Am I Bernstein or Woodward?: Censorship on Hong Kong’s airwaves?

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Martin Lee. (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Martin Lee. (Photo, doctored by me, from Wikipedia Commons)

Sipping coffee and watching CNN in Mainland China, I would occasionally see the broadcast switch suddenly to an autumnal scene featuring a stream running through a golden, forested hillside.

Seconds later I’d go to my desk, fire up a VPN to skirt the Great Firewall of China and scan the international news sites to determine what news the Beijing censors found objectionable that morning.

Eerily, for a few seconds on Friday evening I thought that I had been transported out of Hong Kong, which maintains its own way of life and press freedoms, and back to Mainland China.

I was listening to a rather interesting but politically sensitive interview about the prospects for true universal suffrage in Hong Kong, as was promised in the handover agreement between the UK and China. The interview was with Martin Lee, founding chairman of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong and former Legislative Council member.

Near the end of the segment Mr. Lee was talking about the potential for a proposed pro-democracy protest to turn violent, but not violent because of the protestors themselves, but because of other forces. He said “But of course violence could be generated by certain people. I’d like to remind listeners what happened…” And then the interview was abruptly cut and the broadcast switched directly to another story.

Having lived in Mainland China and being a cynic, I thought he was about to reference Tiananmen Square, where a different peaceful protest for democracy turned violent due to the actions of the People’s Liberation Army at the direction of hardline Chinese leaders.

Of course, he may have been about to talk about some other event, but since the interview was abruptly cut, one can only imagine.

I can find no reference to this strange occurrence in the English Hong Kong media, but the podcast of that night’s interview is available on-line and I am able to confirm that the interview was clearly cut at a very odd moment.

The interview aired on RTHK Radio 3‘s program “Newswrap” on Friday, April 12, 2013. The entire program can be listened to here. The Martin Lee interview segment begins at minute 13:16. These quotes start from minute 14:40. Bold emphasis, of the more interesting quotes, is my own.

Q: “…do you believe there will be universal suffrage in 2017?”

Lee: “Yes, if Beijing says yes. Very simple … Hong Kong people may still be allowed one-person, one-vote in the CE [Chief Executive] election in 2017. But they could only elect one out of two or three puppets pre-selected by Beijing. And that’s not election, because the Basic Law, Article 26 says very clearly that Hong Kong permanent residents have the right to elect and be elected. But this sort of thing will rule out more than half of the people of Hong Kong so that they could never become a candidate.”

Q: “So in other words there won’t be universal suffrage then?”

Lee: “Well [small chuckle] there will be universal suffrage with [unintelligible in podcast but in live broadcast he said “Chinese”] characteristics. You have one-person, one-vote, but you can only vote for one of their pre-selected candidates. That does not accord with international laws.”

Q: [Interviewer asks question about the proposed “Occupy Central” protest which would occur in 2014 if it seems likely that universal suffrage will not be achieved in the 2017 Chief Executive election.]

Lee: “It’s a last resort according to the organizers. And it will be a sad day for Hong Kong if we have to take this step because that will mean that Hong Kong people have completely lost confidence in the future and they are prepared, they are driven, to take the future in their own hands by sacrificing their own liberty…. So that’s a respectable thing. But Hong Kong people would not be driven to take this step if the Beijing leaders were to see that so far what is happening is not right. But they could easily change course. They [unintelligible].

Q: [Interviewer asks about concerns over Occupy Central leading to violence.]

Lee: “I think he [Lau Siu-kai] is right, but the fault would not come from the Pan Democrats or the people who actually participate in such an event because the organizers insist that everybody who participates must, must promise that it will be a peaceful demonstration. But of course violence could be generated by certain people. I’d like to remind listeners what happened… [broadcast of interview stops abruptly]

At  minute 17:21 the interview cuts directly to a story on the air bridge failure at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport. There is no customary closing “thank you” to mark the natural end of the interview.

Extremely unfortunate technical error? If you work for RTHK’s “Newswrap” do chime in. Regardless, the interview with Martin Lee is well-worth listening to for those interested in Hong Kong politics.


13 responses to “Am I Bernstein or Woodward?: Censorship on Hong Kong’s airwaves?

    • It was extremely strange and scary… The related talk from Beijing about Hong Kong needing to be a part of a “harmonious” (read: dissent-less) Chinese society is equally odd. They obviously have little idea how negatively Hong Kong people perceive that kind of “double-talk.”

  1. He was also interviewed on BBC World Asia News report last night criticizing the lack progress towards full democracy (promised at the handover) in Hong Kong, and the deafening silence from the UK that their agreed terms are not being met. At the time I thought it was a pretty brave statement to make. So much for two systems. 😦

    • Martin Lee comes across as an extremely thoughtful and reasonable activist for democracy in Hong Kong. I’ll have to go look up the BBC interview you mention.

  2. I don’t see the problem. He was very clearly reminding people that if an air bridge has a problem at the airport, that should tell us all that we need to improve organisation. Timely advice. Now return to your day.

  3. Yikes… this is disturbing, but I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Depressing that this is happening in HK to the extent that you had a flashback to life back in Mainland China!! The two systems are starting to look more like just one system where Democracy with Chinese characteristics (even in HK) starts to look less and less like a real and vibrant democracy.

    • I was really amazed and distressed by it. It seemed so very, very blatant. Apparently the “overlords” are flexing plenty of behind the scenes muscle to ensure that Hong Kong is part of a “harmonious” greater China…

  4. “the broadcast switch suddenly to an autumnal scene featuring a stream running through a golden, forested hillside.”

    Woah, this is nuts. It sounds like something from a Paul Verhoeven movie that I would have loved. But this is real. And scary.

    • No need to trouble the mind of the average person with trivial news regarding Tibet, the Wen Jiabao family’s private fortune, or 1989’s Tiananman Square’s “crackdown.” After all it might upset everybody and we all want a “harmonious society,” right?

      Censorship in Mainland China is freaky, but expected. Smelling a whiff of it in Hong Kong (which is suppose to have complete freedom of the press) is really freaky.

      But maybe they are all just poorly timed technical faults, right? 😉

  5. Pingback: Propaganda: North Korea is a “Socialist Fairyland” and Expat Life is Glamorous! | Expat Lingo·

  6. I can’t imagine watching a news broadcast that gets cut out because of censorship – that’s certainly a good reason to like the American freedom of the press! I hope China and other countries with similar censorship laws will allow their citizens access to independent media in the near future. I’m glad you have a way to get around the Great Wall.

    • So true! After living in Mainland China I have a much greater appreciation for America’s freedom of press.

      Everyone expects censorship in Mainland China, so there has developed an “art of reading between the lines’ in the news.

      I was, however, shocked to witness a hint of (self?) censorship in Hong Kong, which is suppose to have complete press freedoms until 2047. Not a good sign.

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