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HRIC Hong Kong Roundtable Discussion Part Two

February 1, 2012

Bao Pu (New Century Press): There is one contrasting example of record keeping in the mainland. We were just working on a book on Mao’s great famine. A Hong Kong scholar went to dozens of archives on the mainland at the central and provincial levels. He was able to get meticulously-kept records of 1960 in some of the poorest regions. In Gansu, there is this digitally retrievable set of meticulously-kept records from 1960 of cannibalism: who ate whom, how, and when. And our book has that roster.1 So, the difference in the mainland is that, in the past at least—I don’t know about now, because things are changing—everything was fairly meticulously recorded. They just kept them secret, that’s all. Nobody had access to these records, but they are there. But nowadays, there are people calling people on a cell phone in order not to make any kind of written records. So I guess things are changing, and changing for the worse.

Christine Loh (Civic Exchange):What we’re saying is that, even on the mainland, which has a tradition of collecting and keeping records, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that when you have bad governance—meaning a bad government—maybe officials don’t want to keep records.

Actually, mainland folks who’ve come here and have talked to us about archives are shocked that Hong Kong doesn’t have an archive law. So Hong Kong is unique in this area. Is it that, because our governance has become looser after 1997, things are worse than before? Where are Tung Chee Hwa’s2 files when he was chief executive? They haven’t gone to the archives, so where are they? Donald Tsang, the current chief executive, will step down fairly soon; maybe it’s not too early to ask him what will happen to his files. The files won’t be open for a great number of years, but we want to be assured that they’re kept somewhere. If they are being taken to Beijing, well, please tell us.

Sky Canaves (University of Hong Kong): What do you think are some of the factors that underlie the public indifference to the lack of record keeping and having an archives law, or the lack of media attention to it? I know in the U.S., with the Freedom of Information Act, it took a period of ten years after the law was passed, after the Watergate scandal, for it to really begin to get teeth, in part because of the media attention on the scandal. But here in Hong Kong, where it seems people are so protective of their other freedoms compared to the mainland, when it comes to records and access to information, there’s a lag.

Simon Chu (Hong Kong Archives Society): First of all, in Hong Kong, we do not have a freedom of information law. We only have the so-called “core access to information,” which is not a law—it is just a directive. I know people are fighting for a freedom of information law. Christine, you actually fought for that, right, when you were in LegCo? The core access to information directive is one of the products of that fight.

But a freedom of information law is of no use without the support of an archives law, which would require officials to create records and keep records in the first place. I’m not saying that officials don’t create records—they do create records, but when you ask them where the records are, they get suspicious and say, “I don’t know, I do not have records,” or, “I’m looking for the records, don’t worry, I’m looking for it,” or, “I will be actively looking for it.” Perhaps, in fact they do have the records. But they are not violating any law in saying, “I do not have records.”

It is very important for the government to have an archives law for doing research. When newspaper people go to the Hong Kong Public Records Building in Kwun Tong, the ironic thing is that they find more records before 1941. If they want to find records relating to major decisions after 1997—for example, as Christine was saying, records relating to the Tung Chee Hwa administration, such as Tung Chee Hwa’s housing policies, the 85,000 flat-per-year housing production policy, or education reforms (we have actually witnessed a revolution of education policy development), or immigration policy, etc.—they will never find any. Even if we had an archives law tomorrow, I think it would already be too late.

I don’t want to throw stones, but this is very frustrating, especially during the time I have witnessed all these government records disappearing, one-by-one, row-by-row.

Han Dongfang (China Labour Bulletin): So, the relationship between Hong Kong and China is that of “one country, two systems.” But how do we define “one country, two systems”? Which direction will each go, or will they go a “middle way”? Do we want to keep Hong Kong as it was, under British rule? Or do we want to develop both sides of the border in a new direction? How can we deal with this new, influential and powerful China? So, let me share one recent example. Yesterday, I met with the Dutch human rights ambassador. He said, “I’m going to meet with the Chinese authorities in November. Are there any suggestions I should raise before them?” And I said, “Ambassador, I may disappoint you. I would like to talk about the Dutch government now and not the Chinese government.” I said, “I know that the Dutch government has initiated a new program called the IDH—Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative—which is aimed at improving corporate social responsibility in the Dutch electronics sector. But I’m afraid that the Dutch government putting huge resources into helping these companies develop a corporate social responsibility movement is undermining freedom of association in China. In the labor movement, there are no such resources to compete with your government, so you should not cut huge support to the Dutch union and give it to business associations. Workers in China are organizing massive strikes, and from these strikes, there will be a rise of collective bargaining, and freedom of association will naturally develop.”

