Hong Kong’s decision not to grant a license to a new TV operator has been met with an uproar that taps into deep mistrust of the government and concern for the territory’s stagnating popular culture, analysts say.
Thousands of demonstrators massed at government headquarters on Wednesday night for the latest protest against a decision to award only two new free-to-air television licenses.
What would likely be an uncontroversial issue elsewhere has become a lightning rod for public suspicion towards the territory’s Beijing-appointed leadership and frustration over the waning cultural significance of the former movie powerhouse.
Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV), a pay-TV service set up by self-made tycoon Ricky Wong (王維基), failed in its bid to secure a license, the first to be offered in 40 years in a move to shake up local free-to-air programming. The firm announced more than 300 job cuts following the announcement last month.
The territory of 7 million currently has two local free-to-air broadcasters and two subscription services — a situation that critics say is stifling creative output.
Hong Kong’s move to grant permits to already established players i-Cable, a subsidiary of conglomerate Wharf Holdings, and Now TV, controlled by Li Ka-shing’s (李嘉誠) billionaire son Richard (李澤楷), was criticized as favoring big business and going against the territory’s free market principles.
“The underlying factor is the deep public mistrust towards the government, especially the non-transparent decision making process,” Hong Kong Institute of Education social scientist Sonny Lo (盧兆興) said.
Public frustration has manifested itself in increasingly fervent demonstrations since unpopular Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) took on the role last year.
Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status enshrines civil liberties not seen on mainland China, including the right to protest, until 2047 under the “one country, two systems” handover agreement. However, many believe those liberties are steadily being eroded.
Leung faced mass protests last year that forced his administration to scrap plans to introduce “national education” classes in schools that for many smacked too much of communist ideology.
“The government has lacked the ability to anticipate public reactions towards its policies,” Lo said.
Analysts said the license row also tapped into concerns over a decline in Hong Kong’s influence in the regional cultural landscape, with it unable to compete against South Korea’s dominant K-pop, film and television output, as well as content from Taiwan and Thailand.
One protester said the move quashed hopes of a revitalization of the television scene.
“The government is preventing the development of creative industries. Other Asian countries are doing well. We should feel ashamed that we have become so weak,” Ho Tung-wing, 28, told reporters.
Protesters have been demanding an explanation from the authorities for rejecting the bid by Wong. However, officials have rejected calls to release full reports of the decision-making process, citing confidentiality.
Police said that up to 9,500 people joined Wednesday’s rally, while organizers said 50,000 took part. At a similar rally last month, organizers said 120,000 attended compared with police estimates of 36,000.
“A cultural issue like this has triggered large-scale collective action,” Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Joseph Chan (陳韜文), an expert on the territory’s mass media, told reporters.
“Television permeates every social strata. Television watching is part of daily life for the overwhelming majority of people,” he said.
“There is such uproar because people are frustrated and angry that the government dampened their hopes,” he said.
Former HKTV screenwriter Danny Chan, one of hundreds who lost their jobs after the firm failed to secure a license, vented his anger.
“The fact that the government is not giving a license to a newcomer only shows that it is not fulfilling its promise on revitalizing creative industries,” Chan said.
“It is impossible to increase competitiveness when the sector is dominated by a few,” he added.
Hong Kong’s free-to-air TV has been dominated by incumbents TVB and Asia Television for the past 30 years. In its heyday it was a training ground that nurtured local talent and also provided a career stepping stone for future international stars such as Chow Yun-fat (周潤發), Tony Leung (梁朝偉) and Andy Lau (劉德華). However, in recent years the sector has been criticized as being tired and lacking talent.
“It was also popular culture that brought a sense of identity of Hong Kong in the past. It was also influential in the region,” Chan said.
“In recent years, the sector has stagnated. People were expecting a new driving force that can bring us back to those glory days until their hopes were quashed,” Chan added.