamps at face value so they can turn an easy profit after July, when their value is likely to skyrocket.)

But the most interesting barometer of media climate was the front-page news on March 17 that Xinhua had just announced it would end its high-profile defense of Beijing policy. In the rest of the world, Xinhua is known as the official Chinese news agency. But in Hong Kong, Xinhua has also served as Beijing's diplomatic outpost, issuing Chinese visas and other official government documents. When the voice of Beijing and its official representative in the crown colony announces it will no longer speak out, there might be more there than the statement's text suggests.

One veteran Hong Kong journalist provided the interpretation: Who needs official propaganda when China no longer has any critics in the Hong Kong media? He's right. The Hong Kong media have become, to echo Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the journalists who don't bark. One by one, the newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters have imposed self-censorship, deleting any language that could be construed as even mildly critical of any Chinese policy.

Not to worry, says another journalist, who asks that his name not be used. It's not ideological. It's not political. It's just business, he explains. News organizations have too much invested in Hong Kong to risk offending the new rulers.

Judging from the Standard's response, which is typical, the result is predictable: What do you do when Beijing suspends all travel visas from April to August for relatives and other visitors from China? Just print the official statement; don't go any further.

Need to write an editorial on politics? Criticize the British and Chris Patten, the British governor: "Patten stirs for the sake of doing….He has nothing to do." But remain eerily silent on Tung and his superiors in Beijing.

Politics has even been largely removed from the front pages, in favor of huge play every day for stories on bookies trying to fix horse races (shocking, shocking), a sprinkling of stories on the U.S. political fund-raising improprieties, and an endless variety of police-blotter stories.

As recently as last year, this was not the case. Independent reporters and editors at Hong Kong's news organizations wrote strong stories about China and Chinese politics, albeit sometimes in code. But the code was not too subtle, and Beijing did not need an Alan Turing to translate the articles. Now even the coded stories have receded from view.

Milton Mueller, a Rutgers professor and widely respected expert on Hong Kong media regulation, is in the colony to study the changes in the media as July 1 approaches. He also has a U.S. passport and is planning to leave, so he can speak more freely than he can while in Hong Kong. "People simply are being very cautious about who they are associated with and what they say and who they say it about," said Mueller at a March conference held by the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan international media research foundation.

Mueller cited the case of Jimmy Lai, the publisher of Next magazine and one of the best-known and most outspoken journalistic critics of Beijing policies. Lai once said he would go down fighting, as a matter of principle. Now he has reversed himself, saying it is for the good of his staff. What happened? Lai was trying to take his highly successful publishing company public on the Hong Kong stock exchange. And he told Lesley Stahl of CBS's 60 Minutes that the day after his Hong Kong newspaper called one influential Beijing pol "a turtle's egg" (a not-too-polite way of questioning the identity of one's father), the Chinese government confiscated Lai's businesses, scaring away his financial backers.

If there is a free news medium left in Hong Kong, it would seem to be the Internet: In January, the Hong Kong government announced it was going to back away from all of its previously announced proposals to regulate on-line content, opening the digital world to free expression.

But self-censorship is as strong online as over the air or in print: Mueller and others report Internet service providers are growing reluctant to do business with critics of the Chinese government, or to host sites that are critical of Beijing. They want to stay in business after July 1.

Ah well, not to worry: It's not ideological. It's not political. It's just business.

Adam Clayton Powell III (apowell@alummit.edu) is vice president of technology and programs at the Freedom Forum.