The Globe and Mail: All roads lead to Beijing

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Five years after Hong Kong resorted to China' control, local tycoons have sold out to the mainland says ousted journalist JASPER BECKER

JASPER BECKER
05/27/2002

Walk through Hong Kong' glitzy shopping malls, stare up at the skywalks linking the office towers or ride the swish new airport express and it just doesn' add up: how can the jackboot of totalitarianism fall on such a place? But, amidst all the justifications of the need for strong leadership by re-elected chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, the timetable for introducing democracy to Hong Kong has been put to one side. Instead, Mr. Tung is taking other steps -- bringing forward an anti-subversion bill, banning unauthorised demonstrations, and keeping out known dissidents such as Harry Wu.

Most people forgot about Hong Kong after 1997 when the '' did not immediately result in a new order. People pointed to the lively and critical press, particularly the South China Morning Post, and to the tolerance shown to the annual gatherings to commemorate the 1989 Tianenmen Square massacre.

June, 1989 was Hong Kong' finest moment. A million people took to the streets in a spontaneous outpouring of anger and disappointment -- an act that radically changed perceptions of Hong Kong in Beijing. Once regarded condescendingly as a harmless sort of place where people chased profits,gambled on horses or made films about gangsters and martial arts, it was suddenly seen as a Trojan horse. What if those rich Hong Kong tycoons bankrolled a student-led movement to overthrow the Communists?

This had happened a century before to the Qing dynasty when Revolutionaries such as Sun Yat-sen found refuge in Hong Kong and tycoons supported his activities.

History might have repeated itself if Deng Xiaoping had not thrown open the economy in 1992, luring a huge flow of money from the overseas Chinese.

The strains of this strange coalition between capitalists and Communists played itself out in the pages of my former paper, the South China Morning Post. The paper is owned by Robert Kuok, a Malaysian-born businessman who has a huge portfolio of investments in China. It is run by his son, Ean Kuok.

Instead of protecting the autonomy of Hong Kong, including the freedom of its press, many tycoons felt compelled to speed up the integration of Hong Kong into the mainland' system. They want to show their loyalty, to disarm the suspicion about them in the Communist Party.

What better way than by curbing those who question the claims made by Beijing about its achievements? The tycoons gently hinted how much better it would be to put positive spins on developments.

One after another, the paper' leading journalists were pushed out. The editor, Jonathan Fenby left, then the features editor Charles Anderson, and cartoonist Larry Feign. Most recently, it was editorial page editor Danny Gittings, and business editor, Grant Clelland. No one disappeared into a concentration camp but it did feel as if we were inside one of those novels that describes how the Nazis took over German institutions in the 1930s. A threshold was crossed 18 months ago when the China editor, Willy Lam, was forced to resign; replaced by a relatively obscure mainlander, Wang Xiangwei, who trained at the official China Daily.

We found ourselves living a lie. Anything that might offend the delicate sensibilities of the leaders in Beijing began to disappear from the paper. Various excuses were put forward: a story was "potentially libelous", or a quote inaccurate, or there wasn' enough space. The stories about enemies of Beijing -- the Falun Gong, Tibetans, striking workers -- were left increasingly to the wires. More and more stories were taken from the mainland press (which was often more aggressive than we were.)

The turning point for me came six months ago when our Beijing office was moved from the purview of the foreign ministry to that of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office. The officials in this department have set out to tighten control over the Hong Kong media after President Jiang Zemin responded angrily to the coverage of his decision to support Tung Chee-hwa' re-election.

The department trained someone to monitor the English press, issued new regulations and said it was holding back visas until the Post replaced its mainland correspondents with ethnic Chinese.

Eventually, our residence visas were renewed but just for six months. Then, our own head office began to make things uncomfortable. Our monthly expenses were delayed for mysterious reasons. The rent was not paid. The China editor, Wang Xiangwei, opposed any reporting trips and demanded that all stories be approved by him.

The end came during a strange episode in March, when I received a rare invitation to go to Tibet. With a long record of breaking stories on Tibet, I was delighted to wangle the invite after months of effort. In 1989, I had been expelled from Lhasa was declared and never expected to get back.

But, the Post' new editor, Thomas Abraham, said he could see no story coming out of such a trip. I was told to report routine press briefings in Beijing.

I reasoned that Mr. Abraham, an Indian with limited China experience, might be being misled, and confronted him about our coverage. My attempt fell on deaf ears, and I was sacked. My arguments to him then are still valid today. Many in Hong Kong are trying to be more Catholic than the Pope in trying to please China. It is unnecessary. China is not a monolith but full of people pulling in all directions. The overall trend on the mainland is towards more open and aggressive reporting. And if Hong Kong abandons its advantages over the mainland, its significance, its particularity in the Chinese world, will disappear. We will all be the poorer for that.

(Jasper Becker, a Hong Kong journalist, was recently dismissed as Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post.)

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