Press Freedom Under the Dragon

Can Hong Kong’s Media Still Breathe Fire?

t did not take long for the Hong Kong Journalists Association to serve notice on Executive Secretary Tung Chee-hwa that it would be watching his office closely. On July 10, just days after the handover of Hong Kong to China by the British, the HKJA sent Tung a letter criticizing perceived “favorable treatment” given to official Chinese state news agencies in coverage of the handover.

The group complained that China Central Television was given special access to some of Tung’s early official appearances. “If Chinese official media have privileges in reporting, then news and information will very likely be held in the hands of the official media, seriously threatening press freedom,” said the letter, signed by HKJA’s chair, Carol Lai.

It was the kind of outspoken approach that has become the hallmark of the HKJA. Currently in its 29th year, with some 500 members, it is the largest press association in the territory and has lobbied consistently for the continuation of Hong Kong’s free press under Chinese rule. The group says it will tolerate no backward movement in the battle for free expression. In their letter, the journalists urged Tung to “make efforts to preserve the existing media coverage system, which is based on fairness for all involved.” In response, Tung’s office called the incident a misunderstanding.

HKJA vice chairman Liu Kin-ming, a frequent and vocal critic of Beijing, said it is the association’s responsibility to remain engaged with the new administration of Tung Chee-hwa and to fight any effort to curb the liberties enjoyed by Hong Kong’s reporters and editors. He summed it up this way in an interview with CPJ: “To my colleagues, I ask them to please say no to the censors. To the publishers, I say, without your support we cannot win this battle. And to the outside world: Keep your eyes on Hong Kong.” (For Liu’s views on censorship in Hong Kong, see page 10.)

What’s at stake immediately in Hong Kong is the vibrancy not just of local media but of the vast network of regional and international press operations based in the territory. Hong Kong has long been East Asia’s English-language news media capital and‹more important‹the principal safe haven for professional, independent Chinese-language reporting about the internal political and economic affairs of the People’s Republic. Readers in the vast Chinese diaspora‹from Taiwan and Malaysia to British Columbia and California‹have depended on Hong Kong reporters and publications for decades. If this dynamic journalism culture disappears or is significantly eroded, it will have profound repercussions for all of Asia.

Equally important to the region’s future is the inextricable relationship between the free flow of information and the strength of financial markets. Hong Kong’s robust economy flourished in a climate of free expression that allowed for the rapid exchange of information necessary for the smooth functioning of the regional economy. Investors will still need Hong Kong’s free press if they are to understand the dynamics of the changes that are underway in China and the rest of Asia. Without this continual supply of accurate, uncensored economic information, it is hard to imagine Hong Kong retaining its position as the region’s premier financial marketplace.

Leaders of the international financial community have begun to articulate this concern. U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin raised the issue of press freedom during Tung’s first official visit to Washington in September. In a private session with Tung, Rubin linked freedom of information to Hong Kong’s continued financial health. “I think Hong Kong can remain and will remain a major market center, a major financial market center, as long as Hong Kong continues to have the free flow of information [and] the rule of law,” Rubin told CNN following the closed-door meeting. “I think that’s something that we can all be hopeful about but also have to watch very closely.”

Hong Kong’s new leaders contend such concerns are misplaced. And on the surface, little seems to have changed. After the smoke of fireworks and celebration cleared, Hong Kong businesses resumed their usual frenetic pace, and reporters for the former colony’s 16 major daily newspapers continued to file their stories as they had before the handover. Even the most critical dailies have continued to publish without overt reprisals. “The government is functioning as normal,” Tung said in early September. “The financial market is moving. Demonstrations are continuing‹arguments everywhereþWhat has changed is that Hong Kong is now a part of China. There is a sense of pride here that this has happened, and happened without a hitch.”

The resumption of Chinese sovereignty in Hong Kong has enormous geopolitical significance, signaling an end to the last vestiges of the British Empire and the emergence of China as an economic and political superpower. The people of Hong Kong have been anticipating this transition for many years, and few seasoned observers predicted dramatic upheaval in the immediate aftermath of the British withdrawal. China’s leaders and supporters steadfastly maintained prior to the transition that no major changes would take place. “One Country, Two Systems,” the phrase coined by the late Deng Xiaoping to describe the principle that would allow Hong Kong’s quasi-democratic, free-market system to coexist with the motherland’s one-party communist rule, was supposed to work this way. The Special Administration Region (SAR), as Beijing calls Hong Kong’s territory, is meant to be making money, not trouble.

Beneath the calm, however, much has changed. Hong Kong today is a different place than it was before the turnover and a much different place than it was before the reality of the return began to sink in during the last several years. The climate of free expression in Hong Kong has shifted in subtle but distinct ways: In the vibrant Hong Kong press, self-censorship has become a fact of life. Newspapers owned by powerful business leaders with wide-ranging economic interests in China have become less willing to criticize Beijing.

