Hong Kong hits out at global media with hundreds of complaint letters: Report

At least 174 media outlets in almost 30 countries received missives from city leaders. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - From Slovakia to Japan, top Hong Kong officials have fired off at least 500 letters blasting critical foreign media coverage as the city wages a global battle to safeguard its reputation as a liberal financial hub.

At least 174 media outlets in almost 30 countries have received missives from city leaders - including Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee - since China announced in May 2020 that it would impose a national security law on the former British colony.

The correspondence, often written both in English and the publication's native language, was uploaded to the "Clarifications" tab of the government's communications platform known as Brand Hong Kong.

About half the letters, which responded to a mix of reports and editorials, hit back at criticism of Beijing's sweeping security law, while roughly a third defended a mandate that only Communist Party loyalists can hold office in the city.

Neighbouring Asian nations received 42 per cent of the complaints, led by Japan and South Korea, while business publications including the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist got the most letters. Bloomberg received seven.

Beijing's security law has prompted the authorities to shutter critical media outlets, ban events marking the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and jail dozens of opposition leaders.

Beyond curbing local dissent, city officials are spending time countering views published by organisations based thousands of miles away.

Newly installed Commerce Secretary Algernon Yau said at a Legislative Council meeting last week that Hong Kong's 14 global trade offices had written about 1,000 letters in connection with the security law and electoral system overhaul to unspecified "stakeholders" over the past two years.

Mr Yau added that the government was pushing to bolster the city's image in Central Asia, Islamic countries and Africa.

Hong Kong's government has been "closely monitoring" news reports and social platforms for "false information" about Hong Kong, a spokesman for the city's Information Services Department (ISD) said.

"The ISD is duty-bound to make clarifications through various channels to curb the spread of rumours."

Mr Lee, a former top security official who took power on July 1, has said he would dispatch ministers around the world in an effort to restore the city's global reputation.

"We shall make good use of our discourse power to tell a good Hong Kong story and tell the achievements and real truth about the success of Hong Kong," Mr Lee said at his inauguration, echoing language used by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

While opposition voices had been suppressed in Hong Kong's local media, international outlets were problematic for the government, according to professor of law and international affairs Michael Davis at O.P. Jindal Global University in India.

"Press freedom either no longer exists or is hanging by a thread," said Prof Davis, a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

"The only bright spot is that honest foreign coverage can still penetrate the city."

Hong Kong's crackdown on freedoms has eroded the city's reputation among some foreign governments. The United States has sanctioned senior city officials, including Mr Lee, over the erosion of liberties and rolled back preferential trading privileges.

Two British judges this year withdrew from the city's Court of Final Appeal, with the British government saying their roles risked "legitimising oppression".

The municipal authorities in Brussels last month pulled ads celebrating Hong Kong's 25th anniversary of Chinese rule from the city's trams, after complaints about Beijing's human rights record.

The letters often characterised foreign media coverage of such events as being a "grossly biased misrepresentation of facts" and accused them of making "groundless allegations".

One response to a Wall Street Journal editorial last December from Mr Lee, who was then the city's No. 2 official, said the paper had "reached new levels of nastiness" while denying that the arrest of journalists at now-defunct pro-democracy publications Stand News and Apple Daily showed a decline in press freedom.

In its response to a Bloomberg opinion piece on July 16 about human rights and freedoms, Hong Kong's Chief Secretary for Administration, Chan Kwok-Ki, said they are fully protected by law in the city. 

He said the Basic Law, the constitutional document of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), provides a constitutional guarantee for fundamental rights and freedoms.

Meanwhile, Professor Sophia Chan, Hong Kong's Secretary for Food and Health, responded to a March 29 editorial by The Financial Times.

She said it was misleading for the paper to say that Hong Kong experienced higher death rates among those who had received one or two doses of China's Sinovac vaccine, compared with those who received internationally-developed versions based on mRNA technology. 

Professor Chan said both Covid-19 vaccines available in Hong Kong are "safe and highly effective in protecting against severe effects and death from this infection".

Mr Gilford Law, director-general of Hong Kong's trade office in London, warned The Sunday Times in a December letter that inciting another person not to vote was a criminal offence under the city's Elections Ordinance, irrespective of whether the act took place abroad.

An editorial in the newspaper said boycotting last year's Legislative Council elections would be the only chance of democratic victory, after opposition activists were denied approval to run.

Hong Kong's press freedom ranking has plummeted since the security law clamped down on free speech. The city came 148 in the Reporters Without Borders 2022 World Press Freedom Index, representing a fall of 68 places from last year.

Twenty years ago, the city sat in 18th place. Thirteen journalists were in prison at the time of the May report, Reporters Without Borders said.

With local media outlets increasingly controlled by owners with direct links to Beijing, city politician Dominic Lee said the government's letters to foreign media outlets were an effort by top officials to fulfil Mr Xi's mandate to "tell China's story well".

"All of these different actors and the actions they taking are all part of the same coin to spread the truth about China and Hong Kong," said Mr Dominic Lee, whose party is supportive of Beijing, like all others now with representation in the legislature. This message, he added, must be "fired from all cylinders".

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