When we deal with a new China, a new Hong Kong, a new world, we should know where for- eign governments stand—for example, the Dutch government, the British government, the EU,  the U.S., and Canada—and what they’re talking about. If we only complain and say, “They are only doing business, and they are morally wrong,” well, they are morally wrong, but their reality is our reality too. So, the key question is: How can we really put ourselves into a place that presses them to do the right things?

Joshua Rosenzweig (Independent Human Rights Researcher): Regarding what Bao Pu said in his presentation, when talking about the media and publishing in Hong Kong, I guess my comment and question connect to something that we said in the earlier session, too. Hong Kong is a special place vis-à-vis China because we have the ability to produce media and books here that cannot be done there. In other words, censorship on the mainland creates opportunities here. And the New Century Press, in particular, and others too, take advantage of that: you create things that are consumed. Media is not only about production, but consumption as well. Your consumers—well, I don’t know if “largely” is the right word—but a significant number of your consumers are from the mainland. So that’s one aspect of the situation you described: censorship creates opportunities. You also talked about self-censorship. You’re obviously not the one doing the self-censoring; self-censorship is being done by other people. What are the actual risks involved that go into the calculation, the guess work? Why do people self-censor here in Hong Kong? As you were talking, I thought of a historical analogy of the gudao (孤岛, “isolated island”) in Shanghai during the War of Resistance against Japan. The international settlement was the center of publishing in Shanghai. It was a place where you could publish things like what is now being published in Hong Kong that you couldn’t elsewhere, because the Nationalists didn’t like it or the Japanese didn’t like it. But there were actual, physical risks involved for many of these people to an extent that is not necessarily similar here. So, when people are stopping themselves from doing certain things here, why are they doing that? And, I wonder whether it has something to do with consumption again.

If we’re talking about what role the Hong Kong media might have in mobilizing Hong Kong people to care more about human rights in China, obviously self-censorship is going to limit that possibility. Is it possible—and I ask this as a real question, and, perhaps, a naïve question—that it’s not solely about risks, be they political or otherwise, but also about a perception about what the audience wants? In other words, the audience is not an avid consumer of this kind of material. This is a bit counter-intuitive from the way that we think about Hong Kong people and their view of rights and their view of rule of law and how they think about the mainland. But there’s an opportunity—you’ve capitalized on it with the New Century Press. Why don’t other people also take advantage of that?

And, finally, I can’t help but say, for example, that the South China Morning Post, I think, has missed an opportunity. The South China Morning Post could be—and again, this is Hong Kong looking outwards—the premier English-language China newspaper for the world, talking about things that the China Daily really can’t talk about, or talking about things that the foreign media doesn’t want to talk about or that they don’t have the space to talk about. But they don’t do that; they remain somewhat quaintly parochial and locked off from the rest of the world and that’s not their brand. Why hasn’t there been more of that in Hong Kong? I just don’t know—I’m a newcomer here.

Bao Pu: First of all, Hong Kong has always had a special environment, which people can take advantage of to address some of their concerns in the way they cannot in the mainland. Sun Yat-sen ran a newspaper here in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has always played an active role in terms of the modernization process of the mainland during the past hundred years. Maybe Hong Kong people haven’t paid attention to that. Hong Kong really has been a place that has had a special influence on China. And this aspect of the Hong Kong environment is for people who have concerns about the mainland to take advantage of. The media outlets concerned with mainland issues are different from the strictly local-grown media with local Hong Kong concerns. They’re separate communities in certain ways, even though they’re both together here in Hong Kong.

