ATV’s collapse exposes Hong Kong-China cultural divide of the type that breeds localism

Yonden Lhatoo says mainland investors drove the city’s oldest television station into the ground because of management styles that just don’t work on this side of the border

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 March, 2016, 6:25pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 April, 2016, 12:07pm

I thought I’d seen it all until I visited ATV’s headquarters in Tai Po last Friday, expecting court-appointed liquidators to shut down the cash-strapped station where I got my break in broadcast journalism many years ago.

I wanted to extend some moral support to the last of my former comrades-in-arms still there, but soon found myself in the middle of the media circus parked outside the building. We were all ushered inside for a press conference by representatives of Si Rongbin (司榮彬), the mainland investor trying to keep the station on air until April 1, when its much-abused free-to-air licence finally expires.

We watched, incredulous, as Jan He, Si’s point woman at ATV, put on a bizarre show for the media featuring a cheque and a briefcase full of cash – HK$10 million in all, if she was telling the truth – that were brought out on stage.

I had to pick my jaw off the floor when she calmly announced that the money was not for settling outstanding wages owed to staff for January and February, but would instead be offered to those willing to sign a new contract only for March so the station wouldn’t have to close down early.

This from the same woman who, in early February, sparked a mass walkout when she informed unpaid staff they would have to work for a third month without getting a cent, and that their salaries were not as important as the survival of the station. She had the temerity to say this to a bunch of long-suffering employees who were counting on the new investor she represented to keep his promise to pump billions of dollars into the ailing company.

They had already endured months of late payments and uncertainty under the previous mainland investor, Wong Ching, the man who precipitated the collapse of the world’s first Chinese-language television station.

Now that’s a name that has become synonymous with public hate and ridicule in this town. The previously obscure businessman came onto the scene six years ago with lofty promises of turning ATV into “Asia’s CNN”, only to plunge the company into one crisis after another. He finally ended up selling his controlling stake to Si and then going to court to have the company liquidated – remaining staff be damned – to recoup his losses.

No one will forget how he orchestrated what was arguably the most cringeworthy moment in Hong Kong’s broadcasting history with his knock-kneed version of Korean rapper Psy’s Gangnam Style dance outside government headquarters to protest against the opening up of the city’s television market to competition.

When you look at what happened at ATV, it’s not hard to imagine how this sort of thing feeds into the bias and suspicion among Hongkongers regarding the mainland. I don’t for a moment condone those reprehensible protests against mainland visitors featuring racist abuse and even violence, but I’m beginning to understand why “localism” is not a dirty word any more.

I suppose that’s why we have prominent pro-establishment figures coming out openly these days to defend those who are getting increasingly assertive about Hong Kong’s distinct identity and culture, even though it’s an inalienable part of China.

Of course, there are far better mainland employers running successful businesses in Hong Kong who could show people like Wong and Si that their obtuse management styles might make sense across the border but just won’t work here.

The death of ATV is a quid pro quo lesson for those from the other side to understand and appreciate Hong Kong’s way of life.

Integration is a two-way street.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post