An open letter to the Chinese Communist Party concerning press freedom in Hong Kong

6 min read
Protest for press freedom in Hong Kong

Dear Chinese Communist Party,

I’m not one of those Americans who thinks the way we do things in ‘Murica is always better than the way others do them, but when it comes to propagandising and controlling its population…well…USA #1!. Comparing the elegant sophistication of the US authorities to the brutishness of the Chinese is like comparing a samurai sword to a meat cleaver.

US propaganda is so good that many Americans don’t even think of their media as propaganda. Not so in China, and increasingly not so in Hong Kong. So my advice to my current masters is to be a little more like my former masters (or HK’s former masters). Try a subtler approach when it comes to Hong Kong people.

You see, Hong Kong people are not like Mainland Chinese people. I know, you guys like to think the difference is that they have been conditioned by the British into believing in all this civil liberties crap, but the history is a little more complicated than that. When Hong Kong people were rioting in 1967 and China Commie sympathy was reportedly prevalent in the colony, the British behaved very much like you might have: they locked up journalists and closed down newspapers.

But they quickly realised that this did them more harm than good. Tony Elliot, the political advisor to Hong Kong at the time, stated: “The experience of the last six months has shown that interference with the press produces more violent reactions than anything else.” Hong Kong got freedom of the press because the people fought for it, not because the Brits wanted them to have it.

Press freedom was the lesser of two evils for the British authorities, and I believe it is the lesser of two evils for Big Beijing as well.  You know that anti-subversion law that you’ve been trying to pass for so long? You know, the one that H0ng Kong people protest every time you try to pass it? My advice is to drop it, and control the press in ways that won’t stir up so much animosity. The more bluntly  you exert control over the Hong Kong media, the less useful that control becomes.

The way they do things where I come from is less obvious and therefore more effective. The rulers of my country are the financial and corporate elite; they control the politicians and they control the media, and they do it mainly by (quietly) giving gifts. You guys could totally do the same thing; a “free press” and “democracy” make control easier, not harder (I’ll explain the democracy part in another post). In my country, we have a “polarised political debate” because Republicans and Democrats shout at each other on Fox News and MSNBC.

We have “liberal” newspapers like the New York Times, and “conservative” ones like the Wall Street Journal, but when something is really important to the political elites, as during the lead up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, everybody falls in line. Then they go back to attacking each other over gay rights and abortion, while both sides support the same basic foreign policy and economic agendas.

This “polarised” political climate makes anyone who speaks outside of these bounds look like an extremist, and extremists/dissidents are better ignored than brutalised (compare Amy Goodman/Ai Weiwei). In the US, the mainstream (note the adjective meaning not extremist) media are controlled through advertising and ownership.  Nothing that’s against the interests of corporate/finance hegemony can be published by the mainstream media in the US, because nearly 100% of advertisers are corporations.

Questioning corporate hegemony is simply not profitable, no conspiracy, no corruption necessary.  I notice that you guys have gotten into this game too, and that you’re pretty good at it in fact. Unfortunately for you, some people in Taiwan have also noticed your press control prowess. Again, a more patient approach will get you more of what you want, in the long run.

That article I just linked to is instructive, not because it documents how the CCP influences media outlets around the world by withholding advertising, denying visas for foreign reporters, and rewarding loyal journalists in Hong Kong and Taiwan, while using China’s economic might to punish disloyal media groups (of course y’all know all about that).  It’s instructive because the institution that wrote it (Freedom House, a “Non-Governmental Organisation” financed largely by the US government) would never be so impolite as to turn such analysis against its sponsors. See how that works?

The US can criticise you, and it looks like an impartial NGO is doing it. But when you criticise the US in your state controlled newspaper, the propagandistic nature of the criticism is just too obvious to have any effect on people (like those in Hong Kong) who grew up with a “free press.” Speaking through state-controlled media detracts from your message, completely overshadowing the legitimacy of many of your claims. What you need is an institution with a reputation for objectivity and independence. There are no such institutions in Mainland China.

The other thing that detracts from your message is your tone. You see, to those of us with Western sensibilities the way  you write just sounds childish. So let me give you some advice that I give my students; be judicious with your adjectives and adverbs. Just as the use of “very” tends to weaken whatever it was intended to strengthen, when your propagandists write something like, “China on Friday responded to the United States criticism and irresponsible remarks of its human rights situation by publishing its own report on the US human rights issues,” the sentence is rendered ineffective as propaganda by the word “irresponsible.” It just makes it too obvious that the reporter is not objectively reporting what the CCP says, but is actually a mouthpiece for the CCP.

This is why the South China Morning Post is a much more useful propaganda tool for you than is the China Daily. The fact that the SCMP is published in Hong Kong, and is at times mildly critical of your policies, is precisely what makes it more credible. Notice that the New York Times was so much more useful to the Bush administration in making its case for the invasion of Iraq than was Fox News, which was too obviously allied with the Republican party to be taken seriously by anyone who was the least bit sceptical in the first place. To liberal-minded Westerners, the China Daily and Fox News sound equally ridiculous.

A free press in Hong Kong can be useful to you, but only if you use a softer touch. If you want to be able to effectively influence media savvy people all over the world, the legacy of press freedom in Hong Kong is your most valuable asset. Currently Hong Kong’s reputation for press freedom is depreciating so quickly that the credibility of its independent papers may reach the level of the China Daily or Xinhua.

Once lost, it will be nearly impossible to restore. So use your financial muscle to encourage self-censorship, but be patient. Use the carrot, avoid the stick. Eventually, you’ll find that journalists have subconsciously adopted your frames to the point that they don’t even think of it as self-censoring, and the public won’t either. But if you’re too eager to take control of Hong Kong, you risk destroying the very institutions you wish to control.

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Tony Simon

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