1997 in Hong Kong (HK) demonstrated a remarkable power shift within the public sector. The United Kingdom’s hundred year lease came to a close, not to be renewed, and the city changed from a British colony into the Chinese administered Special Administrative Region (SAR) that we know today.
Two decades on the private sector that was nurtured by the former British administration is now unsettling the city-state’s fundamental power dynamics. Curiously enough, economic liberalisation has led to a perceived conglomeration of HK’s state power. The ruling elite are seen not unlike their new overlords in Beijing as they continue to navigate the tricky path between independence and economic integration with the mainland.
This article first appeared here at Kyle’s blog, Keywords. It has been edited and re-posted with the authors permission.
Media leashed and muzzled
The most visible changes since the change-over relate to Hong Kong’s media outlets. Public/private ownership of news-corporations remains complicated – whilst independent commissions have worked hard to eliminate corruption, the prosperity of the city-state has driven media-collusion and an attitude of not wanting to stir up the main-land government.
A phenomenon known as “self-censorship” has in many ways crippled media independence more than any oversight from Beijing could have. Media outlets are increasingly becoming the subliminal figures of China’s state-owned interests as they walk the tight-rope between neutrality and adherence to the political-economic interests of majority shareholders. Tension and conflict, after-all, is bad for business.
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Prior to 1997, journalists wrote stories aligned with the political sentiments of the majority in what is called the “transmission model”. Now, they self-censor, granting Beijing a subliminal control over the city-state and how it thinks.
The new status-quo
Since Hong Kong rapidly liberalised its economy in 1997, which ironically, has worked against the city that has worked so hard to maintain its independence.
Hyper-competitiveness within the mass-media mean that advertisements and investment were not only now tied to profitability, but also a political agenda. In trying to remain distant from the politics of independence, the media has in many ways subverted it as well as itself.
Journalists often unaligned with external influences have now almost habitually self-regulated issues on the presumption of economic and personal safety. It should be noted that whilst this did occur pre-1997’s handover, the media has played a key role in Hong Kong’s struggle for identity. It has acted as the local government’s promoter, critic and business partner which has in turn altered their adherence to journalistic integrity according to each.
Three key moments:
The paradox of Hong Kong’s media being both the city’s voice and simultaneously it’s own muzzle are clearly seen in three instances:
- Citizens promoting democratic principle to ‘not bend in the wind’, whilst recognising PRC integration as inevitable
- Mass media engaging in “split coverage”. Bowing to political-economic agendas in their reporting, whilst simultaneously protesting against media control
- Finally the state suppresses social activism like the ‘Umbrella Movement’, whilst ‘Hong Kong’s stature is regarded as a bastion of press freedom in Asia’
Prior to 1997, the United Kingdom granted its colonial subjects a wider platform for political engagement. Where once the media worked as a tool for political accountability on the political establishment, it is now blinded by the driver of profit.
Where once the media was divided between Kuomintang sponsors and their adversaries, the political divide now stems from China’s state-owned enterprises versus independent entities that struggle to maintain Hong Kong’s ideals.
Part of the problem lies with the paradoxical actions of the city’s three main forces – State, Media, and Citizenry whose interactions have shaped the current political landscape. As an internationally connected city, knowledge is a certainty, shaping the conflicting push-pull of closer integration with the mainland and desire for independence.
Twenty years on from the handover, the political landscape is shifting once again. This time the desire for profits may be doing Hong Kong more harm than good.
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