It’s a salutary thought that a harsh jail sentence, a heavy fine or perhaps more severe forms of punishment could face anyone contemplating launching something akin to the Hong Kong Free Press across the border.

I mention this not to tweak the interest of the enemies of free speech in Hong Kong but to provide a timely reminder that despite the many challenges the Special Administrative Region faces, the one country, two system concept still has some meaning but its preservation can hardly be taken for granted.

Hong Kong Free Press would not be tolerated in the mainland.

That there has been some erosion of the two systems part of this equation is beyond question. Shamefully, those mainly responsible for this process of erosion are the so-called government leaders who are charged, under the terms of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, to defend the SAR’s autonomy.

When it comes to media matters, a key issue in the defence of liberty, media company owners don’t waiting for orders from Beijing to extinguish dissident voices and opinions but have plunged ahead to perform this task without prompting. Naturally they expect to be rewarded; maybe with honours or appointment to prestigious posts but most of all they are intent on securing the continuity of their privileged position in the SAR.

How does the process of pleasing Beijing work in the media? It usually starts with a ‘personnel shuffle’; this is a euphemism for sacking and promotions. Assurances are solemnly given that this has nothing to do with politics; instead it is explained away with management-speak language of ‘new opportunities’ and ‘forward looking changes’.

Next up is a change of tone, rapidly followed by a change of substance. ‘Negative’ radio and television programmes are taken off the air. ‘Natural shrinkage’ occurs among journalists who ‘waste resources’ with prolonged investigations into matters the authorities would prefer not to be investigated. This is accompanied by much shoulder shrugging and declarations about a shortage of funds. Meanwhile the balance of reporting shifts in ways designed to please the masters up North.

Journalists who populate news media opinion pages cannot be dismissed on grounds of cost alone, because it is well known that opinion is relatively cheap. So in this instance we hear humming to the tune of ‘the need for new voices’ that, by remarkable coincidence, seem to be marching to a tune that pleases the ears of those in power. However ‘to maintain balance’ a number of writers, of the type famously characterized by V.I. Lenin as ‘useful idiots’, are brought into the picture to pen hand-wringing ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ -type pieces which tread a careful line but end up on a trajectory tilted towards the dictates of Beijing.

More aggressive, and lamentably already seen in Hong Kong, is the physical intimidation of high profile journalists, such as Ming Pao’s Kevin Lau, who was severely beaten up to send a message requiring no words.’

A press freedom protest in Hong Kong. Photo: Leung Ching Yau Alex via Flickr.

Drip by drip Hong Kong’s cherished tradition of media freedom is being eroded. Before too much sentimentality sets in it should be noted that this tradition is relatively new because for most of the colonial period the mainstream media shamelessly served the interests of the government and big business with an active sideshow run by the two main political parties: the Communists and KMT.

Arguably it was not until the late 1970s when something akin to an independent media began to emerge with any kind of force. However the scent of independence was strong and the non-aligned media flourished, even forcing the government-controlled RTHK to become an independently minded public broadcaster.

The advent of the Internet, bringing with it citizen journalism, blogs from every direction and a plethora of on-line publications, has done much to revive the tradition of a free press. The established media has much to fear from the challenges of net-based alternatives but in terms of resources this is a battle of David versus Goliath. David is nimble and resourceful and does not necessary need to slay Goliath to remain on the battlefield, just being there is quite enough, not least because it keeps the Goliaths of the media world on their toes.

A David versus Goliath battle.

However out in the wilds of the Internet anything goes and the ridiculous thrives along with those making serious attempts to produce a decent news service. There are no guarantees of success, survival or even a chance to sway public perceptions but at the end of the day Internet readership sorts itself out. This means that by and large purveyors of accurate and interesting information prevail while those who operate in the badlands are confined to this space.

The bottom line is that the old media elite no longer has the power to control the media. This is something vividly understood in Beijing where enormous resources are poured into the task of controlling, censoring and influencing the billions of people who go online for information.

Meanwhile the space open to a free media in Hong Kong is infinitely larger than it is across the border. History will deliver a severe judgment on a failure to fill this space.


Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster and runs companies in the food sector. He was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent. Vines is the author of several books, including: Hong Kong: China’s New Colony, The Years of Living Dangerously - Asia from Crisis to the New Millennium and Market Panic and most recently, Food Gurus. He hosts a weekly television current affairs programme: The Pulse.