Recap: Lecture Six - Hong Kong and the Role of the Media

We had quite a few people away on Reading Week activities, so I thought I would provide a more detailed summary of our discussion. As usual, I have posted on the WebCT site the Powerpoint file for today's lecture.

These were the salient points from today's class:
  • The globalization of media has been manifested in the growth of global media organizations and the proliferation of content due to the emergence of new channels of delivery, particularly the Internet.

  • In the 1980s-90s, Hong Kong became a key playing field for global media groups such as Time Warner and Dow Jones that entered the market with an eye to establishing a foothold in the Asian market.

  • But even as media has globalized, there has also been a surge in regional or local alternatives such as StarTV which had mixed results with its English-language programming but had huge success with its Hindi broadcasts.

  • Key point: Even as globalization has led to the emergence of a more global consciousness among media consumers and the penetration of Asian markets by global media groups, there has also been a parallel rise in regional and local options that cater to people who want content in their own language or framed with a regional or local perspective. Hong Kong is no exception. So while consumers have clamored for "global content" such as English football or CNN International, they have also snapped up new, vibrant local products such as Apple Daily.

  • Our two guests, Zoher Abdoolcarim, Senior Editor of Time Asia, and Liu Kin-ming, Director of Special Projects at Hong Kong Economic Journal, discussed how Hong Kong's news media has changed since the handover. Kin-ming noted that the different news outlets in Hong Kong cater to the tastes and perspectives of their readers or viewers. English-language publications often cover topics and developments that receive little attention from Chinese-language publications, and vice versa.

  • Referring to the "Death of Hong Kong" cover story that Fortune Magazine ran in 1995, Zoher noted that the title was meant to be provocative but that the article itself was more nuanced and argued that Hong Kong was in for a big change in 1997; it was not really as dire as the title might have led the reader to believe. But that said, there were genuine fears among Hong Kong people about the future of the city and many citizens who could do so were getting foreign passports in case anything went wrong. The worries were certainly fueled by the events of 4 June 1989 and the crushing of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing. This certainly colored foreign perspectives of Hong Kong's post-1997 future and of course raised concerns among local people.

  • Kin-ming said that during the initial period after the handover, the media in Hong Kong was feeling its way, wondering what the situation would be. This might have meant that some media were holding back, but once they found that nothing had really changed, then they continued as before. Clearly, self-censorship does happen, but this is not something that happened after the handover but was practiced beforehand, under the British, only there were different interests involved. As for the foreign media, there is little, if anything, that a publication like Time wouldn't cover if its editors thought it would be of interest to readers. But foreign media are not interested in the minutiae of developments in Hong Kong and China, looking instead at more big-picture issues and stories. Zoher noted that Time Asia's special on the tenth anniversary of the handover did not run in the Time U.S. domestic edition. There was never any thought that it would do so. There is just no interest in such a story among editors in New York.
  • One test case might be the coverage of the Dalai Lama's public meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush. In any of Hong Kong's newsrooms, are there editors who would want to bury such a story in the back pages instead of putting an article and/or photo on the front page? Kin-ming reckoned that certain newspapers in Hong Kong would minimize the story and even take a critical editorial view. But it is not unusual even in Western developed countries for the media to have a political slant or bias. British newspapers, for example, are renowned for leaning a particular way.
  • Zoher stressed that the evolution of media in Hong Kong should be seen against the backdrop of great change in China and in the perception of China. This is not the China of 1979 or 1989. There has been great progress in the mainland. In addition, the Chinese media itself has changed. While there are still much stricter limits on the news media than there are in Hong Kong, Chinese reporters are able to do much more than before. Kin-ming noted that Chinese journalists are highly skilled at working the system, doing as much as they can without over-stepping bounds. Many are fully aware of what it takes to be an excellent journalist, but they must work within the limits.
  • Both guests remarked on the proliferation of media in Hong Kong - the wider choice, the increase in the channels of delivery, and the easier access to global products. One recent phenomenon has been the rise in tabloid reporting, which some media critics have regarded as a form of self-censorship in that reporting on celebrities avoids having to delve into serious or sensitive issues. Zoher underscored that one should not take an elitist view - that there is room for both serious reporting and reporting on pop culture. Consumers want both. What is important is that, with the proliferation of choice, we as consumers of media should become more discriminating. We should judge for ourselves what sources of information are reliable and worthy of trust - and which ones aren't.
  • There was some discussion about the situation in Singapore, which paradoxically has succeeded in attracting some media groups to set up regional headquarters in the city, though it has a reputation for placing limits, either direct or indirect, on both local and foreign journalists. A reason for Singapore's success in attracting companies like Reuters to set up major operations in the city is that the government has provided incentives and the technological infrastructure to suppot these enterprises. They do not worry about what is broadcast from Singapore and are only concerned about what coverage of Singapore is distributed locally. Business and economic news is generally not a problem; they are more vigilant with reporting on local political and social issues. There have been many instances of Singapore leaders suing journalists for libel.
  • The media plays a vital role in Hong Kong as a check on vested interests and the excesses of political and business leaders, a mirror to society and a mirror of society, and a source of information and entertainment. The media in Hong Kong has globalized just as Hong Kong has globalized. The question is whether the media, particularly the press, can remain free and vibrant, despite the pressures that may exist that somehow fuel self-censorship and could make Hong Kong less attractive not only to investors but to its citizens.