Every so often, public concerns about perceived erosions of Hong Kong’s “core values” and “basic freedoms” bubble to the surface.
Generally, these worries arise in the face of perceived, and, it must be said, hilariously unsophisticated, attempts at mainland interference in Hong Kong affairs.
Recent attempts to draw people away from the annual July 1 protest, which ranged from a concert headlined by K-pop acts to a classic-car rally (both oh-socoincidentally scheduled for that very afternoon), merely brought out the dissenters in greater force.
Staggering levels of historical illiteracy remain sadly commonplace among many public commentators in Hong Kong. In consequence, many (especially among the younger generation) assume that pre-1997 Hong Kong was a bastion of press freedom. A far greater degree of political dissent has always been tolerated in Hong Kong – whether during British or Chinese rule – than on the mainland, whether under imperial, nationalist or communist administrations.
Nevertheless, official press censorship in Hong Kong, with the (usually) clearly stated official aim of not provoking “the neighbour”, is a historical fact.
Anti-sedition laws have long existed in Hong Kong. The arrest of journalists and banning of publications was not routine under colonialism, but laws existed that allowed both, and from time to time were used. Article 23 activists tend to neatly ignore this fact.
Editorial decisions based (in part) on a proprietor’s broader business strategies – “self-censorship”, if you like – remain commonplace here, as everywhere else. But this specific factor is a very different story to overt government control over the press.
Tsun Wan Jih Pao, the first Western-style Chinese-language newspaper in China run by a Chinese, was launched in Hong Kong in 1874. Established by Wang Tao, it advocated Westernstyle journalism – in particular, Wang admired the editorials in The Times (of London) and saw how these could be used to influence national policy. Wary of this, local government ordinances were enacted specifically to prevent Hong Kong becoming a base of subversion against what – for much of its history – was considered a friendly power.
In 1907, the first such regulation was put in place as the anti-Manchu movement, which culminated in the 1911 revolution, grew. Visual media were also subject to control. From 1908, films shown in Hong Kong required approval by censors; and between 1974 and 1986, 21 films were banned on the grounds that they might “damage relations with other territories”. In effect this meant they risked annoying China in some way.
This requirement became more pressing after the communist assumption of power in 1949.
In 1951, the Control of Publications Consolidation Ordinance was passed, making it an offence to publish material that might encourage treason or sedition.
In 1952, highly coloured reports in mainland-supported propaganda organs followed serious public disturbances when a mainland aid mission was turned back in the wake of a disastrous squatter fire at Tai Hang Tung, in Kowloon. As a result, Ta Kung Pao was banned, but following official mainland protest the prohibition was swiftly lifted. To some extent the ban served notice on various Chinabacked publications to report events with a greater degree of accuracy and objectivity.
During the 1967 riots, however, it was leftist newspapers independent of overt mainland control, such as Tin Tin Daily News, that were suspended and their editors prosecuted and jailed, rather than the People’s Daily and quasi-official communist mouthpieces such as Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao.