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Saturday, June 30, 2007

Hong Kong media thrive under China

LOS ANGELES — Not every place in the world takes its news media seriously, to say the least. Some governments view it as a nuisance, if not a menace; others as an arm of public instruction, if not propaganda. But this is not the view taken here in what (since the 1997 handover from Britain) is officially called the Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. Here in what everyone else calls Hong Kong, the news media is taken very seriously.

In fact, this would increasingly appear to be the case. Notwithstanding all the dire predictions that absorption into media-repressive China would eventually castrate the feisty local press, the Hong Kong media has held its own.

Newspapers still bash the central government (though avoiding whenever possible the question of Taiwan). And TV and radio, especially, still operate with a measure of abandon. Political debate remains lively and, at times, charmingly neurotic.

"An influential and vibrant media is essential to the continuing success of Hong Kong," said Eric Chan, chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Times. Chan is chairman of the new, nonprofit Journalism Education Foundation of Hong Kong. Among other things, said Chan (during the foundation's official launch ceremony Saturday), Hong Kong needs to aggressively court, educate and promote up-and-coming journalists, in particular, to maintain a high level of media professionalism: "We must emphasize the quality of journalism, the courage of journalism, to make Hong Kong into a truly international city."

The launch of this journalism NPO, backed by leading news organizations, was more than mere public relations. Small as it is, relative to other world financial centers, Hong Kong needs to press into everyone's face every single competitive advantage it can offer. To its credit, in fact, it is routinely graded high by outside rating agencies in economic freedom and market independence. It is in this context of maintaining an environment of open debate and quality information that the media is viewed as central.

But it took the Chinese elite of this glamorous harbor territory some time to figure all this out. When the handover took place, nearly 10 years ago, the news media was often viewed as a potential impediment to smooth relations with Beijing. China's big bosses, after all, were accustomed to a compliant, quiet press in the People's Republic.

So when Hong Kong news media were blistering then-chief executive Tung Chee Hwa, there were worries down in the territory that Beijing might decide to throw a big wet censorship blanket over the whole crazy, noisy place.

In fact, a measure of self-censorship did occur in the lurking shadow of the mainland, despite endless official assurances of noninterference. "Yet, messages from Chinese officials were sent out nonetheless," wrote City University of Hong Kong professor Francis L.F. Lee in the June issue of Asian Journal of Communication, adding, "The Hong Kong media came to know what would irritate China."

Even so, no huge or decisive drainage of press vitality ultimately occurred, concluded the editors of this issue, devoted entirely to the news media of Hong Kong.

And apparently the media here agrees, at least according to surveys of working journalists conducted between 1996 and 2000. "Journalists in Hong Kong have adopted the Western approach in the sense that the media should be independent and play a watchdog role," wrote journal contributors Clement Y.K. So and Joseph M. Chan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "This is the case both before and after the handover."

It was always as much of a mistake to believe that the 1997 handover would change nothing as to believe, as much of the largely knee-jerk Western media did back then, that it would change everything. History usually proves more subtle than its forecasters. As long as Hong Kong remained a market economy, the media would be forced to maintain a measure of credibility if it expected to lure either subscribers or advertisers.

Moreover, much of the territory's Chinese-language media and many of its bilingual journalists developed, over time, more sympathy than antipathy to the reality that Hong Kong really did fit in better, in the genetic-coding sense, with China than Britain. Finally, self-censorship aside, no actual censorship dictums were hurled down from Beijing. At the end of the day, China's bosses played their cards fairly adroitly.

For Chief Executive Donald Tsang in fact, the Hong Kong media certainly seems as cruelly unforgiving as ever. I asked him whether his masters in Beijing really understand the media pressure in Hong Kong.

"I don't have to explain it to them," he said, laughing. "They can read it and see it!"

Well, then — do you view today's media as being as feisty as it used to be?

"It's feistier than ever," he replied. "Compare our media to any other, anywhere. Some might say it is even more scandalous than ever. But I won't say that of course." Of course.

UCLA professor and syndicated columnist Tom Plate has been visiting Hong Kong. His latest book is "Confessions of an American Media Man."

Copyright Tom Plate 2007.

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