Sat, Jun 14, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Hong Kong media outlets feel Beijing’s pressure as ads vanish

By Michael Forsythe and Neil Gough  /  NY Times News Service, HONG KONG

In what may be a major escalation of pressure by Beijing on Hong Kong’s independently minded news media outlets, two major British banks have stopped advertising with one of the territory’s biggest newspapers, a top media executive said.

The executive, Next Media Limited commercial director Mark Simon, said HSBC and Standard Chartered ended longtime advertising relationships late last year with the Apple Daily Chinese-language paper, after being told to do so by the Chinese government.

“The [Central Chinese] government is running their business now,” Simon said in an interview. “HSBC and Standard Chartered don’t have to do what they did.”

Both banks said their advertising decisions were commercial.

The charge that politics may have played a role in the pullout illustrates the increasing power of the Chinese government to influence the behavior of not only its state-owned companies, but also of global companies, using the strength of its huge domestic market as a tool.

If true, it also reveals the hard-nosed tactics China’s central government will take to muzzle the relatively free news media in Hong Kong.

Next Media Limited, a newspaper, television and Internet company based in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is known for its strong advocacy of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.

Simon said a representative from HSBC told him that the decision to stop advertising came after the deputy director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, Yang Jian (楊健), told the bank to end its advertising relationship.

A representative for the liaison office was not available to comment.

Under its owner, Jimmy Lai (黎智英), Next Media has been sharply critical of the Beijing government. On Wednesday, for example, an animated video on its Web site excoriated a policy paper on Hong Kong issued by China on Tuesday.

Called High degree of autonomy becomes total rule from Beijing, the video warned of increasing control by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Hong Kong.

Anson Chan (陳方安), who served as the chief secretary — the second-highest-ranking official in Hong Kong — under the British colonial government and in the new administration, has been asking the banks in recent months about the advertising pullout.

Chan is an advocate for news media freedoms and for universal voting rights in Hong Kong.

In letters reviewed by the New York Times, senior executives at the two banks told Chan that advertising decisions were commercial. However, neither refuted Simon’s contention that the decision to end the advertising relationship was politically motivated.

“They certainly did not provide the assurances I was seeking,” Chan said.

“An international bank like HSBC and Standard Chartered... If you act this way, it is the first step down a very slippery slope,” Chan said in an interview. “What happens the next time they call up and say: ‘We don’t like you doing business with certain clients?’ Are you also going to cave in?”

Hong Kong media organizations critical of the mainland have said for years that the central government was pressuring advertisers to withdraw financing. However, the government’s targets in those cases were Chinese companies, many state-owned, that had little choice but to obey Beijing.

Losing HSBC and Standard Chartered, which were until last year among Next Media’s biggest financial advertising clients, has hurt the Hong Kong-listed company.

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