Tag Archives: press freedom

Justin Bieber in Hong Kong? Nope it’s a tubby Tory in a suit.

21 Mar

Hong Kong colonial flagI was in Beijing last week (gratuitous photo-porn post coming soon) and had the strangest experience. Everyone was actually pretty friendly. I mean, not bend-over-backwards have-a-nice-day friendly but, you know, civil. I was not shouted at, hockled on or barged out of a queue. It was a thoroughly relaxing weekend.

All of which made me think how parochial and moany Hong Kongers can be, especially on the thorny issue of mainland tourist “locusts”. I’m not saying the big city types of Beijing are representative of the entire Middle Kingdom, certainly they’re not of the tourists who swarm the streets of Tsim Tsa Chui. But Hong Kong’s NIMBY shrillness is increasingly getting on my wick.

Or at least it was, until a couple of days ago when this little rocky outcrop of 7 million people outdid itself. The occasion? Last British governor of the former colony and current BBC Trust boss Chris Patten was in town to open an exhibition at the Maritime Museum. Now we all know colonial era Hong Kong flags are increasingly being waved about by protesters a) to get on the nerves of the Communist Party b) to protest against what many see as an erosion of civil liberties, press freedom and rule of law here and c) because the Union flag is, quite frankly, a design classic. But the bizarre scenes which greeted Patten’s appearance outside the museum last night took the colonial love-in to a whole new level.

I’m pretty sure portly Patten has never received quite so rapturous a reception. He didn’t really know what to do with himself as God Save the Queen started blaring from a nearby loudspeaker and fans holding banners such as “Dear Governor Patten, we miss you so much” and shouting “we love you” jostled to get a view of the tubby Tory. Some had even waited over 3 hours to catch a glimpse of their silver haired hero, who by now presumably thinks he’s some kind of grey-suited rock star.

The irony, of course, as we’ve mentioned many times on the Noodle, is that Britain never made much of an effort while it was in charge here to transition to a system of government democratically elected by universal suffrage. On the other hand, what it did manage was to uphold those precious civil liberties pretty well. Following the recent knife attack on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau, two execs from the soon-to-be-launched Hong Kong Morning News were attacked in broad daylight this week by four men armed with iron bars. Hong Kong is an increasingly dangerous place to be a newspaperman.

The saddest sight during the Patten-love in for a definite article pedant like me, however, was one of the banners held up by his adoring fans. “Save us from the hell!” it read. Hmmm. I imagine another might have added: “Look what’s happened since you left us Chris. All our grammar are wrong now!”

Hong Kong’s press freedom knifed in the back

27 Feb

It’s a rather sombre Noodle entry this week after the shocking news that former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau Chun-to is in critical condition after being attacked near his home by a knife wielding motorcycle “hitman”.

For those not familiar, Lau was recently removed from his role as chief editor of the independent Chinese language daily and replaced by a pro-Beijinger in a move widely seen as yet another attempt to muzzle Hong Kong’s press freedom.

Just last weekend 6,000 protestors gathered in the wake of Lau’s demotion and a growing sense that Beijing is increasingly interfering in their SAR’s affairs in a way which is undermining the “one country, two systems” ideal HK was founded on post-97.

Ming Pao has apparently put up a HK$1m reward for info leading to the arrest of Lau’s attackers, who struck around 10.30am on Wednesday as he was walking from a breakfast eatery in Sai Wan Ho Street, Shau Kei Wan.

The 49-year-old was apparently slashed three times by the motorbike passenger, once on each leg and another cut exposing his chest cavity and lungs.

Police “sources” told the SCMP “it was a classic Triad hit”, intended to “warn him”, and presumably any other outspoken journalists in Hong Kong.

So is it really a Triad hit? And in that case, are the Triads now carrying out the will of the Communist Party?

Getting local gangsters to do their dirty work would certainly enable a canny bit of plausible deniability on the part of the latter. Just as it manages to keep arms length from any cyber incursions on foreign targets, so using the HK underworld as a proxy would keep Xi and co’s hands nice and clean, whilst scaring the crap out of outspoken local editors (if there are any left).

