The Tail of the Dragon

Two intrepid Chinese women–one a naturalized American who works as a reporter in New York, the other a former Beijing business writer now serving a six-year sentence in a Chinese jail–have helped define what is at stake for East Asia and the world when the Hong Kong press comes under the formal sway of the People’s Republic of China. On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the imprisoned Chinese reporter, Gao Yu, was presented a $25,000 press freedom award in absentia by UNESCO Director General Fernando Mayor. Beijing reacted with furor, calling Gao Yu “a criminal” and threatening to close UNESCO’s China office or quit the U.N. agency altogether.

Gao Yu was sent to prison in 1994 for writing candidly and authoritatively–though not especially critically–about Chinese economic and political affairs for the Mirror Monthly, a Hong Kong magazine known for its generally pro-Chinese editorial line.

That the PRC leadership abhors independent journalism generally, and detests Ms. Gao specifically, is hardly news. Nor is it unusual for China to try to silence its critics within and beyond the United Nations. What was different and especially disturbing about Beijing’s response was its timing, and its unmistakable message for Gao Yu’s friends and colleagues in Hong Kong.

Beijing’s anger at Gao Yu’s prize forcefully reminded journalists in Hong Kong that she had been jailed for doing what had seemed to them to be utterly normal professional work, and yet what was and is still defined in the People’s Republic as the illegal and treasonous publication of “state secrets.” These are the same authorities who will have ultimate power over the media after June 30, the same authorities who have warned that reporters in Hong Kong will not be allowed to become “advocates” or to publish “slanderous remarks” about Chinese leaders.

Two weeks before Gao Yu received her award from UNESCO, another reporter narrowly escaped criminal prosecution because of her reporting for Asia Week, another Hong Kong magazine. This time the trial was in Taiwan. Ying Chan, who works for the Daily News in New York, had reported a groundbreaking story about possibly illegal Clinton campaign fundraising solicitations from Liu Tai-ying, business manager for the Kuomintang, Taiwan’s ruling party. Liu filed criminal libel charges against Ying Chan and her co-author, Taiwan-based journalist Hsieh Chung-liang.

In an act of true courage, Ms. Chan voluntarily flew to Taipei to face her accusers–and prevailed, convincing the judge that her reporting was professionally unassailable and, moreover, that the very concept of seditious libel is inherently objectionable in a functioning democracy.

Ying Chan’s case was a major victory for the cause of press freedom in Taiwan. But it inadvertently highlighted the critical and often unappreciated role of the Hong Kong media throughout East Asia–a role that is unlikely to survive the July 1 takeover. It was no accident that it was a Hong Kong magazine that published her work. Few Western publications were interested in the degree of detail she unearthed about internal Kuomintang politics, and few Taiwanese publications would have been bold enough to print the story.

Hong Kong’s greatest contribution to press freedom over the years has not been the haven it has provided to Western media–it is the de facto Asian headquarters for U.S. networks and wire services and home to such specialized regional publications as the Asia Wall Street Journal and the Far East Economic Review–but the aggressive, freewheeling reporting of its Chinese-language media, still the most important and trusted information source for tens of millions of people in the Chinese diaspora throughout East Asia. Already, most Hong Kong newspapers, including the respected Ming Pao, are softening their voices in anticipation of Beijing’s direct rule.

Still, many seasoned Hong Kong journalists think the island’s spirit of independence will not just survive but spread north into the mainland, with Shanghai and other urban centers–Beijing will be last–discovering that freedom of information is good for the soul as well as the pocketbook.

Maybe. It would be a mistake to discount out of hand this tail-wagging-the-dragon scenario. It is difficult even for the most pessimistic Beijing-watchers to imagine the gossipy, irreverent, intensely competitive news media of Hong Kong succumbing to the Stalinist torpor of Xinhua and Renmin Ribao. And while Hong Kong is tiny, its six million people have built a robust economy a quarter the size of China’s. Its continuing financial dynamism depends on an uncensored flow of information to and from the outside world. The continuing progress toward real press freedom in Taiwan–the next target of Chinese revanchism–is a further argument for guarded optimism for the long term. Freedom may ultimately win out.

But this is not Beijing’s intent, as its wrath against Gao Yu unequivocally proved. She and her American colleague, Ying Chan, stand together as symbols of a Hong Kong press that after July may no longer be at the service of the Chinese-speaking world.