Stay tuned for the next episode

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.

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20 Responses to Stay tuned for the next episode

  1. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Hong Kong has too small a population to natively support quality media, whether books, films, newspapers, TV or online. Its two obvious overseas markets, the English-language one that is far larger than all the rest put together, and the fast-growing Mandarin one, accessible to nearly a quarter of the world’s pouplation, are both excluded, for political reasons — which leaves us with what SCMP-Xinhua call the Cantonese dialect, not even codified or taught, except by and to a few benighted devils.

    My hunch is that, as always in these soap-opera scandals, no-one is giving the real reasons. Ricky’s real mortal sin is to have bought in programmes from — gasp, waah — foreigners.

    RTHK numbered the protesters in mere “thousands”, but as you so persuasively say, it’s the very idea that shows that CY and his cronies have lost the plot and are unable to govern effectively.

    It can’t go on like this.

  2. Mary Hinge says:

    To focus on the demonstration is to analyse effect, perhaps at the expense of cause. What actual *harm* would granting a licence to HKTV have done? This is the question which sorely needs to be answered, since a “better class of pap to watch” is still ‘better class’. And so the smug stonewalling of Greg, Rimsky and CY himself is hardly doing phrases like “level playing field” and “Asia’s World City” any favours.

    PS. I don’t think the telecoms 3G/4G licence issue is an apt comparison. The bandwidth is limited. Government would do best to let China Telecom bid, on an even keel, with the other four players: i.e. 5 companies bidding, but make it known at the outset that only 4 will succeed. Shoe-horning 5 winners into 4 slots, if that is what we end up with, will be yet another example of favouring tycoons at the public’s disadvantage.

  3. Stephen says:

    Let’s examine the possible reasons;

    1. Beijing said no – They are not convinced that HKTV will be slavishly obedient to them and toe the party line?
    2. CY thought it’s what Beijing would want – How often have our leaders tried to guess what the master wanted and got it wrong – however one thing is clear they do want to see 36,000 – 120,000 people on the street;
    3. TVB pleaded for a no – TVB, who are slavishly obedient to Beijing, feared the imminent demise of their advertising revenue and lobbied successfully against HKTV;
    4. ATV did the same – Whilst they are slavishly obedient to Beijing, who gives a f*ck, because apart from the horse racing does anybody watch it?
    5. HKTV to buy ATV – Listening to Ricky Wong that doesn’t seem likely and let us recall his previous and disastrous two weeks work experience a few year back;
    6. CY is trying to build bridges with the tycoons – Its possible, he’s a proud man and must realise that he’s got to make a decent fist of it for his remaining 3 years and 8 months and needs all the support he can get from the likes of the Li’s and Pao’s;
    7. HK can’t support 5 free to air TV stations – This is the officials default position and whilst there may be some truth in it , hey we are the world freest economy, so we shouldn’t give a F*ck if ATV collapses followed by TVB;
    8. The civil service produced a paper stating 4 is the number – CY not wanting to damage morale or guess their opaque reasoning just agreed to it;

    Any others ?

  4. Big Al says:

    Whenever the administrations comes up with some half-arsed decision, what we should be doing is to see who will ultimately benefit from this decision. In the case of the HKTV-gate, the obvious beneficiary will be TVB. In the case of JetStar-gate, Cathay Pacific. Both have vested interests which the administration has put above those of the majority of television-watching, flying public. Tell you what, though, it would make for a great sit-com!

  5. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Stephen, How about:

    8.Ricky said something many moons ago that failed to conform to the narrow mindset of the committee that made the decision.

  6. PropertyDeveloper says:

    PS Sorry that’s 9.

  7. Joe Blow says:

    To me, starting a free-to-air TV station in HK seems as smart an idea as starting a new print magazine or print newspaper. Am I missing something ?

  8. Bigot says:

    CY doesnt want Ricky to make enough money to move to his neighbourhood on the peak.

  9. Big Al says:

    OT: With all the recent annoucements of Nobel Prize laureates for 2013, I’m once again disapponted that those hard-working scientists at (mainly French) Laboratoire Garnier, Lancome, et al, have not been recognised for their pioneering and cutting-edge research in reversing time – something that Einstein said was not possible. Not only pure reasearch, but bringing this to the consumer market in the form of creams, serums, gels and unguents, all of which have been “scientifically proven” according to their marketing departments (although I admit to having missed their breakthrough announcements in the scientific journals). If only those particle physicists at CERN an elsewhere were half as diligent we’d have had fusion powered electricity too cheap to meter years ago!

