The Hong Kong government has spent around HK$1 million taxpayer money this year on sponsoring journalists from mainland China and overseas to cover major events in the city, including the recent Belt and Road Summit.

8th Belt and Road Initiative
The eighth Belt and Road Initiative. Photo: GovHK.

The Information Services Department (ISD) paid for 15 journalists from mainland China, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Poland and Hungary to cover the summit held on September 13 and 14, a government document supplied to the legislature showed.

Among them were reporters and editors, two thirds of them from mainland China.

The sponsored visits were part of a government-run programme to invite journalists from mainland China and overseas to visit the city and report on major events or activities. Foreign and mainland Chinese journalists were encouraged to “see for themselves the latest development in the city,” the ISD said last week in response to HKFP’s enquiries.

Full list of journalists sponsored by the Hong Kong government to cover the 8th Belt and Road Summit
CountryName Media organisationPosition
South KoreaSon IlsunMaeil Business NewspaperBeijing Bureau Chief
ThailandThongchai CholsiripongToday BizviewEditor
IndonesiaRoni YuniantoBisnis IndonesiaSenior journalist
PolandKarolina WójcickaDziennik Gazeta PrawnaReporter
HungaryLorina BudaORIGOEditor
ChinaWang YananHebnews.cnDeputy editor-in-chief
ChinaZhao NaizhengJilin Daily Senior reporter
ChinaLiu LiangEconomic DailyDeputy assignment editor
ChinaZhou ZhihengHunan Daily Reporter
ChinaCao LijuanDongguan DailyReporter
ChinaGuo BeichenHenan Daily Reporter
ChinaLan NanSichuan Daily Reporter
ChinaFu BidongKunming Daily Director of the economic news centre
ChinaZhou ChengyiJiefang DailyReporter
ChinaQian XiaoyanYicai.comReporter

The department’s Overseas Public Relations Sub-division told HKFP last week that the programme has been running for years, but it had been suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The journalists sponsored journalists mainly came from countries, regions or cities covered by the Hong Kong government’s offices overseas and in mainland China, the ISD said. The composition of the journalists in sponsored trips also varied based on the theme and nature of each trip, it added.

Media press freedom journalist
Members of the press. File photo: GovHK.

“ISD started inviting journalists to visit Hong Kong again this year as cross-boundary and global travel resumed normal,” the department said an emailed reply.

Asked how much the sponsored visits cost, the ISD said about HK$1 million has been spent on the programme so far in the financial year of 2023/24.

Sponsored journalist visits were usually tied to major events in the city, such as InnoEX and Digital Economy Summit, the Belt and Road Summit, and the Asian Financial Forum, ISD said. The department would arrange briefings, interviews and visits for the journalists during their stay in the city, it said.

“Depending on the nature and theme of the events, the ISD will invite appropriate media outlets and journalists to cover them,” the department said, without elaborating on how or why the 15 journalist journalists were selected to be sponsored.

According to figures supplied by the ISD, the government spent around HK$2.3 million on sponsoring journalist visits in 2017/18, while the spending fell to around HK$2 million in 2018/19. It dropped further in 2019/20, when around HK$1.4 million taxpayer was used on financing such visits.

According to the ISD’s financial estimates submitted in February, the department assisted three visiting journalists and film crews in 2020 and four the following year, before the number rose to 41 in 2022. The low figures were due to travel restrictions amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which essentially barred non residents from coming to the city, ISD said.

The department estimated at the time that it would assist 100 journalists and film crews in 2023.

Offering assistance to visiting journalists and film crews was listed as one of the indicators for evaluating the ISD’s performance in respect of its publicity work outside Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong government spent HK$191.1 million in 2022-2023 on public relations outside Hong Kong, which aimed to promote a “favourable image of Hong Kong” internationally and in mainland China. It earmarked HK$182.4 million for the 2023-2024 financial year.

At the summit held earlier this month, government officials from more than 10 countries, business leaders, and more than 35 state-owned enterprises were among the nearly 6,000 people who joined the event. It was the first Belt and Road Summit held since Hong Kong dropped its Covid-19 restrictions earlier this year.

8th Belt and Road Summit John Lee
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee delivers a speech at the opening ceremony of the 8th Belt and Road Summit on September 13, 2023. Photo: GovHK.

Chief Executive John Lee said at the opening ceremony that this year’s event also commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative, one of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policies that has seen Beijing invest in infrastructure in more than 100 countries, many of them in the Global South.

Supporters of the strategy say it will help boost trade and raise gross domestic product in participating nations. Critics, however, have called it a Trojan horse designed to increase China’s influence.

“This year’s summit is, I’m pleased to note, the first in-person, face-to-face edition since we moved on from Covid. We are opened up, once again, to doing what we do best: creating a world of opportunity,” Lee said in a speech delivered in English at the summit.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.