HONG KONG — It may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but Hong Kong citizens perceive a gathering storm darkening their windows. When the owner of one of the city’s largest newspapers tried to replace the editor-in-chief, its staff and columnists staged a dramatic revolt. The episode is the latest symptom of collective anxiety over the state of free press in this former British colony, more than 16 years after its handover to China.
On Monday, more than 110 staff stood outside the headquarters of Ming Pao, one of Hong Kong’s most respected Chinese-language newspapers. Dressed in black, each journalist held up a copy of the paper and solemnly observed a five-and-half minute period of silence in protest against the owner’s decision to sack the paper’s editor-in-chief, Kevin Lau. On the same day, four of Ming Pao’s writers sent in blank columns, also as a form of protest, leaving glaring white spaces in the print edition.
A journalist at Ming Pao, who asked to remain anonymous, told Foreign Policy that the newspaper’s senior management has not offered a good reason for Lau’s removal. According to the source, many among the staff speculate that it is an attempt to interfere with the newspaper’s journalistic independence. The paper’s ultimate owner is a Malaysian-Chinese tycoon named Tiong Hiew-King. Ming Pao did not respond to an email seeking comment.
In Hong Kong’s noisy media jungle, Ming Pao occupied a clearing in the center that has drawn in the educated middle class. Consistently rated as one of the territory’s most trusted papers, it has been careful not to venture too far along either side of pro- and anti-mainland spectrum that divides Hong Kong’s print media. Being in the middle does not necessarily indicate neutrality on key issues, but neither does it signal reluctance to report on government wrongdoing. Most recently, in October 2013, the paper published aggressive, wall-to-wall coverage of the controversy over the Hong Kong government’s refusal to grant a licence to a new cable television operator. Many believe that the decision to withhold the licence was made at the behest of Beijing. Ming Pao’s approach in that story showed that its journalists stood in defence of Hong Kong’s freedom of media, a core value that the self-governing territory holds dear because it sets it apart from mainland China.
Ming Pao’s owner, Tiong, plans to helicopter in fellow Malaysian-Chinese Chong Tien Siong, a former editor of a Chinese language newspaper in Malaysia, to head the newspaper. According to the unnamed Ming Pao journalist, all available indicators point to Chong being "pro-Beijing" and not knowing much about Hong Kong’s local affairs. While senior management gave reassurance that Ming Pao’s editorial independence would be left alone after the switch, the staff remain skeptical.
For their part, Hongkongers cannot seem to shake the nagging suspicion that the Chinese government is using all the tools at its disposal to control media in the territory. The cable licence denial and the Ming Pao editor change are but two examples. On Jan. 14, the founder of am730, a free daily newspaper in Hong Kong, revealed that several mainland Chinese companies abruptly pulled approximately $1.2 million worth of advertising from the newspaper in November 2013, likely acting on orders from above in retaliation against the pro-democracy positions of am730’s writers. A Hong Kong publisher working on a book on Chinese President Xi Jinping was reportedly arrested in China in January 2014.
At Hong Kong’s handover to the mainland in 1997, the Chinese government promised to keep Hong Kong’s existing institutions intact for 50 years. But less than a third of the way in, denizens already fear that much of what has made the territory special will be lost.
Rachel Lu is the co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, Foreign Policy’s blog about news and major trends in China.