South China Morning Post, 14 August, 1994

Press freedom is no luxury


By Martin Lee

The closure of garment tycoon and publisher Jimmy Lai Chee-ying's Giordano. If journalism is supposed to be the first darft of history, Hong Kong entrepreneur Jimmy Lai Chee-ying's draft is probably rougher than most.

But China's reaction in closing down one of Mr Lai's outlets was extreme and has further rattled Hong Kong's already jittery journalist community, calling into question the value of "one country two systems" guarantees for freedom of speech and the press.

In the light of China's response to Mr. Lai's letter, it is worth remembering that during the recent debate over electoral reform in Hong Kong, senior Chinese officials demonstrated their own familiarity with curses and invective.

Shortly after Governor Chris Patten proposed modest democratic reforms, he was called "a liar", "a criminal", "a villain condemned by history for 1,000 years" as well as "a prostitute", a "Buddha's serpent" and a "sly lawyer". A leading Chinese Government official even said the Governor had removed his "fig leaf" to reveal a "three-legged stool".

But if we in Hong Kong really believe in free speech, we will defend equally the right of both Community Party officials and Hong Kong publishers to call people names. Oras Voltaire put it: "I may disapprove what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

That is the essence of a free press and free speech. China's signals on whether Hong Kong will be allowed to retain press freedom after 1997 are confusing to say the least. One minute Chinese officials promise Hong Kong's freedoms and liberties will be protected under "one country, two systems". The next, Beijing tries to quash journalists and publishers critical of China. Though even the Basic Law stipulates Hong Kong residents shall retain freedom of speech, of the press and of publication, recent events indicate this may mean little.

The past year saw the arrest and imprisonment of Hong Kong journalist Xi Yang and conspicuous cases of self-censorship at both TVB and ATV. More recently, it was reported that Shenzhen propaganda chief Huang Xinhua told Hong Kong reporters twice to "be wise" and "bend with the wind". He also reportedly warned Ma Chin-kwan, chairman of Oriental Press Group to "watch out".

International media barons have also fallen foul of Chinese leaders. After new STAR TV owner Rupert Murdoch observed that totalitarian regimes cannot long withstand the liberating forces of information, China began enforcing a law prohibiting satellite dishes.

Faster than you can say "kowtow", Mr. Murdoch dumped from his service the BBC (which had offended Communist officials in broadcasting a documentary detailing Chairman Mao's extracurricular love life).

Each of these cases bodes ill for press freedom in Hong Kong, but Jimmy Lai's situation is without recent parallel and is particularly bad news for publishers and the business side of the media industry.

Last year, a Chinese government directive effectively "blacklisted" a number of Chinese language publication, stating that the Bank of China and other state-run industries should not advertise in certain magazines or newspapers which had failed to toe Beijing's line on political reform.

Most media groups in Hong Kong are diversified and have, or hope to have, business or joint ventures in China. In punishing Mr. Lai through his company, Beijing is trying to kill two birds with one stone: to shut Mr. Lai up, while simultaneously warning other publishers and businessmen that it can and will sabotage the business stability of those who are critical of Chinese leaders or policy.

If Chinese Premier Li Peng disagrees with the content of Mr. Lai's column in Next Magazine's July 22 edition, the proper response in a free society is to write a letter to the editor, or for Premier Li to ask for equal time and space in the magazine to respond. This is by and large how the Singapore Government - not exactly a bastion of press freedom - resolves its disagreement with publications.

Hong Kong's competitiveness is directly linked with our ability to receive and process new information. During the stock market crash of 1987, Singapore financiers were caught flat-footed because they, unlike the rest of the world, could not monitor the crash on CNN. After that catastrophe, even Singapore recongnised that in an information age, no society can compete without fast, accurate news.

Publishing is a business like any other. Hong Kong's free market systems works best when left alone: if people in Hong Kong do not want to read Mr. Lai's opinions, they will simply stop buying his magazine.

But that is a decision for Hong Kong people alone to make. We must remember that freedom of speech and expression means that even Mr. Lai's in-your-face brand of journalism is afforded protection from interference.

With barely 1,000 days until the transfer of sovereignty, it is critical that Hong Kong's business community begin to look at the long-term stability provided by free markets, a free press and the rule of law, rather than the short-term benefits of appointments to advisory positions and "guanxi" (good connections) in China.

Whether or not they agree with Mr. Lai's political views, Hong Kong business executives should think about the dangerous precedent the closing of Giordano in Beijing sets for life post-1997, and they should protest against the blatant intimidation used by China. They should do it for self-preservation if not for principle: next time it will be someone else's turn.

Hong Kong people do not want a "free press with Chinese characteristics". If Beijing is genuine in its promise of "one country, two system", the time to start proving it to Hong Kong people is now. Beijing should Hong Kong journalist to objectively on all issues because will be good for Hong Kong China.

History has many examples how censoring of a society's was the first step down the totalitarianism. In Hong Kong with our unique economy by free-flowing information freedom of the press is no luxury Hone Kong people need recongise that the end of our free market in information and ideas the end of our free market - and would surely spell the all of our other freedoms as.

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