Despite that, the threat is real and you have people getting into trouble. A Hong Kong tycoon speaks to the media, and then his business is wiped out in mainland China. The threat to ordinary Hong Kong people is minimal. But if they have money and influence, and if they have certain things to say, or if they have mainland connections, then the threat is infinitely bigger. So, if you have a business in mainland China, of course you’re going to watch what you’re going to say in Hong Kong, because you know that mainland China is paying attention to you. And I know of a case where a very, very prominent Hong Kong commentator—this is just a commentator—who was taking vacation in Beijing, and he was approached by mainland officials who said that they wanted to have a talk with him. And then they stacked a huge file in front of him, page by page, saying, “We know what you have been writing, and it’s been interesting.”

So just about everybody knows that if they speak in Hong Kong, then there is a consequence, or there might be a consequence, in the mainland, or the threat is real; and their response to that is self-censorship.

Of course, self-censorship is mainly guided by people’s own experience. If you have more experience, you know where exactly to censor your- self. I don’t say whatever I want to either. There is a measure. But each person has a different measure, and then you see different responses. And in terms of self-censorship in the South China Morning Post, you know I think it’s true that it can be better, but it also is different from the China Daily. And Christine still has a column there, right? She couldn’t have a column in China Daily.

Joshua Rosenzweig: Butmy point is that China Daily is now actively pushing outwards, whereas the South China Morning Post is not doing much. I agree, they’re fundamentally different. But think about the role that Hong Kong can play in promoting change in China, the role that the Hong Kong media can play in promoting media in China, that’s one aspect missing.

Bao Pu: China Daily and the mainland China press have one view, and you probably know before they write their story what their view is going to be. But in an environment such as Hong Kong, if you’re operating a free press, you don’t necessarily have a particular view, and you have a platform where all views can be expressed here. I’m saying that we just have to redouble the effort of making our view heard and more carefully constructed in a way that is far-reaching.

Sebastian Veg (French Centre for Research on Contemporary China): One thing we tend to forget sometimes in Hong Kong is that these media groups are not free press in the sense of The New York Times in terms of their financial structures. Ming Pao,3 the South China Morning Post, their goals are not the same. One thing I always note is that—not that many people really notice this—Cathay Pacific does not distribute Ming Pao and Sun Pao (the Hong Kong Economic Journal) on flights to China; they’ve been asked not to do that. They have the South China Morning Post, because it’s in English, but not the Chinese-language press. You can see very well where that can continue going. When some company is asked to stop all subscriptions to Ming Pao, including in Hong Kong, because of something that’s been published in the newspaper, that’s definitely going to impact what’s inside it. I was recently told that the South China Morning Post ran a big article, an interview with Frank Dikötter about his book on the great famine—I saw the article—and I was told by someone who should know that the South China Morning Post cut about 75 percent of the original interview, and it was all related to political contents. They systematically cut the most sensitive aspects of this book about the famine and left a very general kind of characterization about what’s in the book. They cut out all the gory details.

I wanted to make one other point on archives and related matters, which is, I’m always a bit surprised at how little reactivity there is in Hong Kong to personal information matters, especially video recording. Especially for someone who’s from continental Europe, Hong Kong has gone the way of total video surveillance. In this university, there’s not one corridor, one room in the library where you are not being filmed, and there’s no mention of it anywhere when you enter campus. And where does this footage go? How can we access it? Are we sure it’s being destroyed? Are we sure that, if the Chinese authorities asked for it, it will not be handed over? And these are all issues. Those of you who were here last July were probably interested to see the video cameras in the July 1 demonstration—that was the first time I saw these appear. These video cameras have now appeared in the military police (武警) vehicles in Xinjiang and in Tibet and in all demonstrations and here in Hong Kong. During the July 1 protests, policemen with these cameras were filming everyone who was coming by. So again, what happens to this footage, where is it kept, and who has access to it?

Simon Chu: These videos are official records, because the videotaping is definitely official activity. According to the directive, the management guidelines say that all government records at the end of the day have to pass to the director of government record service for appraisal, to see whether they have permanent value. If they have permanent value, they will be kept in the archive. And then you’re talking about the access. If we had an archives law, things in the archive would be kept for a certain number of years—15 years, 20 years, and even sometimes 50 years—and then the public could have access to it, right? That would be the normal procedures.

