When Hong Kong’s richest tycoons declared their support for the city’s national security law in June, it wasn’t what they said that stood out as much as how they said it.
One by one, the financial hub’s most prominent capitalists — from Li Ka-shing to Raymond Kwok — delivered their endorsements in a strikingly similar way: by giving interviews or statements to Hong Kong newspapers controlled by China’s Communist Party.
It was a notable shift from last year, when the tycoons used a variety of media to weigh in on pro-democracy demonstrations, and a sign of growing influence for a publishing empire that China has spent decades amassing in Hong Kong. As the Chinese government moves to snuff out the city’s protest movement, it’s now tapping this empire to promote its agenda and, according to critics including independent publishers and pro-democracy lawmakers, silence dissenting voices like never before.
The two newspapers that carried the tycoons’ endorsements — Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po — represent just a sliver of the publishing operations controlled by China’s government through its Liaison Office in Hong Kong, according to a person familiar with the matter as well as court documents, company websites and corporate registry filings. The entity also owns at least 30 publishing houses and brands, one of the biggest commercial printing companies in greater China and 60 retail bookstores in Hong Kong and Macao. It publishes school textbooks, runs an online news outlet with almost 250,000 Facebook followers and distributes pro-Beijing magazines to more than 500 secondary schools in Hong Kong.
While comprehensive market share figures for the city’s publishing industry are hard to find, independent booksellers and academics who have studied the industry say the Liaison Office has a dominant position in book publishing and a modest but growing presence in news. They also say it’s likely to become more influential as Hong Kong’s national security law creates a chilling effect on independent media. Police cited alleged violations of the law when they arrested pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai on Aug. 10 and raided the office of his flagship newspaper, Apple Daily.
The long-term risk is that Hong Kong’s historically freewheeling media and publishing scene — part of what underpins the city’s status as an international financial center — will increasingly resemble that of heavily censored China, according to Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.
“The scope of free media has been very slowly eroded, and it gave Chinese propaganda machinery the scope to operate,” Tsang said. “Even very crude propaganda can be effective if it is reported often enough.”
Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of China’s State Council, and Sino United Publishing — one of the Liaison Office’s main companies in Hong Kong — didn’t respond to requests for comment. A Liaison Office official reached by phone declined to comment when asked whether it controls publishing assets in Hong Kong.
Lee Cho Jat, an honorary chairman of Sino United, said in a 2018 interview with Radio Television Hong Kong that there are no political motives behind its operations. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said that the city’s freedom of speech, press and publication will be maintained, and that the Liaison Office’s work shouldn’t be interfered with as long as it’s law-abiding.
The Liaison Office has never publicly disclosed its business interests. But a Hong Kong court ruling on June 22 added to a trail of evidence suggesting that the government entity controls publishing assets in the former British colony through a Chinese company called Guangdong Xin Wenhua. The judge in the case, which involved the winding-up of a business that owed money to a Hong Kong unit of Guangdong Xin Wenhua, said the company was “closely associated with the Liaison Office and, I think it a compelling inference, doing its bidding.”
Various local media have detailed similar connections in recent years. A 2018 story by RTHK, Hong Kong’s government-run broadcaster, cited a credit report for Guangdong Xin Wenhua that showed the Liaison Office was its only shareholder. A person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News this month that the Liaison Office still controls the company. Guangdong Xin Wenhua’s ownership of publishing assets in Hong Kong is spelled out in documents in the city’s corporate registry and on the web sites of the companies it controls.
China’s government has tried to shape the narrative on Hong Kong both within the city and on the mainland since long before the handover from Britain in 1997, but its efforts have shifted into overdrive since plans for the national security law emerged in May, according to Tanya Chan, a founding member of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Civic Party.
The Liaison Office’s Hong Kong media outlets have published articles and commentaries slamming the pro-democracy movement and attacking Beijing’s critics. Some of the news stories have included statements from Luo Huining, who became the Liaison Office’s director in January and is the Chinese official tasked with advising Lam on national security.
After anti-government protests on July 1, an editorial in Ta Kung Pao called for tighter police surveillance in Hong Kong and said pro-democracy figures like Joshua Wong and Nathan Law should face prosecution. Wong has since been charged for taking part in an unauthorized assembly, which he has called an “outrageous political purge on the city’s dissidents.” Law, who fled to the U.K., has a warrant out for his arrest on suspicion of violating the national security law. He said on Twitter: “I have no idea what is my ‘crime’ and I don’t think that’s important. Perhaps I love Hong Kong too much.”
