Beijing-Linked Phoenix TV Seeks Hong Kong License as China Extends 'Soft Power'

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china-hongkong-07042016.jpg Members of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association display their annual report, July 3, 2016.

Beijing-backed satellite broadcaster Phoenix TV has applied to run two network television stations in Hong Kong, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party tightens its grip on the city's once-freewheeling media and publishing sectors.

Phoenix has applied for free-to-air licenses to run a 24-hour Cantonese-language entertainment channel and an English channel that shuts down overnight, a government document published on Friday showed.

The station's founder and CEO Liu Changle is a member of China’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

The station will be applying for an exemption for one of its directors on the grounds that they have extensive experience of the media industry, the consultation document said.

The station raised eyebrows in Hong Kong in August, when it aired a televised "confession" made by detained human rights lawyer Wang Yu, who remains under close police surveillance with her family after being granted "bail" on charges of subversion.

Five Hong Kong booksellers detained by Chinese police for selling "banned books" to customers across the internal border in mainland China were also interviewed by the station, and "confessed" to wrongdoing earlier this year.

In the past, "confessions" by political prisoners have generally been confined to media directly controlled by the Chinese government.

Soft power

Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said Phoenix operates with the full blessing of the Chinese government and represents the face of Beijing's "soft power."

"Some people see Phoenix as a better-looking version of [state broadcaster] CCTV," Lui said.

"The traditional state media format is getting a little tired, so China is encouraging certain private-sector entrepreneurs to preach its message in more attractive packaging," he said.

Phoenix also enjoys a little more leeway in its reporting than state media, including some human-rights content and mentions of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, he said.

"But there are a lot of things that Phoenix won't report, and in the case of [the Hong Kong booksellers], they got interviews with them, something which could only have happened at the instigation of the government and with its full confidence in the outcome," Lui said.

If the license is granted, Phoenix will see a big expansion in its potential audience.

Mainland control

According to centrist politician Chan Ka-wai, the station's roots are pretty clear to Hong Kong viewers.

"A lot of people have never watched Phoenix, because it was pretty clear when it first arrived on the scene that its news came from mainland China," Chan said.

"Industry insiders know very well that its funding comes from the mainland."

Political columnist Johnny Lau, who once worked for Hong Kong's Beijing-backed Wen Wei Po newspaper, said Phoenix's application for a Hong Kong license suggests that the Communist Party sees the city as a key frontier in its "united front" ideological struggle to win over public opinion.

"There's a saying in Chinese politics about the need to consolidate one's position on the battleground of public opinion," Lau said. "But it goes on to say you must also make inroads into new territories."

"It's very easy to imagine that there is a political motive behind this apparently commercial move by Phoenix TV," he said.

Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its existing freedoms of press, publication, and assembly for at least 50 years.

But the cross-border detentions last year of five Hong Kong booksellers accused of selling "banned books" to customers across the internal border in tightly controlled mainland China sparked a public outcry.

Call for action

In July, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) called on the city's government to do much more to protect press freedom, citing a "grave threat" to its traditional freedoms of expression and association.

In a report titled "One Country, Two Nightmares," the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) said the city's government should take a "much more robust approach towards the protection of press freedom and other rights integral to Hong Kong’s success."

Earlier this year, Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong bought up a key publishing house, Sino United, which owns a chain of bookstores in the city.

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.

And Reuters reported that at least 33 radio stations in 14 countries now form part of a global web of radio station ownership structured so as to obscure its majority shareholder: state-run China Radio International, or CRI.

The stations broadcast content created or supplied by CRI or its foreign subsidiaries from Finland to Nepal to Australia, and from Philadelphia to San Francisco, the report said.

Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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