But in Hong Kong, this would never happen because we do not have any such law. The police can do whatever they want—I repeat, they can do whatever they want—with the video tapes without letting the person in charge of the archives know. Years ago, I had a request from the police about the destruction of certain old records. I checked the list, and I found something very interesting and wanted to have a further look at that record. So, I went back to the police and asked them to pass this record to me, because we would usually do a paper appraisal first. And then they said, “Oh, I’m sorry, my boss said we will keep it. We do not want to destroy it.” Usually, they would only approach us whenever they wanted to destroy records. If they do not want to destroy anything, there would be no interaction whatsoever between the government record service and the bureaus and departments. I don’t know whether I can answer your question. I mean, again, the bureaus and departments do whatever they want with all kinds of records.

Christine Loh: I think there is a deeper question here, which is more a cultural question about Hong Kong people: How we look at records and information, and the level of sensitivity we have to information. Over the years, I’ve generally found people’s information and data sensitivity to be relatively low. So we haven’t had the kind of outcry in the community, for example, when senior government servants stand up in court or in public or in LegCo and say, “Well, I threw away records,” even on the occasions where it was detrimental to the government’s case. So, there have been a number of cases where, because the government could not find the records, they lost money or couldn’t reclaim money.

If we went to the Hong Kong media and said, “Well, how do you look at this?” They won’t say archives and records are not an important issue, but they wouldn’t make it a cause. For a lot of people in the media, when a case comes up, they wouldn’t immediately see, “Ah, I can write this story from several angles, one of which is based on archival records.” So we haven’t successfully linked archives and culture and the arts because we haven’t had the culture of people jumping up and down saying, “You’re throwing away our heritage, and in the future we won’t be able to reach back.” And we don’t have politicians jumping up in LegCo day after day saying, “This is bad for governance.” They say it once, and it’s over. So, I think there is a lot more public awareness building we need to work on.

Bao Pu: There’s also a mainland case where during the investigation, the police showed this person in Hong Kong, in Tsim Sha Tsui, entering this particular building at this particular time, and they said, “You have this bag on that that day in Hong Kong. What’s in it?”

Christine Loh: And who filmed that? Did somebody follow him?

Bao Pu: The security camera in the building. So, we also have a public case which showed that mainland security police have access basically to all the  CCTV—close-circuit TV—cameras with images of all the Macao casinos. They openly said that this mainland official went there gambling and spent millions, and they caught him, and he was confronted by the video that the casino kept.

David Bandurski (China Media Project, University of Hong Kong): I’ll come back to Josh’s comment about South China Morning Post. This is a perennial problem. The quality of China coverage is part of this issue too, and where’s the market for that? This is a question that I’m always frustrated with. I know there are many people who have tried different ways to build a web platform for better China coverage. It’s always an issue, and with South China Morning Post, I think it’s the same fundamental issue. They’re still pretty parochial—they are fundamentally a local paper. What are we talking in circulation, 60,000? It’s a very small paper, so we really can’t look to South China Morning Post to cover China well or properly, certainly not comprehensively.

I think the answer here is that Hong Kong has a really important role, and for Chinese journalists who come here, Hong Kong also has an important symbolic role. It’s a place where we can bring journalists together and talk more openly about professionalism and other issues, including censorship. But in terms of better and more comprehensive news coverage of things happening on the ground in China, we have to look to mainland media ultimately. Hong Kong, though, can have an important role in building professional capacity, and can perhaps set an example with its own professional, unrestricted reporting.

Something I think that’s often overlooked is that still most of the good reporting we get on Chinese issues, including human rights issues, is coming from Chinese media. That’s where we get the investigative reporting. We don’t generally see Hong Kong media giving us a long-form piece—20,000 Chinese characters, something like what investigative reporter Wang Keqin would do—on a Chinese issue, partly because it’s not an issue of relevance, I think, for the majority of Hong Kong readers. They may want to read some story about the swine flu, and there may be good coverage in Yazhou Zhoukan and some other publications like Ming Pao, but they can’t do it with the same, I think, intensity.

