The South China Morning Post is a remarkable publication. This year it is expected to make 70m profit on a circulation of just 117,000. But then it is the leading English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, one of the richest territories in the world, with near-saturation coverage of the colony’s English-speaking élite.
Now the Post is under attack in the run-up to the return of Hong Kong to mainland China on June 30. Its critics say it’s selling out.
Its journalists, they maintain, are engaging in self-censorship, avoiding anything too contentious or which smacks of criticism of the authorities in Beijing. The editor has had imposed on him a mainland Chinese “consultant”, interpreted as a de facto censor. The paper has adopted an excessively deferential attitude towards Tung Chee-wha, Hong Kong’s incoming chief executive and the Beijing-appointed successor to the last British governor, Chris Patten.
Sitting in his 28th-floor office, with a spectacular view of Hong Kong harbour, the charges are vehemently denied by the Post’s editor Jonathan Fenby, who took up the job two years ago after an unhappy stint as the first Guardian-appointed editor of The Observer.
Fenby says his consultant is just that – someone with valuable local knowledge to advise on coverage of the mainland and on business and editorial ventures there. There is no self-censorship on the paper: the Post’s ten-strong editorial team reporting on China doesn’t pull its punches. The paper actually gives its biggest critic space for a regular column. And it writes so much about Tung and his incoming government because Hong Kong’s handover to China is the only story in town.
But the debate raging around the Post is representative of a much wider argument in Hong Kong over what happens to the media once the colony has become a “Special Administrative Region” of communist China, which has pledged to maintain Hong Kong’s distinctive character under a formula known as “one country, two systems”.
Hong Kong’s people consume a great deal of media. There are a dozen daily newspapers, and scores of magazines, including a few run by China-watching dissidents who fled the mainland. There are four television channels and about ten radio stations.
Beijing’s supporters in the colony say none of this need be affected by the handover. The “Basic Law” of the territory agreed by the British and Chinese guarantees freedom of expression, provided journalists don’t advocate treason, sedition, secession from China or subversion.
Stick to facts, don’t report rumours and avoid arguing for independence from China for Tibet or Taiwan (or, indeed Hong Kong itself) and you’ll be OK, they say.
Some go further. Robert Chua, a Hong Kong-based television producer, has been doing business with mainland China since 1979. Today his company, CETV (China Entertainment Television), runs one of only two foreign-owned Chinese-language channels allowed onto mainland Chinese cable systems.
CETV’s formula for success with the Chinese authorities is simple: no sex, no violence, no news. The pragmatic Chua argues that Western obsessions with press freedom are out of place: Hong Kong is a Chinese society where people trust their government to get on with its job. Campaigners for media freedom are rocking the boat and making life difficult for everyone else.
It seems quite plausible that his views are shared by the majority of Hong Kong Chinese, who want a quiet life and the freedom to get on with making money. But journalists – and not just Western ones – see it rather differently.
Joyce Barnathan, bureau chief for Business Week magazine in Hong Kong, says a free economy and the free flow of information are “inextricably linked”. Hong Kong’s continued success as a commercial and financial centre depends on a free press. Not reporting “rumours” simply isn’t plausible for financial journalists when some rumours (that someone in the Chinese leadership is ill, for instance) can move markets.
Local journalists want the freedom to report the corruption that is endemic in China and threatens to undermine Hong Kong, and to report political opponents of the regime without being told that by doing so they are themselves “advocating” subversion.
Outspoken journalism is a relatively recent phenomenon in Hong Kong, a product of the democracy which itself has only developed in the past ten years. Before that, much reporting in the Hong Kong media was apparently characterised by what one commentator calls “the colonial cringe”.
Now, once again, journalists are having to play safe and tread carefully – not least because many work for news organisations whose proprietors (like the Post’s owner, Robert Kuok) have extensive business interests in mainland China which they are reluctant to jeopardise.
There are some doughty dissidents – like commercial radio presenter Albert Cheng, whose daily stock in trade is controversy, and Huang Yumin, editor of Dian Gou Daily, or Mad Dog, which mixes pungent political comment with racing tips. They are determined to carry on regardless. Huang says if his paper can survive, then freedom of speech is a reality.
But talking to journalists in Hong Kong, both Chinese and English-speaking, it’s clear that many believe their profession is already knuckling under. If that’s true it could be ominous for Hong Kong’s commercial future – and for the ability of its media to expose any future abuses of human rights.