It’s not a given though. The criminal underground gangs of Hong Kong have historically been fiercely pro-China (ie anti-British/Russian/American etc) but not necessarily pro CPC. Is it simply that, like most local businessmen, Triad leaders don’t want to see the press rile their Beijing-allied business interests?

Or is this all just a massive bit of misdirection? A third party using the MO of the Triads to confuse the cops….

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club had the following statement:

The Club reiterates its view that the growing number of attacks against members of the press in Hong Kong needs to be taken seriously by the local administration. Hong Kong’s reputation as a free and international city will suffer if such crimes go unsolved and unpunished.

No shit. There were 18 attacks on HK hacks in 2012, compared with one or two assaults in previous years, according to the HK Journalists’ Association. It’s still low compared to some repressive regimes, but then, Hong Kong is nominally a rule of law kinda place.

Either way there’s about as much chance of the perp being caught as charismatic CY Leung hosting his own prime-time BBC1 chat show. No-one really wants them caught, despite the tough words of the SAR government. Imagine the face-loss involved in HK and Beijing if they were? The police are clueless and incapable, even if they wanted to. Whoever did it probably slipped over the border many hours ago.

So where does that leave Hong Kong and its rapidly diminishing press freedom? Well, it’ll certainly be a few more positions down on RWB’s Press Freedom Index this time next year, that’s for sure.

I said last week that self censorship was the most insidious type of censorship because it’s virtually impossible for the public to find out how or why a story has been altered or spiked to suit the political leanings of its editors. Well, with the added incentive of “not getting knifed”, I’m pretty sure from now on there’ll be more journalistic punch-pulling going on in Hong Kong.

The brilliant thing about creating a climate of fear is that you only have to sanction something like this once and human nature will do the rest.

Warning: make contain whistles

14 Jun

whistleThis week I have to write a little bit about this guy who blew someone’s whistle. I’m not sure if it was technically his whistle or the US government’s whistle but it was bloody loud enough to get everyone’s attention and now you can’t move for news of him. I’m talking of course about Edward Snowden, the former IT bod at defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton who became China’s new favourite person after fleeing to Hong Kong to avoid capture by the US and possible charges of treason.

My observations are as follows:

IT technicians at defence contractors get paid too much. The Mira is a friggin’ swish hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui where Snowden was holed up, the inside of which I only ever get to see for IDC analyst conferences on virtualisation. Before that he was rumoured to be staying in the W. Seriously, this former information security engineer should be used as a poster boy to get more kids into IT: excitement, intrigue, a $200,000 a year salary, Hawaii home, a hot girlfriend who’s a professional pole dancer. And he still wasn’t happy? Some people. Let’s see how he likes the inside of Guantanamo.

Second; I can’t work out whether he’s incredibly naïve or very smart. Out of pure schadenfreude I’d quite like to see Snowden bundled into the back of a black van and never heard from again due to his decision to flee to Hong Kong because the people here “have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”. Part of that is true – people love complaining, usually with whistles, about the government and their rapidly eroding rights – but how often do they get their way? Only when it suits Beijing. Case in point, three pro-democracy activists have just been convicted of burning the HK flag in a protest. Seriously, in 2013 people are still getting done for that…

It doesn’t stop there. A Hong Kong Uni poll last month revealed the majority of people here (48 per cent) think the press in HK actively self censors, while Reporters Without Borders ranks it 58th on its World Press Freedom Index, four places down from 2012. Freedom House doesn’t rate Hong Kong too highly either – ranking it 71st in the world in terms of protection of civil liberties and listing it as only “partly free”.

This place exists in a “one country two systems” regime which protects civil liberties, press and internet freedoms and preserves the rule of law, unlike mainland China. But it’s never really been tested yet. The regime only continues to exist in this form because it allows HK to flourish as one of the world’s great financial capitals. In reality, the former British colony is ruled by property moguls and bankers and the politicians they elect and become; and who as a property mogul or financier wouldn’t want to appease Beijing with its huge coffers and vast potential market?

