In Hong Kong, there's still freedom in the air

Graeme Maxton says Hong Kong has more immediate problems to fix

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 6:36pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 November, 2013, 3:06am

I was in Admiralty this week and took a detour to talk to some of the HKTV protesters, to hear what they had to say. I found people heartfelt in their views, willing to sleep on concrete to have their voices heard. They talked about censorship and a lack of democracy, about the need for more openness in government, about wanting less influence from Beijing. It was about freedom of the press, they said.

While I understood what they were saying, and sympathised with their willingness to stand up for any sort of injustice, I also thought they were not being entirely fair.

In the hundreds of articles I have written in Hong Kong over the years, on all sorts of diverse and controversial subjects, no one has ever tried to restrict what I have said, ever. Nothing controversial I have written has ever been edited out either. When I appear on RTHK radio, no one has ever said I should be careful about what I say.

When I read the papers here, I am actually astonished at times at what is said, at the criticism of Beijing or of the Hong Kong government. When I see the demonstrators, gathered around the Legislative Council building or marching through Wan Chai, I see no heavy-handed policing or attempts to silence them. Indeed, the behaviour of the Hong Kong police is, for the most part, exemplary.

Living as I do, partly in Asia and partly elsewhere, I think there is a need for some perspective here. The media in much of the rest of the world are a lot less free than in Hong Kong. They are certainly less free in most of the rest of Asia. The press in much of Europe and the United States are not much of a guide, either.

Protesters in Hong Kong may not know that the US fell far down the Press Freedom Index in 2012 because it tried to silence journalists wanting to cover issues that the government did not want covered.

During the Occupy Wall Street and other protests, journalists were specifically detained, and kept in vans, to stop them reporting. The police also manhandled protesters, beating them and spraying them with pepper at close range.

In Britain, the US and much of Europe, the press is restricted in another way, too. They are restricted by their owners. A handful of press barons, like Rupert Murdoch, ensure that what is printed and appears in the media reflects their own personal views - anti-European Union, anti-labour rights, anti-government intervention. They tap the phones of celebrities and murder victims and then perjure themselves in court to escape justice. That's hardly an example for Hong Kong to follow, either.

Of course, the protesters here have one other gripe and it is unquestionably fact. They do not have a vote. There is no democracy, or at least no Western-style democracy.

Here, too, though, there is reason for pause. In the US, there is not much democracy, either. In most states, the result is always the same - and if you don't like it, there is nothing you can do. There are actually only a small number of swing states where the outcome of elections is decided, accounting for a tiny share of the electorate. Here is where the money gets spent.

Even here, though, there is not much choice. Electors get to vote for one of the only two main parties that dominate, and that are almost indistinguishable from each other in their policies.

The man in the street has a vote in America, but it counts for nothing, which is why tens of millions of people have stopped voting. In Britain, things are even worse. It has been more than 70 years since the party in power won even 50 per cent of the vote. For decades, the country has been ruled by a government that fewer than half the people wanted. That is not much of a democracy, either.

Hong Kong certainly has some big issues to fix. To me, though, air pollution, inequality and poverty should be at the top of everyone's agenda, not press freedom.

Graeme Maxton is a member of the Club of Rome