Publishing, Media Takeovers Part of China's Two-Pronged Grip on Hong Kong

Analysts say Beijing has quietly replaced Hong Kong-based directors of a key cultural sector company with its own officials.
Publishing, Media Takeovers Part of China's Two-Pronged Grip on Hong Kong Readers queue up to buy fresh copies of the Apple Daily newspaper at a stall in Hong Kong early on Aug. 11, 2020, with a front page photo of the paper's founder Jimmy Lai being escorted through the paper's newsroom by police following his arrest under the new national security law, part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent imposed by Beijing.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is making further moves towards setting up a media and publishing empire in Hong Kong, as part of a two-pronged strategy to bring the city under its ideological control, the Ming Pao newspaper reported on Monday.

Last month, the chairman of Hong Kong-based Chinese-language broadcaster Phoenix Media Investment, Liu Changle, announced he would sell almost all of his stake in the company to the CCP-backed Bauhinia Culture Holdings and to Common Sense, which is owned by Pansy Ho's Shun Tak empire.

According to the Ming Pao, new directors have now been drafted in to helm Bauhinia, suggesting a higher degree of political momentum from Beijing, analysts told RFA.

According to publicly available company records, directors Fu Weizhong and Li Jiping were replaced in February with Sun Guangqi, Gong Rui and Wang Kai.

Sun previously headed the economic construction department at the ministry of finance of China. The other two had Beijing addresses, suggesting that they had also previously been working for central government in Beijing, the paper said.

Joseph Cheng, a former professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, said pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong under the party's United Front activities used to be controlled by the CCP's Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong.

The new appointments at Bauhinia suggest the central government will be exerting a far greater degree of direct control, Cheng said.

"Rank and precedence are very important in China, so somebody in charge of the most important media asset under the Hong Kong United Front will need to hold considerable rank in order to control and direct other media entities, such as the Ta Kung Pao and Wen Hui Po [newspapers]," Cheng said.

"[The new appointee is at least equal in rank to the person in charge of the propaganda department at the Central Liaison Office, but he has a slight advantage in rank because he is from Beijing," he said.

A set of Hong Kong-based Chinese-language broadcaster Phoenix Media Investment, which is being sold to the Chinese Communist Party-backed Bauhinia Culture Holdings and to Common Sense. Credit: Phoenix
Beijing controls 80 percent of industry now
The Central Liaison Office acquired control of Sino United Publishing Ltd. in 2015, a company that owns three major bookstore chains in the city, Joint Publishing HK, Chung Hwa Book Co. and the Commercial Press.

The move gave Beijing control of more than 80 percent of the publishing industry in Hong Kong.

The liaison office already owns a number of Chinese-language media, including the Wen Wei Po, Ta Kung Pao and Hong Kong Commercial Daily newspapers, as well as the online Orange News.

According to independent Chinese journalist Gao Yu, any Hong Kong-based media with a former finance ministry official in charge will effectively be subject to the control of the CCP's Central Propaganda Department.

This will likely eventually apply to Phoenix TV, she said.

"It is now totally one country, one system," Gao said of promises that Hong Kong would enjoy its traditional freedoms under the "one country, two systems" promise long considered broken by Beijing.

"Without the two remaining outspoken publications like Apple Daily and Epoch Times, [Hong Kong media] will be in exactly the same situation as media in mainland China," she said.

"They have now acquired the companies," Gao said. "After that, they will need to set up CCP cells [in those companies] and start editing textbooks to send a unified [CCP-backed] message."

Hardline 'soft power'
The moves come after the pro-China Sing Tao Daily reported in January that Beijing was planning to set up a centrally directed cultural enterprise in Hong Kong, to enhance the CCP's soft power in the city following months of pro-democracy protests and police violence in 2019.

The group would have "unified jurisdiction" over Chinese-funded institutions including Sino United Publishing and Bauhinia, the paper reported at the time.

Chinese journalist Huang Yongqiang said the change of directors at Bauhinia was "a major personnel change."

"Three mainland Chinese residents are now on the board of directors," Huang said. "One of them is highly likely to be a secretary-level official of the Chinese ministry of finance."

"This shows that the mainland authorities are continuing to strengthen controls over Hong Kong's cultural sector," he said.

He said the CCP is using a two-pronged approach based on late supreme leader Mao Zedong's maxim that "political power comes from the barrel of a gun," to include the notion that it also stems from the written word.

"This is the CCP's two-pronged approach using guns and pens, that it used to take and keep power right from the start," Huang said. 
"The central government recently took over full control of the police force in Hong Kong, and now they are moving in with the pen, sparing no effort in the culture and propaganda sectors."

According to publicly available company information, the Bauhinia Culture Holdings was incorporated in Hong Kong in 2019 and is 100 percent controlled by China's ministry of finance.

Reported by Man Hoi Yan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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