Linking Issues With Instances
I was away from Hong Kong, so I am belatedly covering the Candlelight Vigil on Freedom of Expression on July 14, 2005. According to Associated Press (via China Post), "About 1,800 people lit candles at a nighttime rally in Hong Kong to express concern that the right to free speech has been eroded since this former British colony returned to Chinese rule eight years ago. ... Many fear that Hong Kong's civil liberties - guaranteed under the territory's constitution - are at risk under Chinese rule. People in mainland China are denied such Western-style freedoms. In 2003, half a million Hong Kongers protested an anti-subversion bill that they described as draconian, forcing the government to shelve it."
How can that number drop from half a million to 1,800 like that? Is it because they don't care about their freedoms anymore?
The title of this post is "Linking Issues With Instances." The issues are the freedoms of expression (publication, speech and press). These are freedoms that are guaranteed under the Basic Law.
Article 27. Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike.
So this is not a matter of stirring up the masses about something that they never had. It is an issue of stirring up the masses when it appeared that those freedoms are being eroded, and that needs to be connected with specific instances.
On July 1, 2003, the specific instance is the proposed amendment to Basic Law article 23, and that was the major reason (together with a faltering economy and the SARS crisis) that led half a million people to take to the streets.
So what are the specific instances that are used to link to the freedoms of expression for the candlelight vigil on July 14, 2005. There are three specific instances.
The first instance pertains to the cancellation of the live horseracing broadcasts on public radio station RTHK. Unfortunately, the specific instance (namely, the cancellation of the live horseracing broadcasts) is not regarded as important at all (see Legislator Emily Lau's article). The economic details are as follows:
According to the financial analysis for Radio Hong Kong (Ming Pao via Yahoo! News), each year, RTHK receives more than HK$400 million in government subsidies. More than HK$200 million goes towards salaries. Another HK$60 million goes to technical engineering. After deducting the costs of operation, only HK$4.5 million is earmarked for RTHK One for program production. In years past, HK$1.5 million was used on the live broadcasts of horse racing, or 1/3 of the total program production budget.
For example, if someone were to suggest that public station WNYC in New York City ought to spend one-third of its programming budget on broadcasting live horse-races from the Aqueduct race track, there would be such incredible howling. If there is a question, then it is this one: "Why were these broadcasts happening anyway?" and the answer is that this was a legacy from the British colonial era. No accountable public radion station could have rationalized that programming decision. If the Hong Kong Jockey Club thinks that this will affect their revenues, then they can pay for those broadcasts out of the billions of profit each year -- at least, it will be the gamblers who are paying for it, instead of siphoning it from the general taxpayers' pockets. No one will miss this a bit, and no one can connect this with freedom of expression.
Instead, the real point of contention is about the manner by which the decision was reached to cancel the live horseracing broadcasts. Did it come from the RTHK board of directors? Did it come from the Hong Kong SAR government? Or did it come from the central government in China? The first decision would be fair enough. That last option is paranoid, since one must be extremely self-absorbed to think that the "uncles" in Beijing would micro-manage a decision to cancel live horseracing broadcasts in Hong Kong. Frankly, my dear, they couldn't give a rat's ass one way or the other -- this is absolutely your own problem! The second decision is what is perceived to be the danger to freedom of expression as the government is tightening its control over media. Yet, the agreement with this perception is far from universal (see SCMP for the proceedings). In a time with a big and ugly budget deficit, is it not reasonable for the government to look for savings and efficiencies? Aren't these live horseracing broadcasts boondoggles? Given these circumstances, it is no surprise that this instance will not motivate half a million people to show up.
The second instance pertains to the dismissal of Commercial Radio program host Raymond Wong Yuk-man. The man was an extremely popular and outspoken program host. In these previous posts The Hong Kong Radio Hosts-Part 1 and The Hong Kong Radio Hosts-Part 2, Raymond Wong left his job in 2004 for unexplained reasons but came back later whereupon he was assigned to the graveyard shift of Saturday evening. Obviously, Wong was not happy about his assignment and wanted a regular weekday (Monday-Friday) primetime slot. This was the underlying cause for the conflict with management that led to his dismissal.
