As Beijing is about to unveil the electoral framework for the 2017 chief executive election, the need to win the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong people has become even more urgent.
With the pan-democratic groups grabbing media attention with their massive protest actions and threats to launch civil disobedience as they press their demands for electoral reform, the central government has to move fast to gain the people’s support for its policies and assert its rule over the special administrative region.
It is in this context that we should look at the decision of Wen Wei Po, a pro-Beijing newspaper, to enter the already crowded free newspaper market in the city. The newspaper will be distributed free of charge on the streets and selected institutions such as schools, government agencies and organizations.
The obvious goal is to reach more readers and exert more influence in society.
Wen Wei Po has never been a major player in the local newspaper market. It may be privately owned but its symbiotic relationship with Beijing cannot be denied. Its editorial content is clearly supportive of the policies and programs of the central government, while its advertising revenue mainly comes from government agencies and government-backed institutions on the mainland.
However, it lags far behind the major local newspapers in terms of circulation. That presents a problem. Its impact as a Beijing supporter, if not mouthpiece, in Hong Kong is diminished if does not enjoy as many readers as its competitors have. It will also find it hard to justify its role as advertising vehicle of mainland institutions given its limited reach.
Such contradictions have been kept in the background for as long as both sides serve each other’s purpose — the newspaper providing the editorial backing for Beijing, and Beijing assuring the newspaper of the wherewithal to continue its operation in a highly competitive business.
But as political tensions heighten in the city, there is a growing need for Wen Wei Po to gain more editorial firepower to support the Hong Kong administration and its Beijing backers against the rising tide of political opposition. Hence, the move to make Wen Wei Po a free newspaper.
In one fell swoop, the newspaper can boost its circulation and readership, extending its reach and influence in the community, while justifying the advertising support coming from across the border. Never mind if we will never know whether the copies are really being read or taken by elderly people for recycling. Beijing will be happy about the circulation figures, and perhaps even take it as a sign of growing support for its policies in Hong Kong.
Beijing used to adopt a low profile in the city’s media landscape, aware of how much Hong Kong people value their press freedom. But the move taken by Wen Wei Po suggests that Beijing officials have changed their mindset. They are now keen on competing with the opposition on various fronts, including in the media arena.
By claiming a readership that is double or triple its circulation (given the pass-along readership), Wen Wei Po can easily engage Next Media’s Apple Daily, which has more than one million readers for its print and online editions.
Since Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying took the helm two years ago, his supporters have been running several news websites including Speakout.HK and Hong Kong Good News, which together recorded more than 30,000 likes on Facebook. The pages are competing for eyeballs with several pro-democracy platforms such as Apple Daily and House News, which shut down last Saturday. The war has been raging for quite some time.
With media being a business enterprise, some Hong Kong media outlets appear to be turning pro-Beijing to protect their owners’ business interests in the city and across the border. Some are feeling the pressure to lighten up on their criticism of the government.
It will be a sad day, indeed, if instead of critical and penetrating articles on current affairs, all we read in the newspapers are variations of government slogans and policy documents.
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