The ruling Chinese Communist Party in the southeastern province of Fujian has set up a new website offering local "news" to residents of Hong Kong and Macau, RFA has learned.
Southeast Net, which is run by the Fujian Hong Kong and Macao Media Center of the provincial propaganda department, has been recruiting Hong Kong and Macao-based journalists to staff its Hong Kong news site since May.
The site, which already has a branch in Australia, has been recruiting reporters, video producers, and editors and "social media specialists" in the two former colonial cities in recent months, according to an online recruitment advertisement seen by RFA.
"The news released by the Fujian Hong Kong and Macau Media Center is officially authoritative, allowing [people] with ancestral hometowns in Fujian to read about the good deeds of Hokkien [Fujian] people in Hong Kong and Macau, as well as all the latest news from Hong Kong, in a speedy manner," the ad explains.
Journalists and other communications professionals are being recruited to "Tell the stories of the people of Hong Kong and Macau, hearing [their] voices, serving communities in Hong Kong and Macau, and building a platform for exchanges between Fujian and Hong Kong and Macau," it said.
The site is already up and running, at http://hk.fjsen.com, and includes stories about the Hong Kong Federation of Fujian Associations meeting to study recent comments by President Xi Jinping to local politicians, as well as a feature titled "Southeast Net's Hong Kong reporter experiences the speed of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge."
A Special Reports section offers a welter of patriotic information about singing the ruling party's praises, patriotism, and studying President Xi's ideas.
'No official connection'
However, website director Lin Qianxiang denied the site had any official connection.
Speaking from an office in Hong Kong's North Point district that seemed not yet fully occupied when visited by RFA on Tuesday, Lin said: "No comment," when asked who was behind his operation.
"No, no one is saying that. We are just a regular media organization. Who told you that?"
Asked if the website had long-term plans to set up in Hong Kong, Lin declined to give details.
"No, there is no such plan," he said. "We don't have much stuff here, and not much to do. We're just standing around."
Li repeatedly denied the connection with the Fujian authorities, in spite of this being documented online, before leaving in a hurry "to catch a plane to Shenzhen." When followed from the building, Li said the operation wasn't a media operation at all.
"There is no media operation here," Li said. "It doesn't matter what gets reported on the website. We don't know anything about that. We aren't open for business."
According to the Southeast Net website, the site operates under the aegis of the Fujian Daily, which is in turn run by the provincial party committee.
It set up a Hong Kong branch in 2016, with an official launch ceremony held last month at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center attended by Chen Dong, deputy head of Beijing's central liaison office in Hong Kong and Liang Jianyong, head of the Fujian provincial propaganda department and his deputy Xu Shanna, the website reports.
The Hong Kong branch was listed in Hong Kong's companies register in April under the name "Fujian Hong Kong and Macau Media Center Co. Ltd," with a registered share capital of just HK$1. The registered directors were listed only as "Mr. Xie" and "Mr. Lin."
The company also recently changed its name to Southeast Media Hong Kong Ltd. and registered a change of address to a commercial site of some 1,000 square feet, with a monthly rent of some HK$40,000, according to the register.
The stories on the website mentioning the "study" of remarks by President Xi indicate that the organizations concerned, including the Federation of Hong Kong Fujian Associations, are partners of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work Department, which carries out outreach work with non-communist groups both at home and overseas.
The Federation has previously hosted Lei Chunmei, head of the Fujian provincial United Front Work Department, at a symposium in Hong Kong, according to reports on the site itself.
'More and more blatant'
Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said he is worried that China is continuing to overstep the mark when it comes to wielding its influence in Hong Kong, which was promised a "high degree of autonomy" and the maintenance of its traditional freedoms of speech, publication, and association, under the terms of the 1997 handover.
"I am worried, because this is getting more and more blatant," Lam said. "There are official or semi-official organizations from mainland China that come and set up in Hong Kong to try to influence public opinion here."
"This is a threat to our freedom of speech, and I think it may be a violation of the Basic Law," Lam said, in a reference to the city's mini-constitution setting out its status as a separate jurisdiction from mainland China.
"Mainland government departments cannot be allowed to come and operate in Hong Kong."
Political commentator Liu Ruishao said provincial-level party committees are taking the lead across China in a bid to demonstrate their loyalty to Xi Jinping Thought, which was enshrined in the country's constitution as Xi began an indefinite second term as president in March.
Using mainland resources
Their work in Hong Kong has been made easier by the fact that the Hokkienese community has long preserved traditional links with ancestral hometowns in Fujian.
"Provincial party committees across China are stepping up this sort of activity, under the banner of promoting Xi Jinping Thought," Liu told RFA. "This is also a way for them to signal their own political attitude [to Beijing]."
Liu said the setting up of Southeast Net's Hong Kong branch indicates that Beijing has lost much of its former shyness when it comes to funding media organizations to spread its message.
"They are openly using mainland resources to carry out these activities," he said. "It's pretty clear that this drama is nowhere near played out yet. I think we are going to see more and more local branches of official Chinese media invading Hong Kong in future."
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said the move is a new development because only central media organizations like Xinhua news agency and CCTV have previously set up branches in Hong Kong.
"The greatest concern is that they claim to be a media organization, but they are actually part of the machinery of the state," Lui said, adding that Fujian used to be one of Xi Jinping's power bases.
He said Southeast Net's move into Hong Kong won't be welcome across the whole of the political elite, however.
"For [Xi's] political opponents, such as the faction supportive of [former president] Jiang Zemin or others, the use of media identities to monitor activities hostile [to Xi] is far from being acceptable," he said.
Reported by Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.