So what we see in Chinese media is a very confusing situation in which we do have control being asserted constantly. At the same time, we also do have a growing number of professionals who are pushing within that system. It’s a very, very complicated scenario, and this is why we talk about “control, change, and chaos.” Some might prefer “confusion” to “chaos” because it sounds less extreme. But there has been lot of social change in China, especially through the 1990s. In the media, a lot of this has been in the form of commercial change, but also the growth of professionalism and professional ideals among journalists. And the Internet—and now social media—have created more change. So we see this happening constantly: journalists finding opportunities in the chaos of a changing society even under a regime of control. Sometimes the ball moves. So we see one media outlet under increasing pressure, and then another newspaper will move in and surprise us by doing bolder reporting.

But for me, it’s always a frustration to look at foreign media converge because I’m also talking to the journalists all the time, and some of these stories are just so boggled and misunderstood. The recent story of The Beijing News and The Beijing Times, which was a spinoff of People’s Daily—both centrally controlled newspapers—is a good example. The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, and The Diplomat, which is a publication that is supposed to know better on these kinds of issues, reported that these newspapers had reverted to CPC control. The papers were always under CPC control, of course, but the key issue—which was not dealt with in these stories—was which CPC body. No one understood this. And part of the problem is not having the political literacy to understand how media works in China, how the licensing system works, and that within a system where fundamentally control is one of the big vectors, there can be so much activity.

So, with The Beijing News, the obvious question is how can a newspaper originally jointly man- aged by Guangming Daily, which is published by the Party’s Central Propaganda Department, and by Nanfang Daily [Southern Daily], a provincial-level publishing group that’s producing hard-hitting investigating reports, have lost its freedom when its managing committee is changed to the Party Committee of Beijing? Isn’t it just shifting from one managing institution of the Party (at the central level), to another managing institution of the Party (at the municipal level)? But it actually is a change. The Beijing News may now have severe problems doing investigative reporting on Beijing issues, because it’s monitored directly by the Beijing Municipal Propaganda Department. This is just an example of how complicated the situation is in China. 

We had Cheng Yizhong, the founder of Southern Metropolis Daily, here at the University of Hong Kong saying that the issue isn’t necessarily just censorship. He said, “We can push farther, there is more that we can do even in this environment. We don’t know where the edge of the cage is.” He said, “We don’t know how much space there is.” And this is often mainland China’s own self-censorship issue, not quite the same, maybe, as self-censorship here in Hong Kong. But I think in many cases, there is more that the journalists can do, and they do take risks, but we see again and again now that these risks are worth calculating.

We can look at stories like that of Hu Shuli, who was founder and editor-in-chief of Caijing magazine. After more than ten years at Caijing doing great professional journalism, Hu was forced to move on after a disagreement with the magazine’s owners. Many feared this would be the end of Caijing and push Hu Shuli out of Chinese journalism. But now Hu has launched Caixin Media, which is an amazing cluster of publications. And Caijing has also remained surprisingly healthy after the departure of Hu and most of her top-notch team. So that’s a caveat I would offer on this issue of reporting on China. We don’t necessarily have to be so pessimistic, but we should be realistic about control, because, of course, it is happening, and it’s worrying as well.

Sharon Hom (Human Rights in China): David, thank you for the really helpful comments. Bao Pu made the observation that there are actually Different media audiences and communities in terms of consumption of media, and that tailoring media products exclusively to the new media audience is in some way speaking to the converted, or the younger, or the hipper, or those who already have quick access to a lot of information. And, because of conversations we had, I wanted to ask you to contribute a little more granularity to our understanding of that new media consumption audience. It seems to me that it is a complex audience.

David Bandurski: I heard Bao Pu saying that we’re trying to grasp what new social media means and how we use it and how we balance it with traditional media. The newest thing, obviously, in China is what are called “microblogs,” such as Sina Weibo. And QQ is also a strong weibo platform.4 And I think we’re all watching the trend; and now everyone’s waiting for the next control response to Sina Weibo. This summer has been amazing, not just the story of the July 23 train collision in Wenzhou, but also, roughly ten days before this, the story of all these malfunctions, and most of the reporting was on traditional media. And there’s an important reason for this in China. Internet portals can’t have their own reporting teams, unless they’re People’s Daily Online. For the state media, the rules are different. People’s Daily Online has its own reporting unit, but Sina does not; for this reason, the Internet portals are generally not considered “news media” in China. But the way information is being shared and re-circulated is amazing on the weibo. So we had users finding things like a front-page People’s Daily article on December 14, 2010, praising this high-speed train driver, who was ordered to learn this complicated technology in just ten days. And the article actually quoted the German trainer saying, “He can’t possibly learn this in ten days.” And the driver, portrayed as a kind of ham-fisted hero, was quoted as saying, “I can!” Of course, you look back after the crash and it looks like complete folly. So, even this one bit of content was shared on weibo in 30 or 40,000 reposts.

