The Freedom of the Press Report ranks countries by the level of freedom journalists have from political, criminal or terrorist threats. Hong Kong is ranked 18, above Singapore, but below countries such as Mongolia and Papua New Guinea. Hong Kong has received particular mention in this report published by Freedom House, with a specific paragraph and detailed analysis of Hong Kong added to the report.
The past 12 months has been significant to the Hong Kong media landscape. Several high profile cases that relate directly to Chinese hard and soft power have come to the foreground, suggesting a change in tone and in action by China as it exerts strong arm tactics in access to public information, with blatant infringement of foreign nationals’ rights from outside of China’s territorial jurisdictions.
The most obvious case has been the abduction of five Hong Kong based publishers. The booksellers are from Mighty Current publishing group, which specializes in tabloid-like anti-Beijing material. At the time of the abductions, a book about the personal life of Xi Jinping’s wife was about to go to print. After the booksellers went missing from Hong Kong and Thailand respectively, they suddenly re-emerged on Chinese state run television stations confessing to dubious, dated and petty infringements. In Bo Lee’s case, along with the renunciation of his foreign citizenship. Lee has since returned to Hong Kong, taking deep cover and refusing to speak to media. A significant change in behaviour for the once-outspoken critic of the mainland.
While not unexpected in mainland China proper, the situation has raised concerns around the world because two of the booksellers held dual foreign citizenship and Hong Kong residency – one is a British Citizen, the other Swedish – but also because both were abducted from foreign soil. The Hong Kong government’s response can only be described as a whimper, despite the clear infringement on the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle as established in the joint Sino-British Joint Declaration before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong back to the Chinese. The British have not fared much better either, publicly denouncing the act on the one hand, while signing a lucrative trade agreement with the Chinese government on the other.
Bookstores in Hong Kong have long enjoyed freedom of publication, and there has been an active market for Chinese nationals looking for titles not otherwise available in Mainland China. However, self and soft censorship is creeping into the businesses that distribute these materials, as China steadily attempts to control what the people of, and the people in Hong Kong read. According to Chinese language media outlet Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s three main bookstore chains – and the real estate they occupy – are controlled by the Chinese Government through an intricate net of shell companies, ensuring a steady controlled flow of information and low rents. Since the abductions in Hong Kong, four booksellers have actively pulled politically-sensitive Chinese-language titles.
Television and magazine publishers are similarly feeling the pressure from Beijing-wary advertisers. In this indirect form of censorship, brands will actively avoid advertising on obviously Beijing-unfriendly publications in order to appease their largest market base. At one prominent Asian publishing house, the Hong Kong Managing Director ensured there was no mention of any politically sensitive issues in the magazine titles under their umbrella, including anything related to Tibet.
With the recent purchase of the South China Morning Post by Alibaba in December 2015, the Hong Kong media have been casting a suspicious eye. Alibaba is one of China’s largest companies with roots in ecommerce and a healthy appetite for media expansion. The South China Morning Post is Hong Kong’s dominant 113-year old English-language newspaper. It has been criticized in recent years for leaning increasingly to the right and also of soft censorship under then owner Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok, who himself has close ties with Beijing. This suspicion of the acquisition is not unfounded as Alibaba is known to have close ties with Beijing, however, it is just as likely that Alibaba, a company with grand media ambitions and listed on the New York stock exchange, has purchased this asset as a means to bolster its international standing. The newspaper, under its new owner, has most recently pulled down the paywall to its digital site and has been banned in China since March 2016.
Unlike mainland China, the internet is free and open in the former British colony, but the Beijing-appointed Hong Kong government has made purposeful steps in ignoring online media outlets. On several occasions, online media outlets have been denied access to coverage of key election events and access to public data. The Hong Kong Information Services Department stated that access to its online Government News and Media Information System was only made available “to registered or licensed mass news media organisations which include registered newspapers, periodicals and news agencies, as well as licensed TV and radio stations”. In a letter to Tom Grundy, co-founder of Hong Kong Free Press, a non-profit startup in Hong Kong, the Information Services Department said “In the absence of a legally binding registration or licensing regime… we are not in a position to distinguish among a wide range of ‘online media’ organisations, nor is it possible for us to grant access to all those that claim to be ‘online media’ for on-the- spot reporting, given the practical arrangements required.” Grundy is now looking to take legal action against the government.
Perhaps the most telling of all, is Xi Jinping’s recent high profile tour of China’s top three state-run media outlets, openly demanding they pledge total loyalty to the party. “All the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity,” said Xi. “They must love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action.”
Already the business world has taken note. On 14 February, HSBC announced that it will not relocate its head office back to Hong Kong, where it was founded, despite having the bulk of its revenues generated there and significant savings in relocating. Instead the bank chose to stay in the UK. Reuters reported that Chinese market uncertainty coupled with real concerns about China’s growing influence over Hong Kong had helped HSBC make its decision.
In March, Moody’s downgraded the outlook of Hong Kong’s sovereign rating from stable to negative. “The revision of the sovereign outlook reflects our concern that Hong Kong’s increasing economic and financial linkages with China (Aa3, negative) give rise to potential negative spillovers from China and ultimately weaker growth.” Said Moody’s in an official release.
It appears, China’s demand for allegiance extends beyond state-run media outlets. But as China takes full advantage of its economic strength to widen its propaganda agenda, it runs the risk of clouding transparency, which in turn, could bring down one of its strongest financial pillars.