Hong Kong ‘loyal critic’ faces tough test as Beijing targets media


In an article published in 2013 just after Xi Jinping came to power, Hong Kong media mogul Yu Pun-hoi optimistically wrote about how the new Chinese president should take an “unambiguous stand against dictatorship. “And guarantee” freedom of expression “.

Eight years later, things couldn’t have turned out more differently, especially for Hong Kong’s once vibrant media. Yu’s main rival, pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, is behind bars and his popular tabloid newspaper Apple Daily has been shut down. Both were high-profile targets in Xi’s crackdown on civil liberties after anti-government protests rocked Hong Kong in 2019.

Yu, 63, a successful entrepreneur adept at distinguishing between being a pro-Beijing loyalist and occasionally criticizing Hong Kong’s local government, suddenly found himself uncomfortably close to the crosshairs. With the deletion of Apple Daily, its irreverent website HK01, with its intoxicating mix of crime and entertainment, is now the city’s most popular news portal.

“The style he presents as a media owner is not like that of Jimmy Lai,” said Grace Leung, professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It looks more like traditional Chinese[elite businessman]. . . HK01 has tried to position itself as pro-Chinese but at least seems to be a little more neutral.

Hong Kong’s aggressive media have traditionally been seen as part of its appeal as an international financial center, capable of holding the government to account in ways unimaginable in mainland China.

But since the protests and the introduction of a national security law last year, the government has cracked down on the press. In addition to Lai’s arrest, he targeted the public broadcaster RTHK, prominent journalists fled the city, citing “white terror”, although the government says press freedom has been preserved. White Terror refers to decades of authoritarian rule in Taiwan when hundreds of dissidents were jailed. Hong Kong protesters used the term to characterize their fear of retaliation after the 2019 protests.

Since its founding in 2016, HK01 has attracted readers by mixing salacious celebrity gossip and criticism of the Hong Kong local government with support for the Beijing regime, reflecting the leanings of the independent business coterie but ultimately pro-Chinese who have long ruled the city.

But as a result of the security law, Beijing listens less to the city’s traditional elites, blaming them in part for the protests. In this new Hong Kong, analysts wonder if HK01 can continue its “loyalist criticism,” or if the clue of dissent that helped boost readership will be eradicated.

Yu burst onto the Hong Kong media scene in the early 1990s at the age of 33, taking over Chinese-language newspaper Mingpao after Rupert Murdoch’s bid failed. He sold the newspaper after a scandal in which Hong Kong media revealed he was jailed for a few months as a youth while studying in Canada.

He developed real estate, film and IT businesses in mainland China before launching the HK01 website in 2016. The medium, which unleashed some of Hong Kong’s top journalists on sensitive topics and the most powerful people in the world city, has developed a reputation for scoops.

“We knew our boss had his personal opinions, but he rarely interrupted our coverage,” an employee told the Financial Times, describing this time as the “golden hour” of HK01.

Yu’s interest in the media also grew out of a desire to influence public policy, analysts said. He is chairman of the academic institutes at Tsinghua and Beijing Universities of China and acquired Duowei in 2009, one of the largest political news sites targeting the Chinese diaspora.

“Yu doesn’t fully listen to the central government. . . He’s a businessman with his own ideas on politics, he’s not totally red, ”said another former columnist.

Yu first revealed his dual approach from Beijing to Mingpao, when one of his reporters was arrested in China in 1993. While his newspaper was pushing for the journalist’s release, Yu apologized to Chinese authorities and said he had reason to believe the reporter was guilty.

But the big test for Yu’s approach came in 2019 during anti-government protests. Yu, who is now also the editor of HK01, published an op-ed against the violence of the pro-democracy camp, upsetting frontline journalists who complained that Democrats refused to be interviewed by them.

“The top management is very pro-establishment but some journalists and editors are very pro-democracy, so there is always tension there,” said Rose Luqiu, a former Chinese journalist now at Baptist University of Hong Kong.

The introduction of the National Security Law led to even tighter editorial control than the pressures that emerged during the protests, two employees said. “Sometimes our editors ban our stories. Editors say it’s too sensitive. . . change the angle, ”said a current staff member.

“There is hardly any criticism of the central government,” added another.

An editor of HK01 dismissed the criticism and said the outlet “has never shied away from delving directly into” sensitive topics or covering politics before or after the introduction of the security law.

A person close to the company said they also didn’t want to be defined by political news. The business model has evolved in recent years to include e-commerce. “HK01 is not just a media, but an Internet company,” said the editor.

But for Yu and HK01, walking the tightrope of “loyal criticism” promises to only harden. If its news is seen as too pro-Beijing in a city whose residents tend to distance themselves from the government, HK01 will lose readers.

“And then the advertisers will abandon you too,” Luqiu said.

But becoming too pro-democratic will attract the opprobrium of the nationalists. In recent months, the website has been targeted by Stanley Ng, a pro-Beijing politician who described HK01 as belonging to the same “trash” as Apple Daily.

Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong

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