As with blood pressure, demonstrations in Hong Kong are measured in two numbers. Typically – or stereotypically – the higher is the organizers’ exaggerated count of the turnout, while the lower is a massaged-down police estimate. If the former is anything to go by, half the city is on the streets and the government is about to collapse. According to the latter, only a handful of bedraggled and delusional malcontents bothered to turn up, and we may infer that the other 99.999% of us are deliriously happy about everything.
Yesterday’s protest was no exception; Apple Daily arrives at a figure of 120,000, while the cops said it was 36,000. But even a few hundred would have been impressive when you consider the cause that brought the marchers out: the government’s refusal to grant a broadcasting licence to one of three prospective free-to-air commercial television stations.
What, exactly, were they protesting? At one end of the spectrum, it could be the muzzling of a media operator potentially critical of the Hong Kong administration or even the regime in Beijing. But this isn’t fully borne out by HKTV boss Ricky Wong’s plans for an all-entertainment, news-free service, nor by his past behaviour.
The next possible charge is official favouritism of tycoons. While this sounds all too probable, the government can claim in its defence that unlike HKTV, Wong’s two, tycoon-linked, rivals are fitter for licences because they are already up and running on cable. It could also point out that such blatant discrimination against non-plutocrats would be too foolish to expect to get away with, or would even be out of character for Chief Executive CY Leung, who can safely include the tycoons among the vast universe of people who hate him.
Moving along, the demonstrators can allege anti-entrepreneurism and a blow against the creative industries we are told Hong Kong should encourage. In other words, the government is breaking its own policies. It would only do this to protect existing players TVB and ATV, and the lameness of the official denial, and the various rumours floating around, suggest that this is mud that sticks.
Critics can also accuse the government of breaking its word. Ricky Wong argues strongly that the previous administration’s officials pretty much promised him a licence, hence his lavish investment in the new business. A judicial review could be in the works.
So there’s something for everyone: pro-democrats ever-alert for political censorship; labour activists disappointed at HKTV’s layoffs; media types wanting new creative opportunities; and pro-business people eager for more competition. Among this broad alliance of demonstrators yesterday was a new group: angry couch potatoes who had been looking forward to a better class of pap to watch. Motto: ‘Enjoy Yourself This Afternoon’. Were they the last remaining constituency in Hong Kong that quietly accepted CY Leung’s sorry leadership? If so, they have finally fallen into line with the rest of the community, leaving CY with only paid-for fans pimped by Beijing’s local Liaison Office.
The denial of regulatory approval to commercial enterprises apparently to suppress competition has not normally roused citizens to march, but in Hong Kong anything is possible. What next? Tycoon Li Ka-shing seems to be dropping plans to sell his conglomerate’s half of the local supermarket duopoly – could that be worth a protest? There’s the possibility of opening up the 3G wireless spectrum to a fifth competitor, the Mainland’s state-owned China Telecom. It would degrade service quality, so we protest against more competition here, and in defence of the tycoons who own the four existing operators. Life’s complicated. If I were Cathay Pacific, I would be especially worried. Semi-Australian JetStar HK wants to offer us cheaper air fares, and after the HKTV episode, our officials could welcome the opportunity to announce a pro-consumer, anti-tycoon decision.
Most of all, of course, yesterday’s demonstration was motivated by the administration, and indeed the very personality, of CY Leung. More exciting, more tragic, more comical, more outrageous and more compelling than anything you would have seen on HKTV.