Having said this, I think on balance Snowden’s smarter than this.

He is appealing to HK-ers’ natural proclivity to fight for free speech, which they will do – again with whistles – at a rally on Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t matter that the free speech on this occasion is being threatened by the US rather than Chinese government. In fact, this unusual twist will also appeal to Beijing. Whether it’s part of the plan or not, he’s been making himself an attractive asset for the Party to keep hold of by disclosing some hugely embarrassing secrets about US state surveillance of its own citizens, as well as revelations of NSA hacking attacks on China and other countries. It’s all given the Communist Party huge leverage in the on-going cyber blame war with the US and will surely mean Beijing will not want to step in and over-rule Hong Kong’s decision on extradition – which could itself take forever.

save snowden

I should really be happy that the warrantless surveillance of citizens by US security agencies is being uncovered by an IT droid, but there are a few things that made me take an instant dislike to this guy.

First: “Edward”. The only people I know who actually use the full length version of this name are politicians, former kings of England and people trying to give themselves more gravitas than they innately possess. Unless it’s The Guardian that is trying to give Ed more gravitas than he innately possesses, in which case ignore me…

Second: The Guardian interview. Have you noticed how Snowden is at pains to say “I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me”, and that “my sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them”. Err, why didn’t you just try and stay anonymous then? Not easy, granted, but there is a touch of the Assange about his carefully rehearsed, media-friendly declamations.

Third: failure to grasp basic employment law. “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” he told The Grauniad. Again, I think you’ll find that disclosing top secret state-run surveillance programs is against the rules according to your former employer and possibly treasonous.

Fourth: I hate IT nerds in glasses and I can’t abide whistles.

That last one was a joke.

As for the future. Well, Hong Kong’s media unfriendly CEO CY Leung was giving nothing away in this cringe-worthy interview by what looked like a Bloomberg TV intern.

Despite the above rant, though, Death Noodle hopes Edward Snowden is able to stay exiled in Hong Kong for as long as possible. With any luck, until after 2047 when the “one country, two systems” rule runs out and he’ll finally be able to experience what it’s like to live in a proper tyrannical state. Although by then, no doubt, we’ll all be speaking bad Mandarin and defecating in lifts.

Southern Weekly saga: porridge, censorship and hacked off hacks in Xi’s China

10 Jan

chinaflagIt’s been a rather depressing, or optimistic, week in China depending on how you view the Party’s latest not-so-subtle attempts to strangle free speech and the unusually vocal reaction to it.

It all began when propaganda chief of the southern Guandong province, Tuo Zhen, decided he didn’t like an already edited-for-his-pleasure New Year’s message in the liberal-leaning Southern Weekly and decided to re-write it, removing the bits calling for reform and adding his own anodyne intro.

Considering China’s hacks already conform to imposing censorship requirements, the editorial team got rather peeved at this blatant hatchet job and went on strike.

Messages of support from scholars, students – and maybe more importantly, bloggers and celebs with tens of millions of followers on weibo – followed as the stand-off between the hacks and the Party-influenced paper management continued.

An editorial in state-run rag Global Times playing down the dispute was ordered by the Party to be published in papers across the country, forcing the principled Dai Zigeng, editor-in-chief of the Beijing News, to resign after he refused to do so.

Undeterred, the BJ Daily, as it’s called by no-one, ran a fascinating article about porridge in defiance of the Party. Yes. Porridge. Read CMP here for the reason why porridge is now politically dissident (hint: It involves homophones and metaphors).

All of this can be set against the backdrop of incoming Party and national leader Xi Jinping’s crusade for reform and transparency. Xi has made it his mission to root out corruption in the Party and sent some pretty strong signals so far that this isn’t just an attempt to cement his popularity and power base.

So is this a particularly sad day for freedom of speech in China’s admittedly pretty sad history? It depends what you believe is going on here.

