Red Capital: Media Ownership and Self-Censorship in Hong Kong

04/23/2015 04:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

Emily Harris examines Hong Kong media's gradual loss of autonomy and predicts its future

In the fall of 2014, the Umbrella Movement hurled Hong Kong into the international spotlight as hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in the name of democracy and true universal suffrage. However, in February 2014, just seven months before the Umbrella Movement began, thousands protested in the name of a different cause: press freedom. Inspired by an attack on former editor-in-chief of Ming Pao Daily, Kevin Lau, who was slashed by two assailants with meat cleavers outside a local restaurant just days before, protestors raised concerns about what they see as alarming levels of media censorship in the former British colony as it grows closer to Mainland China.

Hong Kong residents are not the only ones sounding the alarm about press freedom -- international rankings also reflect their concerns. In 2002, Hong Kong ranked 18th in international rankings of press freedom put forth by French-based NGO Reporters Without Borders. In 2014, it ranked 61st.

However, Hong Kong has no formal restrictions on the press, making it difficult to explain this drastic shift in journalistic discourse in the past decade. As veteran journalist and protest organizer Shirley Yam told CNN, challenges to journalistic independence come not only from the government, but from the private sector: "Headlines were added, complete pages were removed, photos were cancelled, interviews were bought, columnists were sacked... we get calls from senior government officials, we get calls from tycoons, saying 'we don't want to see this in your paper.'"

Hong Kong is a true political anomaly of our times, embedded directly in the ideological struggles of East versus West, capitalism versus socialism, and democracy versus authoritarianism. Prior to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong's sovereignty from the British colonial government to the People's Republic of China (PRC), many voiced grave concerns about the PRC's ability to preserve Hong Kong's democratic values, rule of law, and freedoms of speech, press, and assembly, especially following the Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989. Yet when Hong Kong did not become the devastating "Tiananmen II" that many had predicted, international audiences largely lost interest in the continuing political developments in the region.

While China has generally stopped short of direct state control or censorship of media, many suggest it has resorted to indirect and subtle methods to exert control over the Hong Kong media, especially via the infiltration of "red capital" into the local media system.

In the 1970s, Hong Kong saw a shift in media from partisan and party press to commercially oriented mass media. While the expansion of mass media is largely thought to facilitate the professionalization of journalism and empower journalistic independence, today, business tycoons and corporations with significant business, political, or personal interests in Mainland China own many of Hong Kong's media organizations. Many interpret this as an attempt by Beijing to manage the political effects of the transition through media acquisition by pro-China capitalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as of 2014, more than half of local media owners sit on Beijing-appointed government bodies such as the National People's Congress.

Such changes in ownership have instigated processes which require journalists acquire new norms and adjust their practices. Although media ethics generally dictate that there be a "firewall" between the commercial and editorial sides of a newspaper, owners of newspapers can control major decisions such as the basic newsroom setup and the hiring and firing of top-level personnel that determine the organizational culture.

As such, one of the most common critiques of Hong Kong media is the prevalence of self-censorship, which, though impossible to identify with certainty, is evident in the press's tendency to dodge political controversy, its shift in editorial tone in line with Beijing's policy, and the firing of "high-risk" contributors.

Many optimistic analyses prior to the 1997 handover pointed to the free market in Hong Kong as a force that would protect news organizations from the heavy-handed influence of Beijing. For the time being, it seems market forces have ensured that most newspapers' editorial lines have stopped short of becoming "pro-China." In a 2006 survey of 1,004 Hong Kong journalists, the majority (58 percent) said that the media should "take a neutral stand" in the event of a conflict between Hong Kong and China. However, among the remaining respondents, those favoring the Hong Kong stand (39 percent) far outnumber those favoring the Chinese stand (three percent), attesting to the ultimate reliance of the news media on the domestic market for survival and prosperity.

However, it seems that in the age of new media and declining newspaper profits, conglomerates and tycoons have become more interested in the political, rather than economic, possibilities associated with newspaper ownership.

In a 2014 interview, Ernest Chi, deputy editor-in-chief of Ming Pao Daily claimed that while 20 years ago the paper made HK$200 million annually, they're now at one percent of that. With an ever-thinning bottom line, even one advertising client can have a significant influence on a newspaper's earnings.

More significantly, razor-thin profit margins mean that investments are made in newspapers today with an eye on political return on investment. "The media is only a small part of their empire, but they use it as a leverage, to haggle and to bargain," Chi says, of the investors. "Investors ask themselves, 'What do I want this thing for? Give me political influence.'"