Given China’s history of tolerating little, if any, critical reporting or commentary in its national press, Hong Kong journalists have been left to wonder what might really be in store for them. “We don’t know the Chinese bottom line yet,” said one veteran reporter as she discussed the handover with colleagues inside the cavernous Hong Kong Convention Center press room two days after the fact. “I think Hong Kong journalists will be learning the Chinese bottom line.”

Reporter Mak Yin Ting, sitting at the same table, quickly shot back, “Sure, we have to search for a bottom line. But why should there be a bottom line? That is an infringement on freedom. Why is it you can advocate Chinese patriotism but you cannot advocate other ideas?”

What about you, a visitor asked the first journalist, will you challenge the Chinese government’s press freedom bottom line once you find it?

“Unfortunately, there is a point beyond which I cannot go and I will not go. Because I do not want to be locked up,” she replied.

Tung’s Friends

It should come as no surprise that Tung Chee-hwa, a shipping magnate with a history of close ties to Beijing, is more interested in preserving Hong Kong’s economic vibrancy than its freewheeling journalism. But Tung’s open admiration for Singapore’s autocratic leader Lee Kwan Yew may signal more than just disinterest in free expression, presaging harsh treatment of independent journalists. Lee, the architect of Singapore’s rise to prosperity through stern governance and laissez-faire economics, is the principal proponent of the view that a free press is incompatible with “Asian values.” Lee has been openly critical of Hong Kong’s democrats. China is too powerful to be influenced by their calls for democracy, Lee told the Singapore newspaper Straits Times in June. “If you don’t believe that the Hong Kong people understand that, then you don’t understand Hong Kong,” he said. “Let’s not waste time talking about democracy…If I were a Hongkonger I would think twice before interfering in the political affairs of the mainland.”

Under Lee, Singapore offers little space for democracy to flourish, and the notion of modeling Hong Kong on Singapore raises reporters’ worst fears. In May, for example, a government critic was ordered to pay senior officials a $5.7 million libel judgment for defaming them. The critic, Tang Liang Hong, called Singapore leaders liars because they had attacked him as an ethnic Chinese chauvinist. Over the years, Singapore has been the bane of journalists. Two Hong Kong-based regional publications, the Far Eastern Economic Review and The Asian Wall Street Journal have been periodically banned, and their reporters have been sued or barred from the country in disputes with Singaporean officials. In Singapore, journalists may even be prosecuted not simply for critiques of government leaders, but for the publication of mundane, accurate trade statistics prior to their authorized release by the government.

Tung agrees with Singapore’s Lee on the issue of the cultural relativism of rights, supporting Lee’s view that Asian countries put a higher value on group harmony and discipline than on the individualism prized in Western cultures. “Human rights is not a monopoly of the West,” Tung told reporters in August. “When you talk about this, you have to look in terms of different countries, different historical processes, different stages of development.” When asked by reporters for his reaction to Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir’s call for a revision of U.N. covenants on human rights to reflect Asian values, Tung said, “I’m sympathetic to this argument. I really am.”

Will Tung lead Hong Kong to become a constrained city-state like Singapore, with a tame and timid press? In the rush to please both big business and Beijing, will Hong Kong come to resemble capitalist autocracies like Indonesia and Malaysia, where civil liberties often fall victim to the leaders’ whims?

Already, the Beijing-appointed provisional legislature, which supplanted the elected legislature on July 1, has quietly begun to rubber-stamp important pieces of legislation in advance of legislative elections scheduled for May 1998. Hong Kong residency rights have been amended to deny residency to mainland-born children of Hong Kong Chinese residents. This ostensible technicality has great significance in Hong Kong, where mainland-born children of parents with legal Hong Kong residency have long had the right to live in the territory. In a move supported by some business leaders, the appointed legislature also suspended a number of labor laws, passed before Britain returned the colony to China, which gave workers the right to collective bargaining, protected labor activists, and allowed unions to contribute to political campaigns.

A new law governing legislative elections, which are scheduled for May 1998, will dramatically limit the extent of popular electoral participation and roll back the near-universal suffrage enacted at the end of British rule. The new proposal allows only 20 of the legislative council’s 60 members to be popularly elected. Ten would be named by a Beijing-appointed electoral college. Another 30 would be picked by “functional constituencies,” made up of corporate leaders, bankers, and professional groups. The changes virtually ensure that the top vote-getter under the British, the Democratic Party, will have a limited voice in the new legislature. “Tung’s new election laws are nothing less than a great leap backward for democracy in Hong Kong,” Democratic Party chair and ousted legislator Martin Lee wrote in The Washington Post during Tung’s U.S. visit.

