University of Chicago

“They Can’t Kill Us All” – Press Freedom in Hong Kong, the Threatened Democratic Harbor by Josie Lui

Two decades after the handover in 1997, many have observed the rapid decline of press freedom in Hong Kong, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s took office in 2013.[1] After the politically pressured expulsion of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet in 2018 and many other incidences, many have become increasingly wary that Hong Kong, a special administrative region that is supposed to enjoy separate status as a special administrative region until 2049 (“One Country, Two Systems”), is losing its autonomous and democratic status. More specifically, The declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s constitutional document that guarantees various essential democratic elements, such as freedom of expression (press, assembly, religion), seems to be losing its protective power.

In his book chapter “Democratization and Public Opposition,” Robert A. Dahl states that one of the requirements for Democracy is institutional guaranteed “Freedom of Expression.”[2] Hence, Hong Kong’s news reporting landscape can be used as an indicator for monitoring the condition of Hong Kong’s democracy. Weighing both quantitative and qualitative evidence, this blog post suggests that Hong Kong’s press freedom is indeed declining and the causes are systemic, economic, and political. However, there are also counteracting forces that have prevented the media from succumbing totally to control and censorship. These forces send a clear message “THEY CAN’T KILL US ALL.”[3]

So, what’s going on?

As of 2018, Hong Kong’s press freedom score was 45 on a 100-point scale, down from 47.1 in the previous year, according to the 2018 Press Freedom Index. The degree of decline is the largest and the score is now at its lowest since the survey was first conducted in 2013.[4] Hong Kong journalists have experienced an increasing amount of pressure, growing risk of violence, and self-censorship in the course of their work. Correspondingly, media freedom is increasingly deteriorated by local authorities, the Chinese central government, and wealthy owners with political and business interests in mainland China. For instance, the South China Morning Post, a leading English newspaper in Hong Kong, was accused of compromising its editorial independence and serving as a puppet for Chinese propaganda after it was bought by the founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma. These powerful stakeholders attempt to repress dissenting opinions, especially separationist arguments, by controlling media discourse and narrative. The decline of press freedom is a warning sign that Hong Kong’s democracy is backsliding. Citizens are increasingly deprived of transparent and accurate information that helps them formulate informative preferences.

Forms of control and censorship

Intervention and censorship in the course of journalists’ work are not direct and blatant, but the possibility of intervention is always present when the action is needed. So what are the forms of control? Media theorists have distinguished between allocative and operational control. Operational control refers to the control of frontline operations (direct intervention), while allocative control is the decisions over basic personnel and resource allocation that pretty much generate the parameters for daily newsroom operations.[5]  In Hong Kong, political and economic interests stakeholders who own media companies tend to exercise allocative control rather than operational control. Allocative control, by being more subtle and oftentimes unnoticed, lead to self-censorship among journalists and constitutive censorship.  

Counteracting forces

Despite the intermingle between mainstream media and political-economic complex, one should not be entirely pessimistic about Hong Kong’s press freedom, as counteracting forces are loud and present. According to Prof. Francis Lee of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, there are two major counteracting forces. The first is journalistic professionalism. According to Prof. Lee, “historically, the Hong Kong media took up the liberal conception of journalistic professionalism as their legitimating creed in the 1980s.” Journalists often see themselves as independent agents serving public interest rather than puppets of political and economic power.

The second counteracting force is market concerns. Most Hong Kong media companies, though embedded with external political and economic influence, are commercial entities. Hong Kong has a pro-democratic culture among citizens, who are very critical and sensitive to biased news and deliberately covered information. Hence, journalists acknowledge that self-censorship through softer tone adjustment is more common than fabricating “alternative facts” or totally hiding certain information. Moreover, as long as a substantial proportion of Hong Kong citizens support democracy, there would be market demands for such narrative and publication. Apple Daily, for instance, is an example of a media company that holds democratic stance. Besides, there are also burgeons of new media companies, such as the Freedom Press, that seek to preserve the freedom of expression and resist the manipulated/controlled narrative of mainstream media.

Some might argue that the two counteracting forces are not as formidable as they appear to be and the taming of these forces is only a matter of time. This is not so true because, as ample evidence has suggested, Hong Kong people are not at all ignorant about the decline. Instead, multiple surveys (e.g. Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey) have revealed that the decline in press freedom correlates with an upward trend of citizens with the insistence on verified facts seeking out online versions of trusted paid newspapers.[6] As long as there are trusted paid newspapers that hold professionalism as their core principle and consumers who are willing to pay for verified facts, the two forces will continue to prevent media discourse from succumbing totally to external powers.

To end…

Even though press freedom in Hong Kong has been facing an increasing threat from a variety of powerholders, it is not totally dead. Professional journalists still resist, social interest groups still create new independent media, and ordinary citizens still support media outlets that hold pro-democratic views and professional principles. As long as free press – a pillar of democracy is not dead – one should not be entirely pessimistic about Hong Kong’s democratic future. That’s said, it remains essential to continue to monitor closely:

  1. the influx of red capital into Hong Kong media outlets;
  2. changes in ownership structures/incentive structures among media companies;
  3. evolution of pro-democratic social discourse;
  4. the continual evolution of digital media environment.

[1] https://china-journal.org/2019/02/20/the-deterioration-of-chinas-media-freedom-in-the-xi-jinping-era/

[2] Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.

[3] Slogan of a famous street protest that advocated for press freedom and condemned the attack on former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to in 2014.

[4] https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Hong-Kong-press-freedom-index-drops-to-new-low

[5] Lee, L.F. Frances. 2018 “Changing Political Economy of the Hong Kong Media.” China Perspective 2018/3.

[6] https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2071749/why-hong-kongs-traditional-media-alive-and-kicking-digital


Photo by Felix Wong

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