There is little doubt that changes in Hong Kong's media ownership have altered the balance of ideological discourse in the Hong Kong media. Naked state repression of the media has been deemed out of the question by the PRC's continuing political agenda and commitment to maintain the appearance of respect for civil liberties, and market forces have prevented explicitly pro-China editorial lines from commercial newspapers.

However, what is most concerning is not that the Hong Kong media has become predominantly pro-Beijing (it hasn't), but rather that journalism as a profession is now more beholden to special interests than they are the public interest. Even journalists who work for genuinely politically independent commercial papers are pressured to appeal to consumer's lower viscera, on the way to their wallet. Hong Kong journalists have become limited in their role as the "fourth estate," as the political and/or economic calculus of publishing can now outweigh the moral imperative to uncover the genuine, often discomforting narratives of Hong Kong society.

One example of this tendency is the Hong Kong media's reliance on international media reports when covering tensions between the PRC and Taiwan. By reporting only what has already been reported by others, the local media can publish political criticism and sensitive issues while ostensibly adopting a posture of detachment -- if criticized, they can claim that they are only "objectively" reporting what others have already reported. In other instances, this understanding of "neutrality" might take the form of reporting "just the facts" articles, or publishing side-by-side editorials that take opposite positions on a controversial issue.

Such effects of self-censorship are multiplied via the spiral of silence effect, in which people who perceive that their opinion is popular express it with confidence, while those who perceive that their opinion is in the minority remain silent. This sets off a spiraling process that increasingly establishes only one prevailing opinion.

Mass media play a crucial role in the development of the spiral of silence because people depend heavily on the media for facts and for the evaluation of the climate of opinion. The maintenance of a free press in Hong Kong is thus critical to the protection of their other civil liberties and overall way of life. Because Hong Kong remains a limited democracy, journalism has always been a particularly important outlet for political participation in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, media ownership changes have eroded the strong tradition of civic participation through journalism in Hong Kong.

That is, of course, not to say that civic action has died in Hong Kong -- far from it. Rather, the world briefly became captivated with Hong Kong's political fate once more in the autumn of 2014, as the "Occupy Central" movement saw hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens take to the street in the name of universal suffrage for the 2017 Chief Executive election.

Despite this mass action, local news coverage of the Occupy Central often emphasized the desire of the "silent majority" in Hong Kong to go to work, go home, and not be troubled with the looming date--2047--when the protections guaranteed to Hong Kong under "One Country, Two Systems" will expire. Meaningful democratic conviction and resistance remain nevertheless possible, especially amongst the current generation of young people. The continual prospect of 2047 is a powerful image for those who will still be alive during that transition. New media, for all its faults, may prove to be an important arena where dissenting political views can be discussed and share. However, Internet activism alone will likely be insufficient to challenge the powerful institutions with a stake in Hong Kong's political development.

Given the deterioration of de-facto press freedom in Hong Kong's local media, does international journalism present a viable alternative for informing the Hong Kong public and sparking meaningful public discourse on the key issues they face? Perhaps not. International journalism is itself not immune to commercial pressures. Furthermore, a discussion of Hong Kong's political rights that grounds itself outside of the collective memory of the Hong Kong people in unlikely to resonate with locals.

As Hong Kong moves closer to 2047, there are continual questions as to whether Hong Kong will become more like the PRC, or whether the PRC will become more like Hong Kong. First, it is a big assumption that the current CCP regime will still be in power in 2047. Assuming that it is, much depends on whether the current generation of youth, who will still be very much alive when the "One Country, Two Systems" expires in 33 years will continue to demand the civil liberties they grew up with.

Some journalists covering the Occupy Movement suggested that the movement may serve as an example for the burgeoning middle class in Mainland China which many suspect will be at the forefront of any democratic movement there. However, as of now, such type of large-scale social movement remains largely unimaginable.

Considering both the economic value of Hong Kong to the PRC, and the growing dependence of the Hong Kong economy on Mainland Chinese consumer spending, there is a very real possibility that Hong Kong will continue to allow their civil liberties, freedom of the press and freedom of speech, to slowly erode. This may result in Hong Kong looking potentially more like the budding Shanghai Free Trade Zone, an area in which trade and rule of law, as it relates to corporations and contracts, are respected, but where CCP hegemony is inescapable.


Emily Harris is a senior at Yale University. Contact her at

This article also appears in China Hands.