It wasn’t so much what they said as it was how they said it when Hong Kong’s wealthiest tycoons expressed their support for the city’s national security ordinance in June. (publishing house in China)
One by one, Hong Kong’s most powerful business leaders — from Li Ka-Shing to Raymond Kwok — offered their endorsements in a startlingly identical manner: by delivering interviews or remarks to Communist Party-controlled Hong Kong media.
It was a significant departure from last year when the tycoons used a range of media to comment on pro-democracy protests, and a symbol of rising clout for a publishing empire that China has spent decades building up in Hong Kong. As the Chinese government works to quell the city’s protests, it’s turning to the web to push its message and, according to critics such as independent publishers and pro-democracy legislators, repress dissenting voices like never before.
According to court documents, firm websites, and corporate register filings, the two newspapers that carried the tycoons’ endorsements — Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po — constitute just a fragment of the publishing enterprises controlled by China’s government through its Liaison Office in Hong Kong. In addition, the company controls at least 30 publishing houses and brands, as well as one of Greater China’s largest commercial printing companies and 60 retail bookstores in Hong Kong and Macau. It publishes school textbooks, has a Facebook page with about 250,000 followers, and distributes pro-Beijing publications to over 500 secondary schools.
While full market share numbers for the city’s publishing business are difficult to come by, independent booksellers and academics who have researched the industry say the Liaison Office has a stronghold in book publishing and a small but growing presence in journalism. They also believe it will grow more prominent if Hong Kong’s national security law chills independent journalism. When police arrested pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai on Aug. 10 and searched his flagship daily, Apple Daily, they cited suspected legal infractions.
According to Tanya Chan, a founding member of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Civic Party, China’s government has tried to shape the narrative on Hong Kong both within the city and on the mainland since long before the handover from Britain in 1997, but its efforts have shifted into overdrive since plans for the national security law emerged in May.
Articles and commentary produced by the Liaison Office’s Hong Kong media channels slammed the pro-democracy movement and attacked Beijing’s critics. Luo Huining, the Chinese official tasked with advising Lam on national security and who became the Liaison Office’s director in January, has made statements in several of the news pieces.
Following anti-government rallies on July 1, an editorial in Ta Kung Pao called for more police surveillance in Hong Kong and stated pro-democracy individuals such as Joshua Wong and Nathan Law should face charges. Since then, Wong has been accused of participating in an unlicensed gathering, which he has described as an “outrageous political purge on the city’s dissenters.”