The BBC’s plan to relocate its Chinese news service from Britain to Hong Kong has been slammed by staff and journalists as “cynical, illogical and plain mad” amid growing concerns over the state of press freedom in the territory and China.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), a trade union based in the UK and Ireland, called the plans a “bow to Beijing” and noted recent events which posed a threat to press freedom in the city. It cited the sacking of a top Ming Pao editor, the change in ownership of South China Morning Post, and the case of the missing booksellers.

bbc chinese
BBC Chinese news site.

National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said that the move would “jeopardise the safety of BBC staff”, and that it puts the focus on journalists critical of Beijing. “[They will not] have the security of a British passport to protect them from the potential wrath of the Beijing regime,” it said on Monday.

‘Stabbed in the back’

The international broadcaster’s World Service staff also reacted strongly to the plans. In response, they sent a letter to former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, the Foreign Office and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, saying that Chinese-speaking UK journalists have been “stabbed in the back again and again by the BBC’s management”, the Guardian reported on Monday.

national union journalists
The National Union of Journalists. Photo: Wikicommons.

Staff were concerned that the move “grossly underestimates the level of threat posed by the Chinese regime in Hong Kong to both BBC editorial integrity and safety of BBC journalists”.

NUJ criticised the plan as being “cynical, illogical and plain mad”, particularly during a time of “increased Chinese media censorship, continued harassment and arbitrary arrest of journalists,” the letter said.

Outperformed by competitors

In an internal email obtained by the Guardian, the BBC World Service Head of Language Liliane Landor told director of news James Harding that the news services’ reach had been unsatisfactory and that they were being outperformed by their competitors, even when they took into account China’s censorship constraints.

Landor then proposed restructuring the team and basing most of the roles in Hong Kong “where they will be in the right time zone to serve the audience, and in the best place to produce more original and relevant content.”

While the move is expected to save around £300,000 (HK$3,374,339), staff said that the BBC World Service had in fact already been given significant funding by the government for the purposes of expanding its services in China and other countries.

Paul Rasmussen, Communications Manager at BBC World Service, told HKFP that the change was driven by a desire to improve the reach in China, and that it would help them explore new ways to get around the web censorship. “In a fiercely competitive market, we need more first-hand reporting in China and cannot continue relying on content produced in London, nine hours behind the relevant time zone,” he said in an email.

“While safety is always of paramount importance, BBC Chinese staff are able to report from Hong Kong independently and without interference from authorities, and we believe this will continue in Hong Kong which hosts regional headquarters and offices for more than a 100 leading international media organizations,” he continued.

Press freedom concerns

According to various reports from international watchdogs, press freedom in Hong Kong has been in continuous decline and Hongkongers’ satisfaction with press freedom has hit record lows.

press freedom
Photo: HKFP.

In China, President Xi Jinping has tightened the Communist Party’s control over the media. Journalists are routinely arrested and detained, and pieces critical of the country’s leadership are regularly censored.

According to the Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index, the United Kingdom ranks 38th and Hong Kong takes 69th place in the world. China ranks 176th out of 180 countries listed.

Karen cheung hong kong

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.