A flagship political discussion show run for decades by government broadcaster RTHK has been accused of peddling an anti-Beijing agenda in Hong Kong amid reports the city's government is planning a political campaign against "hostile overseas forces" feared by Beijing.
The round-table format Sunday politics show, featuring newsmakers, politicians and questions from the audience, has been broadcasting live to the people of Hong Kong from Victoria Park since its inception in 1980.
But the edition of RTHK's City Forum that marked the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule was slated by pro-Beijing voices for its title: "One country, two systems: a 20-year sham?"
The "one country, two systems" approach was offered by Beijing as part of its formal handover treaty with the U.K., promising the maintenance of Hong Kong's existing freedoms and a "high degree of autonomy" on the internal running of the city.
But repeated interventions by China's parliament in sensitive political cases, including the appointment of lawmakers and the conduct of elections, as well as the cross border detention of five Hong Kong booksellers over the sale of "banned" books in China, have left many feeling that those promises were empty.
Meanwhile, the Beijing-backed Wen Wei Po newspaper quoted a pro-Beijing journalists' association as calling for the "malicious" producers of the show to be disciplined for damaging anti-handover sentiment.
"There have long been a handful of producers at RTHK who have nursed hostility towards their country, and have used their control of the airwaves to pour poisonous, vulgar speech and exaggerated satire of national leaders in aid of their anti-China political aims," the paper quoted the Association of Veteran Hong Kong Journalists as saying.
"Journalists should show some responsibility to society, not spread rumors and slander, sow discord, polarity and social conflict," it said.
The group called on RTHK to "discipline" those responsible.
"This department has long harbored a cancerous tumor, that will only continue to grow bigger and bigger if it is ignored," the group told the Wen Wei Po. "It can only return to health if it makes a concerted effort to deal with it."
Association chairman and adviser to Beijing Chang Wan-Fung brushed aside concerns that Beijing has interfered repeatedly in Hong Kong's promised autonomy in recent years.
"This phrase, a 20-year con, is rumor-mongering and slander," Chang said. "RTHK is a government broadcaster of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government of the People's Republic of China."
"Its staff are civil servants, and at the very least shouldn't be aligning themselves with opposition factions, or with anti-China or anti-Hong Kong forces," he said.
Topic for debate
But the head of RTHK's television arm, Amen Ng, said the provocative phrase had been used in the form of a question, to provoke debate on the show.
"On the day the show went out, the topic was the July 1 demonstrations, and the show quoted a slogan used by [march organizers] the Civil Human Rights Front," she told RFA.
"There was a question mark added to the phrase to show that it was a topic for debate, rather than a fixed point of view," Ng said.
She said RTHK has a duty as a public broadcaster to reflect different views across the whole of Hong Kong society, and that the station was collecting opinions from all quarters on the controversy for further study.
Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA), which warned in a report this month that the influx of money from mainland China risks compromising the city's press freedom, agreed with Ng.
"The show's title merely raised a question, which showed careful journalism on their part," Yeung said. "They were trying to ensure that the show didn't have a fixed opinion."
"But a small number of people in the media are perhaps a little oversensitive," he said.
The row over the show comes as officials from China's liaison office in Hong Kong have been accused of trying to influence lawmakers' votes on sensitive issues in recent weeks.
Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Patrick Nip on Wednesday denied allegations from Democratic Party lawmaker James To, who said there was "a lot of evidence to show mainland interference in Hong Kong affairs."
However, news site www.hk01.com reported that newly sworn-in chief executive Carrie Lam may come under pressure to set up a "political unit" charged with countering pro-independence and localist rhetoric in the city.
It said a recent two-year research program commissioned by Beijing's central policy unit had found the city's executive-led government weakened by recent divisions over political reforms, leaving it on the back foot.
The report suggested setting up a "political unit" to track, deter and contain opposition voices, the website said.
Beijing turns the screws
Professor Chung Kim-wah, director of the PolyU Centre for Social Policy, told RFA that such reports were not surprising, but could backfire.
"It's not a big surprise to me, especially in the last few years, when central government policy has played a very different role [in Hong Kong] compared with before," Chung said.
"In the decade between 2001 and 2012, all [the central policy unit] did was some public opinion surveys and research, but they have given the impression of actually telling the government, and in particular the chief executive, how to promote and implement policy in recent years," he said.
Current affairs commentator Liu Ruishao, who appeared on the controversial episode of City Forum, said Beijing should back off and let Lam get on with managing the economy and social welfare for the next couple of years, however.
"They don't need to start thinking about any political reform package for 2022 until 2020, so the best thing would be for them to back off and let Carrie Lam have some time to get to grips with the economy, social issues, and social welfare," Liu said.
Meanwhile, the HKJA said incoming investment by mainland Chinese businesses in Hong Kong media outlets could worsen the problem of self-censorship among the city’s newspapers and TV stations.
Eight out of 26 mainstream media outlets in Hong Kong are effectively controlled by Chinese money, the HKJA said in its report earlier this month titled "Two systems under siege: Beijing turns the screws on Hong Kong media."
By the end of the year, i-Cable will join the list of entities relying on Chinese capital, raising the proportion to more than one third, the report said.
"After President Xi Jinping came to power and the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement in Hong Kong, Beijing moved into the driver’s seat," it said, calling on Lam's administration to take immediate action to defend the city's autonomy.
The HKJA has also called on Lam to enact freedom of information and archives laws, to stop using informal blog posts to announce major policies, and to end government refusal to accredit journalists from online-only news outlets.
Reported by Goh Fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Ding Wenqi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.