Press freedom in Hong Kong, ten years on

Award-winning page layout from Wen Wei Po in 2006.
As part a series of reports on Hong Kong's first decade back in Chinese hands, The Beijing News interviewed Zhang Guoliang, head of Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po (文汇报), about the changes to Hong Kong's press environment.

Zhang Guoliang joined Wen Wei Po in 2000; prior to that he worked as general editor of Reference News, and he served as head of the Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong throughout most of the 1990s.

"Hong Kong media's sense of responsibility is growing"

Interview with Zhang Guoliang
by Xu Chunliu / TBN

The Beijing News: Around 1997, when you were leading Xinhua's work in Hong Kong, things were probably very complicated, particularly with the Hong Kong government throwing up all sorts of hidden obstacles. How did Xinhua contend with those at the time?
Zhang Guoliang: After Patten arrived there was a plan to overhaul the government, to accelerate the so-called democratic process, increase the number of directly-elected representatives. This was what we called the three violations: a violation of the Basic Laws, a violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, etc. The British had control for more than one hundred years and they didn't do democracy. At the time of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, there were no directly-elected legislators, but as soon as Hong Kong was to be handed over to China, they arrived. Of course, the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law took Hong Kong's democratic process fully into account and laid out a plan for a step-by-step implementation of democracy. We always fought with the British over the three violations, we always criticized them. Later, when China and Britain reopened talks that ran 20 rounds, we ran criticisms every time Britain was unreasonable or violated the Joint Declaration.

TBN: Did the British government in Hong Kong ever put pressure on Wen Wei Po?
Zhang: Before the return, Wen Wei Po was discriminated against by the British government in Hong Kong. Their officials would not accept interviews from Wen Wei Po, and for this reason, they didn't care whether you criticized them. Everyone knew where both parties stood. Wen Wei Po was always subject to marginalization and pressure.

TBN: You mean that the British government in Hong Kong allowed your existence but discriminated against you politically?
Zhang: The political discrimination was serious, but there was nothing they could do, since we were a legally-registered news agency.

TBN: What do you feel about the development of press freedom in Hong Kong today?
Zhang: Before the return, some westerners went on the offensive, saying that Hong Kong's press freedom would cease to exist. Now there are still people who say that after Hong Kong's return, press freedom has dropped in real terms, that self-censorship of the media has increased. I think that Hong Kong's press freedom has not had any major changes. Hong Kong has so many newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, and they do what they want. If you want changes, then there are some newspapers now that have a greater sense of responsibility. The media must have social responsibility.

Particularly the serious media - the information and viewpoints they convey to you are responsible. Reports on the mainland have changed substantially. There are more reports that before, and they cover a wider scope. The relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland has become increasingly close, and the people of Hong Kong need growing amount of information with which to understand the mainland. Newspapers serve the people, so naturally they respond. In the past, there were only reports on the central government, but now there are local reports; in the past, there were only reports on the government, but now there are reports on the economy, society, culture, and history. Another thing is that there is increasing attention paid toward accuracy and reliability in reports on the mainland, because there has been more and more communication between mainlanders and the people of Hong Kong - they've come to understand each other. So you can't call this self-censorship or self-restraint. Does there need to be chaotic reporting like in the past for it to be called press freedom? In the west and in Hong Kong, some people who talk about press freedom are really overbearing - they allow them to talk on, but they don't allow you to praise. They attack the Chief Executive, and that's press freedom; you say the Chief Executive is good, and they say you aren't supporting press freedom. This is not right.

TBN: Before you were head of Wen Hui Po, you worked for a long time at the Xinhua News Agency. You're came to Hong Kong on official business relatively early - were there things about Hong Kong life that you weren't accustomed to?
Zhang: I arrived in 1993. Prior to this, in the 80s, I was the general editor of Reference News (参考消息), and I was the general secretary at the Xinhua News Agency. When I came to Hong Kong life was OK, mainly it was the language environment that wasn't good. In the 80s and 90s, there weren't many people in Hong Kong who spoke Mandarin. When you asked for directions, they would ignore you after you didn't understand when they told you the first time. TV and radio had no Mandarin programming, but of course Mandarin is all over the place now.

TBN: Hong Kong journalists are famed for their quick reaction to the news. At the Two Congresses, Hong Kong reporters, including Wen Wei Po reporters, were quicker than mainland reporters at seizing the hotspots. Why is this?
Zhang: One major thing is that there is incredibly fierce competition in Hong Kong media. Hong Kong newspapers have no government resources whatsoever, so they depend on themselves for news and advertising investment and distribution channels; if you want to sell a paper at a newsstand, you cannot have the government issue a memo ordering everyone to subscribe. The readers must spend HK$6 to buy your paper, so they want to look at your quality - the quality of your news and of your pages. The news must be fast; in Hong Kong, papers are in competition with electronic media and the Internet. So if you're not fast, then you're dead, you won't sell.

TBN: Talking to Hong Kong reporters, they've got a lot of pressure.
Zhang: If we can't outdo them in Hong Kong local news, that's understandable, but if Wen Wei Po can't outdo them in the mainland, in Beijing, then how can you explain yourselves? We have more than ten people in Beijing, they have just one. For another thing, Hong Kong media's professionalism and enterprising spirit is very strong. This is related to work ethic of the professional culture that's all over Hong Kong.

