When Hong Kong’s richest tycoons declared their support for the territory’s National Security Law in June, it was not what they said that stood out as much as how they said it.
One by one, the territory’s most prominent capitalists — from Li Ka-shing (李嘉誠) to Raymond Kwok (郭炳聯) — delivered their endorsements in a strikingly similar way: They gave interviews or statements to Hong Kong newspapers controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
It was a notable shift from last year, when the tycoons used a variety of media to weigh in on pro-democracy demonstrations, and a sign of growing influence for a publishing empire that China has spent decades amassing in Hong Kong.
Illustration: Mountain People
As the Chinese government moves to snuff out the territory’s protest movement, it is tapping this empire to promote its agenda and silence dissenting voices like never before, critics including independent publishers and pro-democracy lawmakers have said.
The two newspapers that carried the tycoons’ endorsements — Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po — represent just a sliver of the publishing operations controlled by China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, according to a person familiar with the matter, as well as court documents, company Web sites and corporate registry filings.
The entity also owns at least 30 publishing houses and brands, one of the biggest commercial printing companies in greater China and 60 retail bookstores in Hong Kong and Macau.
It publishes school textbooks, runs an online news outlet with almost 250,000 Facebook followers and distributes pro-Beijing magazines to more than 500 secondary schools in Hong Kong.
While comprehensive market share figures for the territory’s publishing industry are difficult to find, independent booksellers and academics who have studied the industry have said that the office has a dominant position in book publishing and a modest but growing presence in news.
They have also said that it is likely to become more influential as Hong Kong’s national security legislation creates a chilling effect on independent media.
On Monday last week, police cited alleged contraventions of the legislation when they arrested tycoon Jimmy Lai (黎智英) and raided the headquarters of his Next Digital (壹傳媒) group and the office of his newspaper, the Apple Daily.
The long-term risk is that Hong Kong’s historically freewheeling media and publishing scene — part of what underpins the territory’s status as an international financial hub — will increasingly resemble that of heavily censored China, said Steve Tsang (曾銳生), director of the China Institute at the SOAS University of London.
“The scope of free media has been very slowly eroded and it gave Chinese propaganda machinery the scope to operate,” Tsang said. “Even very crude propaganda can be effective if it is reported often enough.”
Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po, the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and Sino United Publishing — one of the office’s main companies in Hong Kong — did not respond to requests for comment.
A office official reached by telephone declined to comment when asked whether it controls publishing assets in Hong Kong.
Lee Cho Jat (李祖澤), an honorary chairman of Sino United, said in a 2018 interview with Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) that there are no political motives behind its operations.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) has said that the territory’s freedom of speech, press and publication are to be maintained, and that the office’s work should not be interfered with as long as it is law-abiding.
The office has never publicly disclosed its business interests, but a Hong Kong court ruling on June 22 added to a trail of evidence suggesting that the government entity controls publishing assets in the territory through a Chinese company called Guangdong Xin Wenhua.
The judge in the case, which involved the winding-up of a business that owed money to a Hong Kong unit of Guangdong Xin Wenhua, said that the company was “closely associated with the office and, I think it a compelling inference, doing its bidding.”
A 2018 story by RTHK cited a credit report for Guangdong Xin Wenhua showing that the office was its only shareholder and this month, a person familiar with the matter said that the office still controls the company.
Guangdong Xin Wenhua’s ownership of publishing assets in Hong Kong is spelled out in documents in the territory’s corporate registry and on the Web sites of the companies it controls.
The Chinese government has tried to shape the narrative on Hong Kong, both within the territory and on the mainland since long before the handover from Britain in 1997, but its efforts have shifted into overdrive since plans for the national security legislation emerged in May, said Tanya Chan (陳淑莊), a founding member of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Civic Party.
The office’s Hong Kong media outlets have published articles and commentaries slamming the pro-democracy movement and attacking Beijing’s critics.
Some of the news stories have included statements from Hong Kong Liaison Office Director Luo Huining (駱惠寧), who assumed the positon in January and is the Chinese official tasked with advising Lam on national security.
After anti-government protests on July 1, an editorial in Ta Kung Pao called for tighter police surveillance in Hong Kong and said that pro-democracy figures like Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) and Nathan Law (羅冠聰) should face prosecution.
Wong has since been charged for taking part in an unauthorized assembly, which he has called an “outrageous political purge on the territory’s dissidents.”
