Reflections on Hong Kong Headline News

A typical post on this blog is the parallel reading of the same event through the local Chinese-language coverage versus the western English-language coverage.  The point is more than just saying that Chinese readers have more interesting information.  While that may or may not be true, the more important question related to agenda setting by the media.  A typical example is this post.  A brief re-capitulation of the story is given here.

Here is what the local media look for.  They are commercial profit-making enterprises that operate in an uncensored environment.  They know sex sells and they know politics sells.  When the original political story broke, they covered it to the hilt.  When the story switched from a political story to a sex story, it was fine with them.  If sex sells and politics sells, then sex+politics will sell even more.

Here is what the western media look for in Hong Kong.  They are looking for the political angle.  So if there is another story about big bad China is once again taking away the freedom of Hong Kong, this is just what they want.  When the story switched from a political story to a sex story, they lost interest.  This is more in the domain of the New York Post than that of the New York Times.  And even the sex here is banal and uninteresting.

All of that is fair enough, because print and broadcast media are finite in space and it is necessary to make some choices as to what to include (and therefore what to exclude).

But at this moment, I am mindful that I am sitting in my New York City apartment, having breakfast while reading a copy of the New York Sunday Times.  A typical reader of the NYT would have only gotten reinforcement on the meme about big bad China infringing on the freedom of Hong Kong. 

Here is something by Tom Plate at Asia Pacific Media Network via the China Study Group:

The trouble is, sometimes things happen in China, based on Western press reports, which play into the hands of its enemies in the West. Take two recent U.S. newspaper headlines: “China Jails Hong Kong Democrat” and “China Holds Candidate From Hong Kong on Prostitution Charge.” These appeared in print on Wednesday (Aug. 17) in two of America’s most respected dailies: The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times respectively.

The headlines referred to the arrest on the Chinese mainland of a Hong Kong pro-democracy political figure on charges of proffering money for the intimate companionship of a woman. From there on, however, the details get real fuzzy. Was the figure targeted for arrest and charges possibly fabricated “precisely because he was a Beijing critic and activist of the Hong Kong Democratic (anti-Beijing) Party?” Or was he merely scooped up like any other alleged john in a local government effort to cut down on prostitution? I don't know, and even the officials involved seem hazy on the facts. In Hong Kong, though, there seems to be less uncertainty: There, it looks to so many like a clumsy setup by a nervous Beijing getting ever-more edgy about next month’s legislative-council elections.

As I say, I don’t know. It may take weeks to get the true story. But one thing is for sure: The People’s Republic of China has been getting bad press lately.


Beijing, to be sure, offers the world a different party line on both these stories, but I am afraid a recurrent pattern is surfacing: the Bad China Syndrome. In fits and starts, the American media tend to go in mainly one direction with a given country-story. After the bad has run its media course, good returns; but now, in America, it seems for China the good cycle may be over, ushering in the bad.

The implications for China are significant no matter what: If the Chinese authorities take the view that these are internal Chinese affairs and who cares how the Western press plays them, then China will be doomed to a bad press that will eat away at public support for U.S.-China engagement. In Beijing, they tend to underestimate the role of idealism in U.S. foreign policy and overrate the behind-the-scenes iron hand of the mostly Republican, multinational business lobby.

But if Chinese authorities take the view (as I think they should) that all countries need to worry about the image they project to the world (e.g., the United States and Abu Ghraib), then they have a problem. The sudden arrest of the Hong Kong democrat is so injurious to China’s image (a sort of New Wave Tiananmen operation), you’d think it was clandestinely orchestrated by a rogue CIA outfit. And the way the Buddhist persecution plays here revives memories of the Beijing crackdown on Falun Gong, a psychodrama that has mainly played into the Evil China scenario.

One thing is certain: These world-perception downslides are not in China’s national interests, no matter how valid authorities may view these actions from a law-enforcement or national-security standpoint. China faces plenty of tough-enough mountains to climb without elevating silly little molehills to the monumental status of Mt. Everest.

And then I read the following item:

(Chinese News Net)  August 21, 2004.

[translation]  The scandal arising from Hong Kong Democratic Party Legislative Council candidate Alex Ho being sentenced to serve six months of labor re-education for patronizing a prostitute has gone on for more than a week.  People close of China described that the incident had not caused any real damage to the Democratic Party election campaign.  Rather, because the international media continuously linked the incident to the central government oppressing the Democratic Party, Beijing is concerned about the damage to its international image.  Some Democratic Party insiders said that they have contacted "middlemen" and felt that even Beijing wanted to quickly handle this matter, and so Alex Ho has a good chance of receiving an early release.

Apple Daily quoted a Democratic Party insider to say that Democratic Party members contacted these "middlemen" to understand the Alex Ho affair.  Apparently, the other side said that they were not aware of this matter and they accused the Democratic Party of not contacting them immediately when Alex Ho was arrested and this has made it so much harder after the incident has been publicized.

Sources close to China said that apart from the Public Security Bureau, high-level central government officials are also paying attention to this matter.  So far, this incident has not caused a lot of damage to the Democratic Party's election campaign, but is has gotten broad coverage by the international media.  "They have almost unanimously said that this was a case of political persecution.  This is about to cause further criticism of about labor reform is against the rule of law, and will affect China's image."  He believes that Beijing will handle this matter quickly.




So here is the deal:  Some guy gets the itch and scores with a karaoke parlor DJ.  He is nailed by the Public Security Bureau.  The international news media got the wrong story at first, and then lost interest when the real story went in another direction.  But the Chinese government is now forced to release the guy because international opinion thinks that the case violates the rule of law.  Yes, that's right --- the rule of law.  What a travesty of justice!

Not that there is any chance of this happening.  In the much more prominent case of Dr. Jiang Yanyong, international opinion had zero impact on the Chinese government.  The material damage to the intra-national and international image of China would be greater if this was the basis of letting Alex Ho go, because this is going to create the impression that (1) China can be coerced into taking actions by a concerted international campaign based upon a fake issue; and (2) there exists a separate class of people known as Democratic Party politicians to whom the laws don't apply because any enforcement is regarded as political persecution (for another example, see previous post).