When police detained Lai this month, the headline in Ta Kung Pao summed up the view from Beijing: “So Happy!” The media tycoon, who was released on bail, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Aug. 14 that he was arrested on “trumped up” charges.
In one sign of the growing sway of Liaison Office publications, Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department — which runs the city’s libraries — said it would review its book collection after Wen Wei Po reported in June that its readers had found titles that may be in violation of the national security law.
“This is their machine,” said Chan, the Civic Party member and author of one of several books flagged by Wen Wei Po. “They have been doing this for a very long time, but now they have more support, and some authorities will take follow-up actions.”
Still, the Liaison Office’s influence has its limits. Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao had the lowest credibility scores among 11 Hong Kong newspapers evaluated by Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2019. And unlike residents of mainland China, Hong Kongers enjoy largely unfettered access to the internet, international news outlets and social media platforms. About 56 percent of residents oppose the national security legislation, compared with 34 percent who support it, according to a Reuters/Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute poll released before the law’s enactment.
“As long as the internet is still free, it is very hard for the Liaison Office to make their narrative a dominant one,” said Faye Dorcas Yung, assistant professor at The Open University of Hong Kong, a self-financing university set up by the city’s government.
Yet it’s not clear how long the free flow of information in Hong Kong will last. James Griffiths, a journalist and author of “The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet,’’ is among China watchers who have said it would be possible for Beijing to impose a partial digital blackout on the territory.
Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc. — all of which are blocked on the mainland — have stopped responding to Hong Kong government requests for data in the wake of the national security law, setting up a potential clash with authorities. The New York Times said last month it would move part of its Hong Kong-based news operation to Seoul, citing uncertainty about the new law and work visas, among other reasons.
Hong Kong’s global ranking in a Reporters Without Borders survey of press freedom was falling even before this year, declining to 73 in 2019 from 61 five years earlier. (China was ranked 177 of 180 countries and territories in 2019, three spots above North Korea.)
Free speech advocates say the trend in Hong Kong’s book-publishing industry is equally worrisome.
Lam Wing-kee, a Hong Kong bookseller known for carrying titles banned in mainland China, said the Liaison Office’s influence over printing, publishing and retail bookstores has made it increasingly difficult for independent publishers and booksellers to carry on in the city unless they toe the Communist Party line.
“Now, only those with ideology approved by the CCP can survive,” said Lam, who fled to Taiwan in 2019. He was one of five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared in 2015 and later said they were held in China, an incident that attracted international criticism of Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Yung, the assistant professor at The Open University of Hong Kong, said Liaison Office-controlled Sino United has used its dominant position in publishing to censor content that doesn’t align with Beijing’s agenda, though the process is less transparent than in mainland China. Her latest research project examined the impact of censorship on children’s literature in Hong Kong.
The Liaison Office has “a wide spectrum of control over the market of knowledge distribution,” said Lin On-yeung, store manager at ACO Book, a small book shop in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai neighborhood.
Sino United didn’t respond to requests for information on its operations, but figures included in the 2010 book “Publishing in China: An Essential Guide” point to its outsized presence in the city’s publishing industry. At the time, the company was recording annual revenue of about 4 billion Hong Kong dollars ($516 million), while book sales for all of Hong Kong totaled HK$5 billion.
Sino United also plays a large role in the city’s market for primary and secondary school textbooks, where its sales practices have drawn scrutiny from Hong Kong’s Competition Commission. The commission alleged in a competition tribunal in March that Sino United had engaged in anti-competitive behavior including price-fixing. The company declined to comment on the case when reached by the South China Morning Post in March.
Some Hong Kong publishers including Spicy Fish Cultural Productions, a big source of local literature in the city, have recently ended distribution deals with Sino United even though the move could hurt their bottom lines, citing concern that the relocation of the group’s book warehousing to mainland China could lead to tighter censorship.
“They have the money and also the backing of the government,” said Ip Kin-yuen, a lawmaker and vice president of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, referring to the Liaison Office’s publishing operations. “They have all the advantages.”