Law, who fled to the UK, has a warrant out for his arrest on suspicion of contravening the national security legislation.
“I have no idea what is my ‘crime’ and I don’t think that’s important,” Law wrote on Twitter. “Perhaps I love Hong Kong too much.”
When police detained Lai this month, the headline in Ta Kung Pao — “So Happy” — summed up the view from Beijing.
The tycoon, who was released on bail, said in an interview on Aug. 14 that he was arrested on “trumped up” charges.
In one sign of the growing sway of office publications, Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department — which runs the territory’s libraries — said that it would review its book collection after Wen Wei Po reported in June that its readers had found titles that might contravene the national security legislation.
“This is their machine,” said Chan, author of one of several books flagged by Wen Wei Po.
“They have been doing this for a very long time, but now they have more support and some authorities will take follow-up actions,” Chan added.
Still, the office’s influence has its limits.
Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao had the lowest credibility scores among 11 Hong Kong newspapers evaluated by Chinese University of Hong Kong last year.
Unlike residents of mainland China, Hong Kongers enjoy largely unfettered access to the Internet, international news outlets and social media platforms.
About 56 percent of residents oppose the national security legislation, compared with 34 percent who support it, a questionnaire released before the legislation’s enactment by Reuters and the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found.
“As long as the Internet is still free, it is very hard for the office to make their narrative a dominant one,” said Faye Dorcas Yung, assistant professor at The Open University of Hong Kong, a self-financing university set up by the territory’s government.
Yet, how long the free flow of information in Hong Kong will last is not clear.
James Griffiths, a journalist and author of The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet, is among China watchers who have said that it would be possible for Beijing to impose a partial digital blackout on the territory.
Facebook, Alphabet’s Google and Twitter — all of which are blocked on the mainland — have stopped responding to Hong Kong government requests for data in the wake of the national security legislation, setting up a potential clash with authorities.
The New York Times last month said that it would move part of its Hong Kong-based news operation to Seoul, citing uncertainty about the new legislation and work visas, among other reasons.
Hong Kong’s global ranking in a Reporters Without Borders survey of press freedom was falling even before this year, declining to 73 last year from 61 five years earlier, while China was ranked 177 of 180 countries and territories last year, three spots above North Korea.
Free speech advocates have said that the trend in Hong Kong’s book publishing industry is equally worrisome.
Lam Wing-kei (林榮基), a Hong Kong bookseller known for carrying titles banned in mainland China, said that the office’s influence over printing, publishing and retail bookstores has made it increasingly difficult for independent publishers and booksellers to carry on in the territory unless they toe the party line of the CCP.
“Now, only those with ideology approved by the CCP can survive,” said Lam, who fled to Taiwan last year.
He was one of five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared in 2015 and later said that they were held in China, an incident that attracted international criticism of Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The office-controlled Sino United has used its dominant position in publishing to censor content that does not align with Beijing’s agenda, although the process is less transparent than in mainland China, Yung said, adding that her latest research project examined the effects of censorship on children’s literature in Hong Kong.
The office has “a wide spectrum of control over the market of knowledge distribution,” said Lin On-yeung (連安洋), manager at ACO Book, a bookshop in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district.
Sino United did not respond to requests for information on its operations, but figures included in the 2010 book Publishing in China: An Essential Guide point to its outsized presence in the territory’s publishing industry.
At the time, the company was recording annual revenue of about HK$4 billion (US$516 million at the current exchange rate), while book sales for all of Hong Kong totaled HK$5 billion.
Sino United also plays a large role in the territory’s market for primary and secondary-school textbooks, where its sales practices have drawn scrutiny from Hong Kong’s Competition Commission.
The commission in March alleged in a competition tribunal that Sino United had engaged in anti-competitive behavior including price-fixing.
The company declined to comment on the case when reached by the South China Morning Post in March.
Some Hong Kong publishers, including Spicy Fish Cultural Productions, a big source of local literature in the territory, have ended distribution deals with Sino United, even though the move could hurt their bottom lines, citing concern that the relocation of the group’s book warehousing to mainland China could lead to tighter censorship.
“They have the money and also the backing of the government,” said Legislator Ip Kin-yuen (葉建源), who is also vice president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, referring to the office’s publishing operations. “They have all the advantages.”
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