But one thing you do see on the Sina Weibo is the spread and formalizing of some of these networks. Some high-value users like Yu Jianrong, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, have millions of followers on Sina Weibo, and people like this are talking about important news cases. You know, yesterday, I saw photos of the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng being shared on social media and people talking about this issue.

There are various ways that things are being censored. For example, if you try to search for a post on “Hu Jintao,” you don’t come up with any results. You will get a message that says, “According to the regulations, we cannot show you these results.” But you find that you can create the posts. So maybe you and your extended networks—three million people or hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people—are still seeing a post and talking about an issue. Local elections and the idea of independent candidates were other big topics on weibo. I think that’s exciting.

Weibos are an important tool for the circulation of content that is also impacting the mainstream media coverage. But, again, to the extent that the mainland media have space in which they can operate and push on stories, the Internet has still been a key part of that. And now social media, especially Sina Weibo, is really important.

Patrick Poon (China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group): People around my age, who are 30-something or are 20-something, younger than I am, are changing our habits of getting information. To be honest, I haven’t bought a newspaper for a long time. I get information from here in Hong Kong on Facebook; I just read all the links that people will put, to Apple Daily, Ming Pao, Yahoo! News, Google News, whatever news—we just read it on Facebook and Twitter. Then we can share information and we can write information or write our own articles based all on that information.

And then, for me to communicate with mainland Chinese people I use weibo and Twitter. Twitter is for the activist community, but weibo is for re- tweeting information to people we don’t know, but who are interested in the information that I’m circulating. And I’ve actually got my weibo closed down twice, and this is my third time to open a weibo. But then, I find communicating using weibo or getting information from weibo is very interesting as well. The most famous intellectuals in China have video recordings on how they feel about Chen Guangcheng, or how they feel about the Chinese government’s treatment of this blind lawyer. And they put it on Tudou or some other mainland video site; of course, it was ultimately deleted by the webmaster, but it actually had already reached a number of people before it was deleted. And then people will re-tweet the infor- mation again and again. When I first looked at it, there were just 200 people re-tweeting it. But when I got up the next morning, millions had already re-tweeted the information. So I would say—actually I hope that I’m not over exaggerat- ing—new media, or social media, can be more influential than mainstream media, much more than ever.

Bao Pu: There is no doubt the new media has its own way of reaching new people and large number of people very quickly. There are two important examples of this this year: the Wenzhou train crash and the Guo Meimei case.55 The Guo Meimei case basically wiped out the mainland charity sector, where two-to-three million people work, and various charities depleted their resources instantaneously because of that. The train incident basically put the Railway Ministry in the sunlight. The Railway Ministry has always had its own court system, and it can sell its own bonds. It’s basically a black box. People are extremely frustrated; they want to know what happened to the hundreds of billions of yuan [raised by the Ministry made in bond sales] and, how they spent it. And the reason new social media played such a critical role in spreading the news is that people are angry already. And, in the case of Guo Meimei, the credibility and transparency issue of charities has always been there.

If you really analyze why new media worked in these cases you will find that it works not because of new media, but because there’s something else in people’s mind. But there is a difference in terms of receiving information through new media and getting your information out via new media. If you have a message that you want to get out to people, you will find that you have millions of competitors just like yourself. You probably are going to be more frustrated. Instantaneously people are able to click on millions of other links, so why should they click on your message? This is the one point that I want to make today.

Christine Loh: Now, we have 15 minutes left. Sharon, how would you like to spend the last period of time? What would be useful for you?

Sharon Hom: First we’d like to see if anyone has any final comments or would like to share any concluding takeaways from this very rich discussion.

