While the eyes of the world focus on Iraq and its neighbors, China quietly squeezes Hong Kong’s independent media. As July marks Hong Kong’s seventh year within China, nothing as brutal as 1989’s Tiananmen Massacre looms. Still, Beijing signals, with varying degrees of subtlety, that Hong Kong’s press should avoid trivialities like democracy and human rights. With equal firmness, American officials and journalists should remind China of its treaty and moral obligations to let Hong Kong’s 6.8 million people say and write whatever floats their junks.
Joseph Zen, Hong Kong’s Catholic bishop, recently urged local journalists to “expose the facts without manipulation” and “provoke anger when necessary.” The Hong Kong Journalists Association, the Foreign Correspondents Club, and other groups have denounced what Freedom House executive director Jennifer Windsor calls “an assault on the press emanating from Beijing.”
Three talk-radio hosts in particular have seen their pro-democracy views cause them huge problems.
Albert “Taipan” Cheng quit his commercial-radio show, Teacup in a Storm, and moved to Europe May 2 after three men vandalized his trading company’s office with red paint. Two weeks later, Cheng’s co-host, Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong, left the air and departed Hong Kong after sustaining similar damage at his restaurant and receiving warnings about “extermination by patriotic forces.”
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported July 10 that an entertainment executive with a rap sheet and mob ties told Cheng and Wong that a ministry of state security official was not a fan. The businessman said the official wanted them out of Hong Kong for a while, but they could ask him for lost wages.
Allen Lee, Cheng’s replacement, lasted less than three weeks. Louis Chan of the official China Daily publicly criticized Lee. “Hosts of phone-in programs tend to adopt unique styles and make sensational remarks to boost the rating of the shows,” Chan wrote May 15. Though tame by U.S. standards, bad reviews from Beijing rattle Hong Kongers’ nerves.
Three days later, things got scary.
Scotland on Sunday’s Ian Mather revealed July 4 that Cheng Shousan, a retired Mainland foreign-ministry official, called Lee late on May 18. “He told me my wife was very virtuous and my daughter was very beautiful,” Lee said, “and that they had left a deep impression in his mind.”
Lee left Teacup in a Storm the next day.
Why squelch radio hosts? “Unlike newspapers from Hong Kong, which could be stopped at the border, radio waves could easily be picked up on the mainland,” Stanford University journalism professor William Woo explained in the June 3 San Jose Mercury News. “We began to think of talk radio as the canary in the coal mine of Hong Kong’s media.” He now laments, “One by one, the canaries in the coal mine are going silent.”
In some quarters, this elicits shrugs. Many a Hong Kong businessman does Beijing’s bidding, hoping to convert fealty to Red China into a fistful of yuan.
“My paper is under constant advertising boycott,” complains Kin-Ming Liu, managing editor of the Chinese-language Apple Daily (which occasionally publishes my columns). It criticizes Beijing. Consequently, local merchants avoid its pages rather than irritate Mainland functionaries.
Even worse, Leung Man-tao, Teacup’s current host, told SCMP’s Elaine Wu that after Cheng and Wong stopped broadcasting, about a dozen Hong Kong businessmen journeyed to Beijing to impress officials by taking credit for their departures.
Democracy activists, who want all local leaders popularly elected, also are under fire. The foreign ministry’s Yang Wenchang told reporters last month that Beijing found unacceptable the activists’ slogan, “End one-party dictatorship.” The once-Maoist battle cry, “Return power to the people,” today rankles Beijing.
Even local lawmakers feel the heat. Emily Lau is a pro-democracy legislative councilor. On June 21, posters for a July 1 march were set ablaze outside her district office. (Nonetheless, 530,000 citizens trudged through 98-degree temperatures on Hong Kong’s hottest July 1 ever.) On Lau’s walls, someone wrote: “Chinese traitors must die.” Days later, District Councilor Ray Au’s office also suffered similar arson and graffiti.
China’s half-Communist, half-capitalist rulers should sip some green tea and relax. Hong Kong’s residents are not plotting a long march on Beijing to dislodge them. Hong Kongers simply want what Deng Xiaoping’s and Margaret Thatcher’s Joint Declaration promised once the sun set on this corner of the British empire in 1997: “One Country, Two Systems,” as the motto goes. It’s not too much to ask that Beijing’s mandarins leave Hong Kong’s people free while China expands at a projected eight percent this year alone.