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World: Press Freedom May Become The Acid Test In Hong Kong

  • Stuart Parrott

Hong Kong, 26 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- With just over a month to go before the British colony of Hong Kong is returned to Chinese sovereignty, freedom of the press is regarded by many as one of the acid tests of Beijing's intentions towards the territory.

Democratic activists have warned that if China imposes censorship on Hong Kong's lively English- and Cantonese-language newspapers, this will call into doubt all its other guarantees on the colonyUs future.

Britain is to return Hong Kong to China at midnight on June 30 at a glittering handover ceremony that will see the Union Jack hauled down for the last time in this outpost of the former British Empire.

The moment will mark the end of more than 150 years of colonial rule in Hong Kong, a dynamic trading center that was originally seized by Britain after the Anglo-Chinese Opium War of the 1840s.

On the departure of the British colonial governor, the chief executive appointed by China, shipping tycoon Tung Chee Hwa will take over the reins of power. Units of the PeopleUs Liberation Army will cross into Hong Kong in the early hours of July 1

As the deadline for the handover draws nearer, many of Hong Kong's 6.4 million, mostly Cantonese, people are nervous about their future under one-party communist rule. One of their concerns is whether China will keep its word to maintain freedom of the press.

Press freedom is guaranteed by the 1984 Joint Sino-British Declaration on the future of Hong Kong. But civil rights activists worry that such guarantees are written into the constitution of many nations, whereas in practice they are not observed at all.

Hong Kong is home to some 50 newspapers and more than 650 magazines and periodicals. The 21 largest daily newspapers boast a combined circulation of almost three million.

The Hong Kong press reports in depth in English and Chinese both on political affairs in the colony and also on the mainland. As one observer says, "Many pages are devoted to sessions of the People's National Congress in Beijing, and innumerable items are recorded that never see the light of day within the People's Republic."

Aside from newspapers and periodicals, Hong Kong is also a major regional television broadcasting center, while the three main radio broadcasters in the territory operate a total of 13 radio stations.

The Hong Kong-based newspaper, "Asia Times," says until recently these media outlets, as well as 180 international media organizations, thrived on a degree of press freedom paralleled in few places in Asia.

In an editorial, the paper said: "Looking at the Hong Kong media, what disturbs us is that there are already troubling signs that such freedoms will be slowly eroded and delimited in fact."

There have been several signs of this. In the past year, a leading Hong Kong radio personality has been attacked by the pro-Beijing press for favoring the colony's Democrat Party which is waging a vocal campaign to press China to observe civil liberties.

Other reports have detailed how local newspapers have softened their coverage of China, while observers point to what they call "a creeping form of self-censorship by a growing number of publications."

What to do about the problem? The short answer, according to civil libertarians, is to maintain pressure on China to live up to the guarantees that it gave Hong Kong during negotiations with Britain.

The human rights group, Amnesty International, has called on Tung Chee Hwa to uphold the freedoms guaranteed under international rights standards, and in particular to confirm that his administration will not amend Hong Kong's Bill of Rights to reduce its scope or effectiveness. Amnesty said in a recent statement: "Hong Kong's economic success is dependent on the free and open flow of information. But this will be lost if the Press is not allowed to freely engage in public debate and legitimate scrutiny of the government."

Former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has spoken of the need to monitor the extent to which Hong Kong's economic freedoms are preserved under the new regime. In an interview, he also said that, personally, he would pay the closest attention to freedom of the Press as "early and reliable indicator of China's long-term intentions."

A similar point was made by U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers earlier this month. He said that Hong Kong must remain a major financial and economic center and its success "depends on nothing as directly as it depends on the free flow of information and the ability of people to speak out as they will."