Express railway: Public interest announcement or political ad?

August 17, 2017 08:00
A huge controversy is bubbling over the government's proposal to lease parts of the West Kowloon terminus for joint immigration clearance for the express railway. Photo: MTR

It costs a lot of money to buy TV and radio air time for political ads in the US. That's why politicians and political parties start to raise funds well ahead of elections. The US government, regardless of which party is in power, does not have the right to order TV and radio stations to run political ads for free. Donald Trump's Republican Party now controls the White House and both houses of Congress. But it has no power to force TV and radio stations, whether local ones or the national networks to air free political ads to benefit the ruling party.

Hong Kong has political parties of varying ideologies but it doesn’t have a party system. Instead, it has an executive-led government headed by an undemocratically elected chief executive who is not allowed to belong to a political party. The bureaucracy takes orders from the chief executive and the bureau heads he or she appoints.

Yet in Hong Kong the government has the power to order TV and radio stations to run ads, including during prime time, for free. This power is written into the licenses the government issues to the electronic media. The ads TV and radio stations are forced to broadcast are called announcements of public interest or APIs. Originally, these APIs were intended solely to raise public awareness of such things as littering, landslides, and proper motorist and pedestrian rules to avoid accidents. That's fine although in my opinion the government should still pay commercial TV and radio stations to broadcast such messages because airtime is a valuable commodity. Or at least make airing APIs voluntary as in some countries.

But in recent years the government has swayed from the original intent of APIs. A perfect example are the APIs that have been flooding the airwaves recently about the express railway that links Hong Kong with the mainland's high-speed railway network. Aside from promoting the benefits of linking our express railway terminus at West Kowloon to key mainland cities, one API also touts the benefits of having joint immigration control at the terminus. That smacks of a political ad.

As we all know, a huge controversy is bubbling over the government's proposal to lease parts of the West Kowloon terminus for joint immigration clearance. Officials insist the full spectrum of mainland law must apply on Hong Kong soil in the leased areas for security reasons and to reap the full benefits of the railway. The opposition counters that the Basic Law prohibits mainland laws being enforced here. Opponents of joint immigration also fear mainland officials could abduct or arrest Hongkongers at West Kowloon. The two sides are locked in a battle to win over public opinion. Indeed, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s administration has admitted a public opinion war is under way.

If both sides are fighting a public opinion war on a political issue, it makes the government's express railway API a political ad, not an announcement of public interest. It is using the airwaves for free to fight a political battle. Under Hong Kong's rules for political ads, the opposition can’t even buy airtime to counter the government's API. We, therefore, have a situation where commercial TV and radio stations are forced to air the government's viewpoint for free but are not allowed to air the other side of the story even if the opposition is willing to buy airtime.

Let me make clear I am all for the express railway. The through-train from Hung Hom to Guangzhou is slow and prone to delays. I was so frustrated once by a delay of well over one hour that I emailed MTR chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang to complain. The Lo Wu crossing involves riding the perennially packed East Rail and long immigration lines on the mainland side. My view is if you choose to travel to the mainland, it makes no difference if you go through two separate border checkpoints at Lo Wu or other crossing or a joint checkpoint at West Kowloon. If the mainland authorities want to nab you for any reason they can easily do so once you are physically on the mainland.

Former Hong Kong University law dean Johannes Chan Man-mun's claim that doing southbound immigration clearance on board trains in Shenzhen will take no more than 15 minutes shows how clueless he is. I don’t know how often he travels to the mainland, if he even does, or if he is banned from doing so. But surely he knows, or should know, not all express railway passengers will be Hongkongers with electronic thumb-reading home return permits. Passengers will include foreigners travelling on passports and mainlanders with the country’s travel documents.

I travel on a US passport that requires a China visa, as do most other foreign passports. I can say from personal experience it can take well over 30 minutes to clear mainland immigration at Lo Wu if there is a tour group or even about 15 people using passports lining up in front of you. Mainland immigration officials are meticulous in checking passport photos, visas, and entry/exit forms which foreign passport holders must fill. Short-haul express trains can seat 579 passengers. From personal experience, completing immigration procedures in 15 minutes is impossible unless there are many dozens of Hong Kong and mainland immigration officials on board each train with some checking passports and others thumb-reading home return permits.

But if the government wants to promote the benefits of the express railway in a public opinion war, it should pay for the privilege of using electronic media airtime. Or it should allow free airtime for the opposition, too. If that is not possible, then the government should end its API on the express railway. Masking a political ad as an API is being dishonest with the public.

The time has come for the government to either make the airing of APIs voluntary or tighten its own rules so it cannot mask a political ad as an API. It is grossly unfair to commercial TV and radio stations to give up precious airtime for free. If the government insists on APIs, it should stick to the original intent or broadcast them only on the government-owned and funded RTHK, which now has five TV channels. Or it can put them only on the internet. That way, the opposition can fight a public opinion war with the government in a fair way.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.