Before we do that, I’ d like to pull Danny Yung into the conversation ask him to comment on the  public indifference in Hong Kong to the lack of an archives law and to share his own experience going back to the mid-1980s when he was building the Zuni theater company. I think Hong Kong audiences were initially very indifferent or even hostile to the message or approach of the work of the company. Many didn’t understand it and even walked out of performances. Many of the early pieces were trying to raise political issues about Hong Kong’s future and the handover in 1997 and people said, “1997! This is 1985! Who cares?” Can you share some insights on how Hong Kong can be this complex and fluid space for the struggle of ideas and values?

Danny Yung (Zuni Icosahedron): I think what Christine said earlier about doing our home- work on China is very, very important. China has been doing its homework on Hong Kong, but Hong Kong has not been doing enough homework on China.

I think that the important thing is, really, to have a dialogue between Hong Kong and China, in particular in the cultural sector, which is so wide. We can discuss issues such as freedom of expression and human rights all the way down to how to view the creative industries.

We all know very well that China is facing some very important turning points because of the crash between politics and economics; so, the central authorities are now looking to culture to solve the political and economic problems. But this is just a way to defer their problems. They are trying to make the youth, say, go to parties more often rather than have more intellectual discussions.

But I think, because of Hong Kong, the next generation in China is much more eager to discuss real issues. I was recently in Beijing and also in Shanghai and having discussions with college kids, and I found that they are very, very eager to talk. Of course, they are eager to have a personal dialogue on a certain level, but when you discuss institutionalizing dialogues, they are very cautious.

I personally feel that the new media is going to make a huge difference. Of course, there is not sufficient research on how people use weibo. We have been discussing a lot how to communicate, and how weibo has changed our way of communication and the mode of our creative activities.

But of course, right now how people use weibo is very shallow. People look at the weibo for thirty seconds to a minute when they are waiting for the elevator, and their comments [on weibo] are very shallow. But this new tool changes the governance, or the operational standards, of how people communicate.

I have also been talking to the people at Youku, the mainland video sharing network, about the governance behind it: how people who are in the front line read governance, and how they make certain decisions. I’ve found that if we have a slightly more formalized dialogue on this topic, then it would be very helpful to the mainlanders. They still are very eager to know about how we build institutions. But “institution-building” is a dirty word in the Chinese government. I mean, the authorities are very, very insecure about institution-building outside the government. Even nowadays, when they talk about NGOs, they are very, very uncomfortable. But I think they have finally realized that if an NGO is a legal entity, then the central government can monitor it; if it’s not, then they have problems.

I mean, it’s so easy to talk about the government, but there are many sectors of the government. I was approached by the 中央党校—the Communist Party School—and they were very curious about my approach to the creative industries because this is a new term for them. So they were asking about whether I could go and talk to them. I said to them: let’s institutionalize, and not do it as a one-shot PR thing, and whether we could turn it into a curriculum. I think that this is the kind of negotiation that is so important because the channels are there. If we just use it as a one-shot sensational kind of thing, then it will not get us anywhere; but if we institutionalize something that would not threaten their sense of security, perhaps there are still lots of things that we can do in Hong Kong.

I go to China a lot these days, and I know that when I discuss governance, it will not get me anywhere. But if I discuss how we can communicate better, how we can have a better agenda, how we can organize a forum, then we can get somewhere. They are always eager to learn how to have more effective communication.

For me, the main issue is that we don’t have sufficient backup in Hong Kong to build a think tank to cope with the larger Asia and China area. I feel that at this particular point, because of the Taiwan situation, China is more open to discussing Hong Kong.

When we talked earlier about self-censorship and censorship, the people that are not part of that are people like Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily. Because the Apple Daily has a certain impact in Taiwan, Jimmy has some chips, so the whole issue is how to use those chips, not for people who are already in business in China, but the people who have big business in Taiwan or have media impact in Taiwan.

I think that Hong Kong should figure out its own way. Do we want to be a Geneva? You know, become a truly international city that will not threaten Beijing yet provide all the information and knowledge about what’s happening in the world?

