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THE ROLE OF THE PRESS IN
HONG KONG

By Lynn McFadgen

HONG KONG—The cleaners go up and down the aisles of the plane carefully refolding the newspapers so they will be in saleable shape for the news stalls at the Star Ferry. Later that day, Canadian expatriates eager for news from home pay about $2 each for the Vancouver Province and don't even mind that the crossword has been filled in. Another example of make-a-buck-however-you-can in free enterprise Hong Kong.

Canada rates little coverage in the Hong Kong media. The occasional story on trade growth or a photo of Trudeau with foreign dignitaries, that's about it. Political crisis and business deals are the main subjects of interest in the Hong Kong media. As a minor customer and insignificant international power, Canada can't compete for space.

The Canadian media return the favour, virtually ignoring the Asia-Pacific region despite a teeming refugee population, political upsets and the economic might of Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

"Canadian newspapers have a parochial outlook," says Gary Coull, a Canadian working at the Far Eastern Economic Review's news desk in Hong Kong.

Coull, finds, however, that the standard of professionalism is generally a bit lower on the papers in Hong Kong than in Canada. "A lot of things are under-reported." He explains that journalists in Hong Kong don't dig sufficiently and aren't critical enough. "But," he stresses, "some issues don't get raised by anyone but the press."

That in a nutshell is the strength of newspapers in Hong Kong.

Because of its status as a British colony, Hong Kong's government is composed not of elected politicians, but civil servants. Only 12 members of the Urban Council, whose responsibilities over municipal affairs carry little real power in any event are elected. And fewer than 32,000 of Hong Kong's 5.5 million population are registered voters. Consequently, Hong Kong is run by a government not accountable to an electorate nor forced into debate by an opposition party.

In this kind of situation, "there are two or three ways of expressing opposition," says Judy Walker, women's editor of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists'Association. She specifies letters to the editor sections in newspapers, radio phone-in programs and the Hong Kong Observers, a group of mainly overseas-educated Chinese who press for change through a regular column in the SCMP.

A startling difference between Canadian and Hong Kong newspapers is the effectiveness of letters to the editor. Both Chinese and foreign residents take advantage of this free space to publicize the social problems of living in crammed, noisy and commercially-oriented Hong Kong. The questions are pointed and answers and action are expected from senior-ranking civil servants and company executives. Generally, within a week, an answer is run from the appropriate government department or business explaining the situation, what action has been taken, future plans, and a phone number if the correspondent wants to follow up his enquiry further.

Whereas Canadian letters to the editor often bad-mouth the theatre critic for his assessment of a new play, Hong Kong citizens seldom discuss such abstractions. They raise day-to-day problems: slow and overcrowded bus service, inadequate health care, apartment wall cracks the landlord ignores, and the flood of illegal immigrants from China that stretches Hong Kong's social services to the breaking point. This section of the newspaper in particular plays an important role as a vehicle for government and the people to communicate.

Judy Walker sums up the role of the press in Hong Kong: "The only watchdog on the government is the press." Editorials and regular columns in the papers also raise issues that should be discussed between a government and its citizens. She feels the persistence of the press is responsible for significant developments such as the recent rent controls for domestic premises. "Journalists have a fair bit of clout here."

That clout reaches a wide audience. According to the government's annual report, Hong Kong has the second highest newspaper readership in Asia (second to Japan), with some 350 copies printed for every 1,000 people. That compares to the world average of 102.

Five English-language papers are produced each day, the best known being the SCMP which has a circulation of 65,000. Second in circulation is the Hong Kong Standard. Since September, the International Herald Tribune has been printed in Hong Kong from facsimile pages transmitted via satellite from the Paris head office.

The leading Chinese-language papers are Sing Tao Jih Pao, Wah Kiu Yat Po, Sing Pao, Sing Tao Man Po and Kung Sheung. There are two major Communist papers: Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po. However, a large number of the nearly 100 Chinese dailies are "mosquito newspapers" which concentrate on horse racing or serials for instance.

Three hundred and twenty-six periodicals are produced in Hong Kong, about one-third available in English. Both Asiaweek and the Far Eastern Economic Review are widely read English-language magazines specializing in Asian news. The fortnightly Sunday supplement Asia Magazine (circulation 350,000) is distributed in several Asian newspapers. Hong Kong is Asian headquarters for many international radio and television networks, newspapers, magazines and news agencies. The Asian editions of Time, Readers's Digest, Newsweek and the Asian Wall Street Journal are produced here.

The size of the journalistic community and dissatisfaction with working conditions led to the formation of a trade union, the Hong Kong Journalists'Association, in the late 60's. It was a period, according to Jack Spackman, one of the association's founders and curently publisher/editor of Computer/Asia, "when Hong Kong was aflame with (Communist) riots, when (news) people were beated up, their film dragged out and their cameras stolen." Reporters also faced danger covering typhoons. One of the first activities of the association was to push for helmets.

According to current association chairman Judy Walker, the two main priorities of the HKJA are training, and increasing Chinese membership. Members include photographers, PR people, government information officers, TV and radio personnel and librarians. One problem, typical in Hong Kong, is that all meetings are held in English, thus inhibiting the Chinese participation they're seeking.

Ms. Walker points to particular problems in the Chinese press. Salaries are very low, she reports, ranging from $600-800 HK (about $150-200 Cdn.) per month. "They have to take other jobs and are encouraged to accept "tea money" for getting a story in or keeping it out. As well, they're encouraged to sell advertising."

Another difficulty is lack of adequate training despite journalism courses run by the Chinese University and the Baptist College. Traditionally, the Chinese educational system has discouraged questions and debate, focussing on memorization and examination skills. Thus, serious inaccuracies by new journalists crop up, reports Ms. Walker. Reporters come back from press conferences without basic information. Another problem, she says, is that the Chinese often copy verbatim from other papers and rely heavily on police radio.

Transience is the nature of Hong Kong. It poses a special threat for the media because it takes a couple of years to develop good sources and understand the region. Journalists leave just when they've built up experience, or move into advertising or public relations where salaries are more attractive. As well, locals are starting to join the government's information department through which they get housing.

On top of that, the traditional source of journalists — Australia and the UK — are drying up. Tightened immigration policies now requiring a work permit, and the high cost of living (rent is about four times Canadian rates), have slowed the influx. "The combination of experts not arriving and the neglect of training" pose a crisis for journalism according to Jack Spackman.

World affairs is the heartbeat of Hong Kong's economy, export-oriented as it is, and is reflected in the press. International coverage of social, political and economic news is ongoing and comprehensive, originating mostly from the wire services. China coverage, in particular, is excellent with the SCMP devoting up to two pages to this neighbour in the throes of its modernization program.

Business reporting is another strength. For example, SCMP publishes a 16-page business news supplement daily. The supplement includes shipping and freight schedules, stock market quotations and reports on business developments. The Hong Kong Standard produces a similar section and two Chinese dailies, Sing Tao Man Pao and Kung Sheung, are business-oriented.

Yet investigative reporting and in-depth coverage of local issues are meagre, presumably because they are time-consuming and expensive from the publisher's point of view. Social problems are just not a high priority even though it seems every bus accident, murder and robbery gets space. Extensive coverage is given to day-to-day court proceedings. It all disappoints Judy Walker who says: "This place is bursting at the seams with stories, especially human interest stories."

Lynn McFadgen is a Toronto publishing consultant returning home in January after a year's stay in Hong Kong

Published in Sources Winter 1980/81 



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