Was Wong muzzled because of his outspoken speeches? The answer is not so clear-cut, because of the gossip going around on the occasion of the big quarrel. I want to alert you that this is hearsay but it has been repeated numerous times: It is alleged that Raymond Wong went to the Commercial Radio office, walked into the open area with all the regular employees and asked one female employee loudly, "Did [name of the managing director] sexually harassed you today yet?" Then he went into the office of the managing director for a closed-door meeting that everyone else could hear way down the hall. Thus, the matter is muddled up as a manager-employee conflict instead of a pure freedom of expression issue. One cannot grant total immunity for atrocious workplace behavior to anyone who waves a freedom-of-expression flag; certainly, in my multinational corporation, that kind of alleged behavior would be cause for instant dismissal. For an outsider (including myself), it requires knowledge of the exact circumstances to make a determination and that information is murky at best. It is hard to see how half a million people would mobilize for this situation.
Legislator Emily Lau's article began with an attempt to address the criticisms after she and some other pan-democratic legislators appeared at Commercial Radio to discuss the Raymond Wong case. It is uncomfortable for people to see that corporate-hiring decisions are being influenced by career politicians. In a free market, the solution is laissez-faire. If the citizens feel that Raymond Wong was wronged, they would stay away from Commercial Radio in droves and punish it economically; if Raymond Wong is so beloved, then there will be other commercial media venues in Hong Kong that will be glad to use his services. For example, Albert Cheng has asserted that the audience for Commercial Radio has gone from 600,000 to 400,000 since he left his job; if true, then that was the price that Commercial Radio paid. It was just wrong to send the message that Commercial Radio could be or ought to be coerced by politicians and demonstrators. If this could happen to Commercial Radio, it could also happen to your company. It is just as wrong to think that half a million demonstrators would demand to restore Raymond Wong to his job.
The third instance relates to Raymond Wong as well. If the man cannot get employment at Commercial Radio, which is the most popular radio network in Hong Kong, then in the name of democracy, he ought to be offered a spot at the government-subsidized public radio network RTHK. Again, this is a cause of great uneasiness about radio program host jobs being meted out on the basis of political stances. This is a Pandora's box that no one wants to open because all sorts of other people with different political leanings would demand their spoils. Why should democratic voices be privileged? Why not pro-Beijing voices? F*L*G? Nepalese?
I surmise that the low turnout (bearing in mind that 1,800 is 0.003% of the population) is not due to the lack of interest in the freedoms. Rather, to mobilize the masses, it is necessary to invoke specific instances in which the freedoms are clearly and genuinely being endangered. The three specific instances behind the July 14 event are neither convincing nor compelling. For one, I am not able to equate these three instances with loss of freedom of expression. Some people may feel differently, but the fact is that only 0.003% of the people were out there.
A related subject is the relatively low turnout for the July 1 march organized by the Civil Human Rights Front (see July 1 Afternoon March Estimates). The issue is obviously the defense of human rights. The specific instances are universal suffrage and collusion between government and business. The second instance is a loser, because it is too generalized and nebulous. Most people in Hong Kong work for or own some kind of businesses, and they don't see any collusion between government and business. The first issue is transparently linked to the recent election of the Chief Executive. Just like the case of the cancellation of the live horseracing broadcasts, the real objection is about the process and not the outcome. The Chief Executive elected by this aberration of 'small circle election' process is Donald Tsang, who happened to enjoy a better than 70% approval rating and he was preferred by more than 95% of the people among all the declared candidates. These results are confirmed by multiple public opinions polls, and not doubted by anyone. So the objection cannot be about the outcome, which represented the popular will. Instead, the objection was about the electoral process, which is not universal suffrage and therefore undemocratic. Fine. But one is left with the question of the remedy -- shall one million of us march in the streets, declare a general strike and force Donald Tsang to resign, make the Hong Kong SAR go into a constitutional crisis, live on for months or even years without a Chief Executive until we can get our act together in order to properly elect ... Donald Tsang as the Chief Executive? This is what makes the whole thing absurd.
In like manner, consider the live horseracing broadcasts. What does it take to convince you that the independence of RTHK was not threatened? Should a million of you get out on the streets and force RTHK to ... gasp ... restore the live horseracing broadcasts just to prove that point?
Final advice -- pick the right instances for the meaningful issues. The issues are there, but weak instances are being linked to them. And those linkages are making people lose confidence about the judgments.