To take the pessimistic view one could see the message coming loud and clear from the new administration that no relaxing of the country’s tough censorship laws will be allowed, despite initial hope that the country’s new leaders would be a tad more liberal.

A leaked directive sent to all editors from the Propaganda Department would seem to confirm this depressing take on things, blaming as it did the usual mythical “external hostile forces” for the development of the Southern Weekly situation and stating unequivocally: “Party control of the media is an unwavering basic principle”.

Coming from another angle, however, there are signs of encouragement.

One couldn’t expect Xi to stamp his personal mark too quickly on the presidency and the Party, in fact, he’s not even sworn in as pres until March and Party-wise the incoming leader is usually hidebound for many months and even years before they can really take control.

This whole affair could rather be seen, as Beijing-based scholar Russell Leigh Moses argues, as the result of heavy-handed actions – perhaps even designed to deliberately disrupt Xi’s reformist push – of the old guard of the Party.

In addition, pro-democracy protesters were allowed to gather freely outside the Southern Weeklybuildings – although police took pictures of many in that rather sinister “we’ll be in touch later” way police sometimes do – for several days.

And in defiance of the Party, hugely popular internet portals such as that run by Sina published theGlobal Times editorial with the crucial caveat that it did not represent their views. Acrostics in unrelated headlines were also used ingeniously to spell out messages of support for Southern Weekly.

In short, I’ve absolutely no idea what’s going on in China, as usual, but there are signs, albeit hugely caveated ones, that some things may be changing across the border.

Hong Kong turns 15, hacks revolt

3 Jul

Hong Kong colonial flagHong Kong. It’s easy to forget sometimes staring goggle-eyed at the splendorous neon-skyscrapered waterfront or ambling through the whore-infested byways of Wan Chai that this is part of China.

The special administrative region (SAR) turned 15 on Sunday. Well, its new life as an autonomous part of the People’s Republic turned 15 – and like all teenagers it’s getting increasingly riled with its parents.

As new CEO CY Leung was sworn in by Chinese president Hu Jintao hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the appointment of their new leader – done far away from the troubling spotlight of democratic elections – whom they view as an agent of Beijing, despite his claims to the contrary.

Several protestors even carried proudly aloft the old colonial Hong Kong flag – a symbol of “all we have lost”, they said – while another was bundled into a police van after rudely heckling Hu’s speech.

Back in pre-’97 times democratic rights were similarly limited, but personal freedoms, human rights and the rule of law were more securely anchored. Many feel, rightly or wrongly, that Beijing has gradually chipped away at these things which Hong Kongers had come to take for granted.

One thing they could also be more sure of back then was a free press unfettered by direct or indirect pressure from Beijing.

Looking at some of the anodyne stories in the South China Morning Post these days – most notably the reporting of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang – it’s not hard to see why most Hong Kong dwellers now think the press is actively engaged in self-censorship.

The SCMP faced angry protestor at its gates and a petition signed by staff after it downplayed news of the suspicious death of Li a few weeks ago.

In addition, almost 90 per cent of HK journos think press freedom has “deteriorated significantly” under the outgoing administration, with the government accused of tightening its grip on information by restricting the number of events accessible to reporters and increasing off-the-record briefings.

President Hu did nothing to quell any such fears in his speech at Leung’s swearing in ceremony, as the China Media Project blog picked up:

[We must] adhere to and implement a fully accurate ‘one country two systems’ policy, acting in strict accord with [Hong Kong’s] Basic Law, combining the priorities of upholding ‘one country’ while respecting differences in the ‘two systems,’ preserving the authority of the central Party and ensuring a high-level of autonomy in the Special Administrative Region, preserving overall national interests and ensuring various interests within Hong Kong society, supporting Hong Kong in actively developing international exchanges and opposing interference in Hong Kong affairs by outside forces . . .

These ‘outside forces’, according to the Hong Kong Uni-based project, are journalists, web-based loud mouths and any others who say things in public that powerful people don’t like the sound of.

Stuff like this, then, probably.

I’ll get my coat…