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Hong Kong Bashes Global Media With Hundreds of Complaint Letters

·5 min read

(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.

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At least 174 media outlets in almost 30 countries received missives from city leaders -- including its now 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 of 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. Neighboring Asian nations got 42% 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.

Hong Kong is facing a reputation crisis over President Xi Jinping’s dismantling of democratic freedoms that helped differentiate the once-freewheeling financial hub from the mainland, and were guaranteed under China’s 50-year handover agreement with Britain. Beijing’s security law has prompted 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 organizations 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. 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 spokesperson for the city’s Information Services Department said. “The ISD is duty bound to make clarifications through various channels to curb the spread of rumors.”

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,” Lee said at his inauguration, echoing language used by Xi.

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

“Press freedom either no longer exists or is hanging by a thread,” said 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 many foreign governments. The US sanctioned senior city officials including 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 UK government saying their roles risked “legitimizing oppression.” 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 characterized 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 Lee, who was then the city’s No. 2 official, said the paper had “reached new levels of nastiness” while denying the arrest of journalists at now-defunct pro-democracy publications Stand News and Apple Daily showed a decline in press freedom.

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 offense 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 fulfill 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 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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