HONG KONG - Just when it seemed mainland China had got used to Hong Kong
reporters scrambling all over the country for news stories, Beijing bureaucrats
slammed down fresh regulations to curtail this new-found freedom, raising fears
of added censorship in this politically sensitive year.
The new rules to restrict Hong Kong reporters' freedom of news coverage were
introduced shortly after a confident Chinese government announced that the
greater freedom enjoyed by foreign journalists (those from Hong Kong, Macau and
Taiwan included) during the Beijing Summer Olympic Games last August would be
extended indefinitely. Critics say this is "one step forward, two steps back"
in China's progress towards press freedom.
Although Hong Kong now is part of China under the "one country
two systems", media in the Special Administrative Region continue to enjoy
freedom of the press as before, despite criticisms that many journalists are
increasingly practicing self-censorship.
Most Hong Kong reporters are ethnic Chinese who speak the Chinese language and
as such could have easy access to society to get news stories. As a result,
negative news reports or scandals about China have often been broken by the
Hong Kong media. This may explain why the Hong Kong media have been
specifically targeted by the new regulations.
For Beijing, this year is a particularly sensitive one politically, with such
anniversaries as the failed Tibetan armed uprising, the emergence of the
Falungong and the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown approaching.
With immediate effect from February 6, Hong Kong journalists covering the
mainland must be accredited to the All-China Journalists Association through
the liaison office of the central government in Hong Kong, Beijing's
representative office in the territory. They must also first secure the consent
of the individual or organization to be interviewed.
These rules were in place for many years but had generally been ignored by the
Hong Kong media, with the unstated acquiescence of mainland officials. Even
reporters of the Chinese-language Apple Daily, the most unwelcome journalists
on the mainland because of the newspaper's unreserved critical stance on China,
have usually been left alone when poking around for news though, undoubtedly,
kept under surveillance.
In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, however, all restrictions were
officially lifted for Hong Kong and Macau journalists and other foreign
correspondents. With little pressure from outside, Beijing continued to allow
free movement and reporting after the sporting event.
The Games were a huge success and China emerged more confident, its people more
united. Even Hong Kong people have become more noticeably patriotic during the
Before the Games, Sichuan province was rocked by a massive earthquake in May
that killed close to 100,000 people and injured almost as many. The unhindered
coverage by the Hong Kong media led to the donation of some US$1 billion to the
victims from Hong Kong people, government and corporations.
The magnificent coverage of both the agony and the ecstasy of China, and the
patriotic fervor raised, has never been fully acknowledged by Beijing.
Nevertheless, when the pre-Olympics restrictions were not reinstituted, there
was general agreement that Beijing had become more relaxed and more assured of
its status as an emerging global power.
"It was not just the success of the Olympics alone. In the current global
economic crisis, Beijing has been trying to re-establish itself as a great
nation ... then they issue restrictions like these. It just raises question
marks about just how confident these Beijing officials really are in the way
they run the country," said Mak Yin Ting, a former chairwoman of the Hong Kong
Mak added: "To be fair to these officials, the months ahead are going to be
very sensitive for Beijing. This is a significant year for anniversaries ...
they have plenty to worry about. I don't believe anything significant will
happen. But I think some officials want to make certain they will be properly
covered up if something does go wrong."
What can possibly go wrong? Mak cannot think of anything. "Look, the Hong Kong
media scene is very tame," she said.
The local representative of the International Federation of Journalists, Woo
Lai Wan, shared this view. "It is very unbecoming of a state aspiring to be a
major global power to be so frightened of its own shadow," she said.
Most Hong Kong journalists who have been going into China for news say they
will simply ignore the regulations. One of them said: "There's basically
nothing new. These rules were there before the Olympics and we ignored them. We
will ignore them again. In the past all the officials closed an eye. I am sure
they will do it again ... until something goes very wrong.
"Even when something goes wrong you get a slap on the wrist. What is the most
recent case of the mainland taking action against a Hong Kong journalist? The
Ching Cheong case. That has nothing to do with news coverage. They claimed it
was a spy case. So that has nothing to do with reporting. "China has always
been like this ... two steps forward, one step back. Maybe Liao Hui [head of
the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office] will think of something else in the
next few weeks. He will retire soon, so he wants to play it very safe. He wants
an honorable exit, " Woo said.
The ruling appears to have caught central government representatives based in
Hong Kong off guard. Some are resorting to verbal contortions to explain the
situation. Denying "backsliding" from previous arrangements, one official
explained that the new rules were an attempt to "weed out fake journalists",
though in reality, all the "fake journalists" who have ever been caught have
all been mainland people, as opposed to Hong Kong reporters.
Another official described the new restrictions as an effort "to improve
reporters' working conditions. We never meant to backslide from previous
arrangements." Even Gao Siren, the liaison office director, insisted last week
that the new rules would "help speed up the processing system".
And while Chinese officials pledge the new regulations are to improve
management of news coverage in China by Hong Kong journalists, they don't seem
ready to implement them. One day after the new regulations were unveiled, the
Chinese-language Ming Pao daily filled in an application with the liaison
office for an interview on the mainland and a spokesman said it had yet to work
out details for their implementation. When asked whether the liaison office
would deal with applications for China news coverage during weekends or public
holidays if there was breaking news, the spokesman said, "I cannot answer this
question right now. We need to discuss this."
When asked what would happen if a Hong Kong reporter was found doing an
interview on the mainland without a permit, a spokesperson for the State
Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing said, "It depends on
whether he or she breaks the law."
So it seems that the new regulations are simply complicating the "processing
system" instead of improving it.
Augustine Tan is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.