21 February 2020
While Leung Chun-ying has been effusive in his praise of Hong Kong's press freedom, mainland officials are a little more cautious. Photo: AFP
While Leung Chun-ying has been effusive in his praise of Hong Kong's press freedom, mainland officials are a little more cautious. Photo: AFP

WEEKENDER: How Beijing push could hurt HK press freedom

For the first time in many years, Hong Kong media top brass were given a high-level reception by key officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs during a three-day visit to Beijing that began Wednesday.

On Thursday, Chinese media gave prominent coverage to two separate meetings — one with Vice President Li Yuanchao {李源潮}, the No. 2 man in a small Communist Party group that oversees Hong Kong and Macau policies; the other with Wang Guangya {王光亞}, director  of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.

The meetings came a day after a media survey found that Hong Kong journalists believe self-censorship is common in newsrooms and media owners or management regularly exert editorial pressure. The public, meanwhile, has a negative impression of tha state of press freedom in the city.

The findings coincided with the release of a new press freedom index. Professor Clement So, a Chinese University journalism scholar who was among the creators of the index, said it would show a grimmer picture if the brutal attack on former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau in March was taken into account.

On Thursday, Tomas Brunegard, president of the World Newspaper Association, told an international conference in Hong Kong he is concerned about the decline of press freedom in the city. He said the government must act to ensure a “free and independent society”.

Speaking after Brunegard, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying put press freedom at the top of a list of Hong Kong’s strengths. Maintaining a lively and unfettered press is a top government priority “not just because it is a core freedom and a constitutional duty but because it is a cornerstone of a free society”.

Oddly, Leung’s praise of the city’s media differs with remarks by Vice President Li to the visiting Hong Kong media executives.

During a five-minute photo call open to the media, Li said: “Your media companies have, I should say, contributed much in fostering a smooth handover of Hong Kong back to the mainland and protecting Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”

He urged the executives to see the “bigger picture” and lead society in reaping the benefits of China’s development.

“I hope the media in Hong Kong could consider the overall interests of the country and Hong Kong society and operate objectively, fairly, and impartially to lead society to grasp the new opportunities that have come with the country’s reforms and developments and make contributions to ‘one country, two systems’,” Li said.

Amid tensions in cross-border relations caused by a row over the 2017 chief executive election and frictions over the behavior of mainland visitors to Hong Kong, Li’s plea to Hong Kong media not to lose sight of the big picture is intriguing.

It could be a warning to journalists not to sensationalize sensitive issues such as the Occupy Central protest movement. This is because doing so might jeopardize Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland and derail efforts to help Hong Kong gain from a booming Chinese economy.

If Li’s remarks were subtle and restrained, those by Wang Guangya were blunt, especially on media coverage of the Occupy Central movement 

At a sensitive time in the political reform debate, he urged Hong Kong media to play an “active, positive role” in voicing opposition to the protest movement and to any attempts to bring chaos to the city.

Wang said media should “let people know most people are opposed to such behavior [Occupy Central] and understand confrontation is not in the long-term interest of Hong Kong and will only bring damage”.

Such a scenario might be far-fetched, but perhaps not. Wang’s remarks could be a rallying call to get the media to join the pushback against Occupy Central in the court of public opinion.

Wang’s comments reflect the communist authorities’ attitude toward the role of media in the mainland, which is sharply different from the widely held view about media in Hong Kong and other free societies.

The remarks raised questions about whether the independence of Hong Kong’s press would be compromised if Beijing were to become more assertive and aggressive in lobbying, if not putting pressure, on the city’s journalists to adopt the mainland thinking.

No doubt public opinion will be one of the most important factors in the looming showdown over the 2017 chief executive election.

The Beijing leadership will have enormous difficulty if the Occupy Central movement succeeds in mobilizing a significant number of participants who are prepared to risk jail for genuine universal suffrage.

Getting more media outlets on board to oppose the movement is seen by Beijing as a wise tack to dissuade people planning to join the movement.

If successful, Beijing may stand a better chance of winning the battle for people’s hearts and minds in regard to Occupy Central. But it risks costing Hong Kong some degree of press freedom that Leung so effusively talked about.

Chris Yeung is deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. This column appears every Friday.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]



He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.