  10. maugrim says:

    HK people really just want to go about their lives, making money and so on. Seriously, what dingbat at Government level didn’t think that someone would ask questions, and worse was unable to come up with justification, even fake, as to why the decision was made? They are achieving HK’s version of Say’s Law, ie, achieving the very thing they tried to avoid, pissing off the man and woman in the street. What is laughable is that anything that comes FROM the Government intones of the need to be transparent, not give lavish gifts etc etc.

  11. Spud says:

    Nothing more annoying than the HK “promise” excuse.

    But we were promised a licence
    But we were promised universal suffrage
    But we were promised a small house under the colonial govt….
    But I was promised an Exco seat if I supported CY

    How about getting something concrete first before spending huge amounts of money on things? Why not blame your boss Ricky for taking a huge risk without firing things up first?

    There may be hidden or genuine reasons but the “promise” excuse is too nauseating and undermines any validity to the cause.

  12. Blue Peter says:

    A surprising turnout. Must be a few bottoms twitching at Tamar. How do you explain this one away?

  13. Mary Hinge says:

    Spud, what Ricky did and does with his money is his business, and so more fool him for taking massive commercial risks to provide something perceived as potentially new and exciting when HK is already so well-served by such classy, diverse TV channels.

    But that does not excuse the government from not giving detailed reasons for the non-grant of the licence. Indeed, the fact that HKTV was so well-endowed with cash, as well as being so novel, and so different, made them a ‘shoo-in’ for a licence from the neutral bystander’s objective, and makes it all the more imperative for substantive reasons to now be given by our bureaucrats.

  14. Headache says:

    This decision is eerily similar to the earlier one not to bother setting up an independent public service broadcaster, where the govt eventually junked the report it had commissioned and then ignored for two years.

    I really don’t see why anyone would still expect the HK administration to be fair, reasonable, sincere or intelligent. The steaming pile of evidence to the contrary can probably be seen from orbit by now.

  15. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Stephen and Big Al

    True Einstein says we can’t go backwards in time and undo bad things we did. Nor can we foresee the future, otherwise that would put an end to horse race betting and the whole of Macau in one fell (and well- deserved) swoop.

    But we CAN try to predict the future by doing things on a small scale that we later plan to do on a big scale. Hence pilot projects in general and the Shenzhen SEZ as a specific example.

    So my submission for Stephen’s 9th is that the govt has given up dropping hints about important policy changes as a way of predicting future public reaction after the decision is announced ( e.g “building in country parks and Fanling golf course”, “ending the Hang You Fuck small-house policy” etc) Hints don’t count as real pilot projects

    So they are using the HKTV thing to see what happens when they do make a totally idiotic / irrational /unpopular/ fucked-up decision which they cannot go back on, in order to test-drive the public’s reaction to what they will finally announce re universal suffrage in 2017.

    e.g. every 100 protesters at Tamar over HKTV = 10,000 on the streets re the final universal suffrage

  16. Chris Maden says:

    @ Stephen

    10. The Chinese government promised 50 years of no change and is delivering and seen to be delivering on that promise.

    35 years to go…

  17. Real Scot Player says:

    Good list by Stephen.

    Of course it’s Beijing. They just hate the media and brownnose brigade know what to do.

    Thank heavens China has been progressing from medieval shithole to q version of nineteenth century Britain. If they had not been going forwards up north since 1997 they would have been SOOO embarrassed by Hong Kong since the British left. Who knows what they would have done by now.

  18. Local Tax Payer says:

    Yeah, one step forwards and three backwards, as regards naked territorial aggression, imprisoning journalists and intimidating Hong Kong.

  19. In the last couple of years the police have taken to announcing their estimate of the number attending a protest “at its peak” – which in the case of a big one that goes on for hours tells us nothing useful about how many actually participated, but makes the government look marginally better, or would if anyone really believed their figures.

  20. Sojourner says:

    @ Stephen

    A superb list.

    This, in a way, is the clincher, the one that truly leraves the government’s egregious rationale in tatters:

    “7. HK can’t support 5 free to air TV stations – This is the officials default position and whilst there may be some truth in it , hey we are the world freest economy, so we shouldn’t give a F*ck if ATV collapses followed by TVB;”

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