TBN: In the historic transformations surrounding Hong Kong's return, how did Wen Wei Po adapt to the new environment and open up new spaces for development?
Zhang: Wen Wei Po is a newspaper that loves the country and loves Hong Kong (爱国爱港), it is a state-supported newspaper registered in Hong Kong, so naturally it supports the position of our country and carries out the policies of the central government. Many things were different after the return. Before the return, it was enough to support the return and to fight with the Hong Kong authorities. It was relatively easy to run - the readership was people who also loved the country and loved Hong Kong, and at the time the content was fairly bland. But after the return there were problems. Hong Kong today is a part of China, so who do you fight with? Of course, there's certainly some activity among hostile western powers, and we fight with them when there is a need. But what about in peacetime?

TBN: So more often you're playing the role of a builder?
Zhang: How to blend into Hong Kong society upholding the foundation of the aims of the central government and to have Wen Wei Po be accepted by the general readership is a big problem. I came in at the end of 2000, when Wen Wei Po was quite close to failure. I felt that we needed to change; news had to be changed first. The first thing was to make a paper that the Hong Kong people could accept - "like" was left aside for the time being. We had to run a paper according to Hong Kong rules.

TBN: Industry insiders feel that the layout and content of Wen Wei Po is now quite close to that of a Hong Kong paper.
Zhang: We now report as completely and as accurately as possible.

Wen Wei Po originally only had positive, not negative, reports about the mainland, and toward the SAR there was only praise and not criticism, but this did not fit the needs of Hong Kong readers.

TBN: Nor did it fit the rules of news.
Zhang: Right. So we changed things. One, our reporting has immensely expanded, and we report both the good and bad. We have reports on the Democrats as well, and we have commentary on the SAR government and the people's livelihood.

TBN: Do you criticize the SAR government?
Zhang: In 2001, we began to have some criticism of the SAR government. At that time, the SAR government's road repair rate was very poor. We did a big, critical report, and even issued an editorial criticizing its low efficiency. That rocked Hong Kong - how could the Wen Wei Po criticize the work of a government department?

TBN: Does this type of reform affect the original position of the Wen Wei Po?
Zhang: In Hong Kong, news must be well-rounded and objective, while editorials and commentaries may express a position. Our news reform included packaging: all media has a certain background, whether financial or government, and no one can be completely objective and fair.

But overseas media attaches great importance to professional skills - forms of writing and expression.

TBN: There's a question of the specialization of journalism here.
Zhang: Yes. Put it one way and they may not accept it no matter what you say; change voices and they might accept it or at least tolerate it. One opinion, several voices, one in praise, another opposing, and yet another unwilling to say either way. Through this type of packaging you can show that many people are opposed, and their opposition has merit. On the surface you are letting readers judge, but in effect there's still some leading going on.

TBN: Wen Wei Po has gotten quite a bit more gaudy in its layout. There are lots of pictures.
Zhang: It's been Hong Kong-ized, which is why I say we're pretty much the same as everyone else on the newsstand. We have "three big and two few" these days: big photos, big headlines, and big summaries; the "two few" are few words and few subjects. On the mainland, one news page typically has ten stories; People's Daily may have twelve. In Hong Kong it's different. One piece of news usually takes up one page. When the US invaded Afghanistan, ten or twenty pages were all on that one news item.

TBN: Throughout the reform and opening up, Hong Kong has been funneling pop culture into the mainland, but today it seems that its influence has lessened.
Zhang: Things have turned around today. Hong Kong culture has returned to China. In the past, the British government of Hong Kong did not attach importance to Chinese culture, it was marginalized, so it became increasingly distant from mainstream culture in the mainland. But it still was a symbol of modernity, and after the mainland opened up, it was easily absorbed by young people on the mainland. However, to a certain degree when talking content, it has to return to its roots. Hong Kong movies, for example - they're no good, they're empty. They have to co-produce with the mainland.

Take a foundation and details from the mainland and use modern, Hong Kong packaging to take advantage of the strengths of both places.

TBN: Has China gained more recognition from the Hong Kong people over these ten years?
Zhang: There has been an increase in the identification of Hong Kong with China, in the identification of ones self as Chinese. The greatest change has been in the return of people's hearts. The country is giving unceasing support to Hong Kong, and the people of Hong Kong have come to experience the status of people of Hong Kong, China.

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There are currently 6 Comments for Press freedom in Hong Kong, ten years on.

Comments on Press freedom in Hong Kong, ten years on


This is an interesting interview that I began translating today but didn't finish. Danwei beats me to the punch.

>>"sense of responsibility"

This is code for "do not criticize the central government."

Or as he put it: "upholding the foundation of the aims of the central government."

Ask Hong Kong's Martin Lee about this....

But I like this quote:

"Through this type of packaging you can show that many people are opposed, and their opposition has merit. On the surface you are letting readers judge, but in effect there's still some leading going on."

Somehow I can't imagine such honesty coming from an editor of the New York Times or the BBC.

I must say the interviewee has spoken his mind.
Afterall it's the media market that made WWP to inevitably face reality, at a time when most local media self-censored themselves as to tie up with the local community's increasing demand for news in the mainland.
It's a matter of life and death for WWP, if it can't raise its local circulation, or it will probably be left behind as an orphan without much milk to be fed by its mother.

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