To the delight of the scurrilous press, many politicians suffer from the rogue/maverick/embarrassing family member. The extreme elderly among us might still recall US President Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy, who drank beer and did deals with Libya. Or UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s dimwitted offspring Mark, who got lost in deserts, wore safari suits and hung out with fantasist coup-plotters in the white-trash haven of Cape Town – the Phuket of Africa.
Closer to home and more recently, there was the case of top (now disgraced) Chinese official Ling Jihua’s son Ling Gu. After Gu crashed his RMB5 million Ferrari with two naked girls in it, Ling had to identify the boy’s body – and who can blame him for (reportedly) disowning the corpse as that of a stranger?
Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung is afflicted with cringe-making daughter Chai-yan, who after taunting the public with her wealth and posting an apparent suicide attempt on Facebook, has recorded a series of TV interviews. The Standard passes on riveting gossip from the latest: an unnamed acquaintance of the young lady did some unspecified thing that had an outcome of which we know nothing except that it was bad in some way. She then regales the public with copious detail about two of her three dogs, notably the one (Speedy) that defiled the Chief Executive’s trousers with its ‘saliva’, as the Standard daintily refers to the rancid muco-slobber that canines produce in such large quantities. The third dog is presumably too disgraceful to mention.
This is the sort of thing that makes you wish every newspaper had someone with a pair of scissors who intercepted all the nasty stuff that we should not wish our wives and servants to read. A classic case of how we must be careful what we wish for.
One thing that has not been censored recently is coverage of Hong Kong’s declining press freedom. Every year, Reporters Without Borders ranks the city lower and lower in its Index, from 34th place 10 years ago to 61st today. The latest Index (which spookily I can’t find a link to, but it’s out there somewhere) presents a now-familiar and ever-growing itemized list of signs of a creeping clampdown on the media: physical assaults, intimidation, advertising boycotts, and of course self-censorship.
There is very plainly a pattern here. A recent Foreign Affairs article summarizes the situation well.
Charges of self-censorship in Hong Kong journalism go back years, and much of the panic about it (say) 10 years ago was alarmist and leaned towards crying wolf (or crying frog-in-warm-water). Silly tycoon-media-owners’ shoe-shining is a longstanding part of the local news scene and should arouse pity and maybe a little affection rather than fears of looming totalitarianism. Aging Overseas-Chinese business moguls gauge obsequiousness on a completely different scale from the rest of humanity. They buy a money-losing newspaper in order for it to print nauseating bits of gratuitous groveling.
A hilarious recent example comes from the South China Morning Post, which started 2015 by pompously launching a Leaders of the Year award – which rather predictably went to China’s Xi Jinping and, in an attempt to make it look less nauseatingly shameless, the Pope. The sole audience for this charade would have been the paper’s octogenarian owner Robert Kuok, who was no doubt duly satisfied that Beijing would note and appreciate this tribute and bless him with future business opportunities, or at least do no harm to his existing assets. Such clumsy and unsubtle gestures appear at least once a week (here’s the latest), and SCMP staff must find them as embarrassing as CY senior finds CY junior.
The truly insidious and disturbing creeping clampdown on the media is harder to isolate and identify. The apparent advertising boycotts by HSBC and Standard Chartered are a pathetic version of tycoons’ shoe-shining – what Christine Loh once termed the ‘pre-emptive cringe’. The banks advertised in pro-democrat Jimmy Lai’s publications to generate market share and profit for themselves. The boycott is self-harm to prove loyalty, and in the interest of averting greater harm if Beijing damaged their Mainland business out of spite and malice. This is not a press freedom story so much as a business one: as old man Kuok and his peers calculate, to operate in China is to give the Communist Party a silent say in running your company. Take it or leave it. Shareholders (if anyone still buys these two) beware.
Next we have the slanting of news stories, which is older than the printing press, and the mysterious last-minute dropping or rearrangement of copy. This rouses images of grim Mainland officials looking over editors’ shoulders and ordering cuts and changes, even the replacement of editorial staff. More likely it is a more pernicious pre-emptive cringe, and another form of kowtowing through self-mutilation, as it undermines the credibility of a whole newspaper or broadcaster, as if traditional media didn’t have enough commercial problems.
Where it gets murky and scary is of course the intimidation and violence. Do Beijing’s locally based officials dream up and arrange a stunt like the pouring of soy sauce all over stacks of newspapers? Sounds unlikely. Would some low-life arrange it to curry favour with some patriotic cause? Quite probably. The same goes for attempted murder. We also have to accept that there are private citizens out there who genuinely and sincerely hate Hong Kong’s pro-democrats and opposition with zeal, and need no guidance or inducements to besiege a newspaper’s headquarters or use their fists against reporters.
Official involvement is most visible and least subject to ‘plausible deniability’ when it comes to the police turning a blind eye to such violence (against reporters or protestors). Once or twice, it’s an accident. But when it’s a pattern, someone has issued orders. You’re not imagining a clampdown.
Two reasons for at least some optimism. First, the world really is watching. The international media might not care much about Hong Kong, but they do follow press freedom. Second, the traditional print and broadcast media are irrelevant to the younger generation in the vanguard of opposition to political and other Mainlandization. They inhabit a different media universe on-line. The real thing to watch for would be attempts by Beijing to curb the Internet in Hong Kong.