What is emerging from these changes may be a corporatist model in which an entrenched business elite, backed by a powerful overseer in China and led by Tung, is guaranteed an electoral majority. In such a model, it is not difficult to envision attacks on press freedom or civil liberty easily passing a parliament with only a nominal opposition presence.

Regardless of the promises enshrined in the agreements that govern the handover and the transition to the new Chinese Hong Kong, it seems certain that the press will become less free, more cautious. “The feeling we have is of inevitability,” said Daisy Li, a former editor at the Chinese-language Ming Pao daily. “Freedom of the press will be cut back.”

Li’s career reflects many of the changes that some journalists both fear and resist. Widely respected by her colleagues, she has held a number of leadership positions in the Hong Kong Journalists Association. In 1993, worried about the impending transition to Chinese rule, Li led a campaign to reform antiquated British-era official secrecy and sedition laws that could be used to restrict press freedom if they remained on the books. She also helped lead an international campaign to free Ming Pao reporter Xi Yang, who was imprisoned in China in 1993 for his reporting on Chinese government gold trading. For her efforts in these campaigns, Li was awarded an International Press Freedom Award by CPJ in 1995.

But Daisy Li sees little future for the mainstream press in Hong Kong. She says her newspaper, once one of the most critical voices in Hong Kong in its coverage of China, has gone soft. Self-censorship is a fact of life in the newsroom, Li says, and she wants no part of it. In August, she left Ming Pao, as have three other top staffers and HKJA members in recent months, citing displeasure with editorial changes. “Publishers have ties to big business and to Beijing,” she said. “That just encourages self-censorship.” But instead of leaving her home in Hong Kong or her profession, Li plans to start a Hong Kong-based on-line magazine. “I’m just leaving my paper,” she explained. “I’m not leaving journalism.”

The frustration Daisy Li and others feel is captured in a survey of Hong Kong journalists conducted last May by Joseph Chan, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Over a third of those surveyed practiced some form of self-censorship in criticism of China or large Hong Kong corporations. More than half of the respondents believed that their colleagues censored themselves. In another survey of journalists undertaken by Hong Kong University in 1995, 88 percent said self-censorship was well-entrenched; 84 percent in that poll expected the situation to deteriorate under China. Eighty-six percent of Hong Kong business executives polled by the Far Eastern Economic Review shortly before the handover predicted the press would no longer be free under China.

If the polling data on self-censorship are accurate, the shift to Chinese rule has already had a profound impact on Hong Kong’s journalists. The anecdotal evidence of self-censorship is abundant; journalists frequently begin a conversation on Hong Kong’s media by conceding that self-restraint now pervades the newsrooms. “It is self-censorship rather than direct intimidation that will undermine the freedom of expression in Hong Kong,” said Carol Lai of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “We are on a dangerous path that can only lead the media to accept greater restraint. So far all the signs do not seem positive but we can only hope.”

One of the most respected foreign correspondents in Hong Kong, Jonathan Mirsky, the Asia editor of the Times of London and a long-time Hong Kong resident, eloquently described the gradual tightening of controls in a piece for the Index on Censorship in January: “This is the way we live now in Hong Kong. Sometimes Beijing barks angrily or just murmurs. More often its likes and hatreds are so well understood that, like the colonial cringe of yesteryear, local collaboration with the Œfuture sovereign’ is automatic and preemptive.”

Such pessimism, however, is not universal among journalists in Hong Kong. L.P. Yau, the editor in chief of the weekly Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Week), a regional Chinese-language news magazine, is well-regarded among Hong Kong journalists. He predicted before the turnover and insists now that Chinese sovereignty presents no direct threat to press freedom. “Two months after the handover, the Hong Kong press sees no problem of political interference,” said Yau. “There is no commissar to tell any publications how to run the newsroom, nor do the readers feel any deprivation of information. There are still all kinds of criticisms of China in the media, as well as those magazines that are specialized in criticizing China.”

Yau related an anecdote that he believed offered another positive measure of press freedom. At a recent banquet hosted by Taiwan’s Central News Agency’s Hong Kong bureau, the bureau’s editor in chief declared that his staff has had no problem functioning in Hong Kong since the handover. In contrast, Taiwanese journalists have had a rough time on the mainland, where they are forbidden to set up bureaus and occasionally experience government harassment. So their treatment in Hong Kong is important not only as an indicator of that territory’s press conditions, but for what it augurs for China’s relationship with Taiwan as Beijing seeks to woo Taiwan into reunification. If “One Country, Two Systems” will work in Hong Kong, the thinking goes, then it should be applied in Taiwan.

“It seems that the SAR government and Beijing are determined to project an image that Hong Kong, unlike China, remains free in the wake of the handover,” said Yau. “My personal feeling is that Hong Kong is doing a good job for the time being, yet its destiny is closely related to stability in Beijing. As long as the economy is all right, Hong Kong will relish the good taste of press freedom.”