One country; diametrically opposed values

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2009, 12:00am

The reaction to the beating up of three local journalists covering protests in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang , has underlined differences in values between Hong Kong and the mainland 12 years after the implementation of the 'one country, two systems' policy.

The three journalists, two from TVB and one from Now TV, were tied up, kicked and punched by police in Urumqi. Regional authorities, instead of apologising, blamed the journalists. Xinjiang Information Office director Hou Hanmin said they had been inciting demonstrators.

A rare protest, sponsored jointly by the Hong Kong Journalists Association and the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong, was held outside the central government's liaison office on Sunday.

Meanwhile, local politicians, even pro-Beijing ones, have been united in criticism of the Xinjiang government. Even Ta Kung Pao, a pro-communist newspaper here, carried a commentary that termed the Xinjiang charge of incitement 'a fabricated accusation'. It said: 'Hong Kong reporters are only outsiders there [in Urumqi]. How can they incite people to cause trouble?'

Many people in Hong Kong have called on Beijing to investigate. However, it is highly unlikely that it will do so. Beijing is not in the habit of admitting official wrongdoing, either by its own officials or by those in the provinces. Coercive measures are often taken in the name of maintaining stability. The beating up of three journalists will not be considered a big thing.

It is important to understand that what happened in Urumqi on September 4 was by no means an isolated incident. It is part of a pattern, showing how Chinese authorities view and treat the media, which is controlled by the state on the mainland.

Two days after the beatings, five other Hong Kong journalists were at a railway station in Urumqi, where police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of people. The five were whisked away to a police station. They were subsequently released and told it was a misunderstanding - but one that prevented them from doing their job.

And, last month, two Beijing-based journalists working for the Hong Kong media were held in their hotel room in Chengdu , Sichuan province , and prevented from covering a politically sensitive trial.

The central government, instead of reining in provincial authorities, appears to support them. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman defended the treatment of the reporters in Urumqi, saying: 'It was proper and necessary for the police to implement some contingency measures. I hope reporters can co-operate and understand.'

The problem of journalists working on the mainland is by no means limited to those from Hong Kong. The Foreign Correspondents' Club of China says at least 32 foreign journalists were attacked or had photos or equipment destroyed in the 12 months following the Olympic Games last year.

Some people, such as Tsang Hin-chi, a former member of the NPC Standing Committee, have called for calm and asked the journalists to take the national interest into account. But Tsang should understand that the national interest does not lie in covering up abuses of power; it lies in strengthening the rule of law, upholding press freedom and maintaining political accountability.

It is the responsibility of Hong Kong journalists and politicians to help the mainland reform the behaviour of police, information officers and government officials.

Such incidents reflect a conflict of values between the mainland and Hong Kong. Basic freedoms - of the press, of speech and of assembly - are taken for granted here. These are recognised by the Chinese constitution but, in practice, they do not exist on the mainland.

People in Hong Kong must remain vigilant to safeguard their rights and freedoms, both while here and on the mainland.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.