So I don’t know how or where we go from here, but I do feel that there’s so much homework that needs to be done so that we can systematically formulate concrete strategies and programs. Whether it’s like what David Bandurski is doing, facilitating and capacity building, or long-term things like legal education reform that Fu Hualing was talking about. I think all these are very important, but there’s a need for some kind of coordinating body. I know that China is very sensitive about the term “human rights”—they are sensitive to a lot of terms—so we can call it something else. We can talk about “culture,” or “creativity.” Everything is political in the end.

Sharon Hom: I think that Danny did a really great wrap of our conversation on a very positive, hopeful note. Lots of work we can do together, which is great. We’ve learned a lot.

Christine Loh: I just want to add one point, it’s always great to have Emily with us—she always says, “OK, just go for it, everybody!” which, I certainly have a lot of sympathy for. We’re hearing from the room today that we definitely need the front voices—the activist voices—because they will organize themselves immediately to respond by saying, “Hey, listen everybody, somebody’s just been arrested. Can we all sign this, can we all show up?” There is also a whole variety of institutions, where people have actually established networks, connections, and their ways of penetrating into this nebulous whole is actually quite effective in a slightly longer-term time frame.

Also I get the sense that, because we do all work with people inside the mainland who are also desiring change, we never know when the switch is going to get a little more energetic. I’m always thinking about China’s capacity to change when the moment comes. And I’m not talking about disrupting China, I’m not talking about revolution or igniting some kind of big topple over of the Chinese state or of the Communist Party. But there are going to be times coming in the not-too-distant future when China has to face its own shadows. What does it want to be? How does it want to be? If there’s a riot going on deep in China somewhere, how is it going to deal with that? All of those issues require the capacity of the Chinese government to change. And I’ d like very much to always think that that capacity is already there. It’s not easy because the institutions are so heavy, overlaying everything. But the capacities of the Chinese people are there.

Bao Pu: There’s also Hong Kong, which will have more influence on Beijing so long as Hong Kong has leverage, and that leverage does not come from being submissive. You know the more subservient and the more submissive you are, the less influence and leverage you have.

One example is Tung Chee Hwa trying to set up his private foundation aimed at brokering the relationship between Beijing and Washington. And the immediate reaction from Washington is, “How do you have a mouse brokering a relationship between a tiger and an elephant?” It’s an absurd idea. That tells you that influence comes from leverage, and leverage does not come from submission.

Sharon Hom: I do have one takeaway to share. The questions that surfaced, that we’re exploring this morning are really important from many different angles, underscoring the importance of dialogue and information sharing. What we were hoping for, as HRIC, in convening this discussion was to bring different people into the room, to build a process, not just a one-off conversation.  I hope that we can play a role in moving this forward into a broader public discussion. Thank you all for making this round-table exactly what we were hoping for, a lively, provocative, and interesting discussion, where we all have really learned from.

Editors’ Notes

1. New Century Press published the Chinese edition of Dutch Sinologist Frank Dikötter’s book on the famine that resulted from the Great Leap Forward campaign (1958–1961). Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (London: Bloomsbury, 2010). ^

2. Tung Chee Hwa (董建華) was the first chief executive of post-1997 Hong Kong. ^

3. Ming Pao (明報) is one of Hong Kong’s major Chinese language dailies, known for its independent, un-biased reporting. The respondents to a 2010 public opinion survey on media credibility conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong ranked it as the second most credible newspaper in Hong Kong (the South China Morning Post was ranked first). Chinese University of Hong Kong Center for Community Research, Public Evaluation on Media Credibility (2010), ^

4. Weibo, or microblog, is a “small weblog” (small because of the number of characters per post allowed) which can be hosted locally or on commercial microblogging platforms, e.g. Sina Weibo, Twitter. ^

5. In June 2011, a 20-year-old blogger, Guo Meimei  (郭美美), flaunted her lavish lifestyle on her Sina Weibo microblog and claimed that she was the general manager of “Red Cross Commerce.” The claim set off a wave of online criticism that targeted the Red Cross Society of China, which denied an association with Guo and said that there was no such thing as “Red Cross Commerce.” Although Guo later stated in a televised interview that her listed occupation was a joke and that the money was from her family, donations to the Red Cross Society of China were still reported as having decreased in the months following the scandal. ^

Hong Kong related resources

2019 Anti-Extradition Protests

2014 Occupy Movement