Anti-communist publisher Jimmy Lai gets his new free daily newspaper – Hong Kong’s sixth – off to a brilliant start by having puritan do-gooder educationalists call for it to be banned near schools lest impressionable young folk catch a glimpse of the women in swimsuits or underwear that fill its pages. Any half-intelligent child will know instinctively that if our local Taliban feel a need to tear themselves away from covering up piano legs to warn about the ‘erotic content’ of Sharp Daily, the rag must be worth reading. (Judge for yourself by viewing, say, Monna, 32E.)
Perhaps fearing a drop in its circulation among younger readers, the South China Morning Post gets that bit more salacious and puts on its front page the story about Italian Prime Minister and walking Viagra ad Silvio Berlusconi taking his coke-dealing pimp with him on a visit to China to procure female company. Unless you have been in a convent for the last decade or are a member of the HK Federation of Really Moral Christian Teachers Against Onanism, you will ask whether this is news. The day the slimy 74-year-old Berlusconi does not take a personal whore-monger along – that will be worth reporting (as perhaps would a woman with an apparently oxymoronic bust size of 32E, though maybe there is a yawning cleavage in my experience here).
The SCMP reserves the ultimate item of non-news for its lead story. Beijing, the paper solemnly intones, prefers Chief Secretary Henry Tang as Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive – with verb and object safely encapsulated in inverted commas, just in case the planet is invaded by Martians who need humans called Henry for food, which is the only way anyone else is going to get the job. Anyone who doubts it need only look at the patently nonsensical reason given for Beijing’s preference – Tang’s supposed support among civil servants; the thing is so pre-ordained they can’t even be bothered to think up anything better.
This tentativeness is part of an elaborate charade throughout the local media whereby we are all invited to believe that a genuine contest is about to take place for the Big Lychee’s leadership. Normally hard-nosed journalists will carry on going weak at the knees in the months ahead, eagerly scribbling volumes of copy suggesting that an ‘election’ is to take place, and now veteran no-hoper Rita Fan has bowed out it will be a fight between nice-but-dim rich kid Henry and cunning and ruthless, self-made, closet Communist Party member CY Leung.
Why this suspension of disbelief – this fiction that we are not in a one-party state where leadership appointments are not left to chance? (We see the same delusion among international commentators predicting a fully convertible Yuan, as if the Chinese Communist Party will let foreigners’ free markets decide the People’s Republic’s exchange or interest rates.)
Conspiracy theorists would say that the local media are all ultimately puppets of Beijing. A less alarming way of putting it would be that it is impolite, too close to the bone and image-shattering to openly admit that the Chief Executive election is a sham. It would be like discussing bodily functions. Or we can get really, seriously cynical. The media engage in this silly pretense because they need a story. Otherwise, all they have is ‘Sleazebag caught running Italy’ or ‘Woman with flat but expansive mammary glands seen lounging by swimming pool’.