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The Media Environment in Hong Kong

February 1, 2012

In our earlier discussion, we talked about if we have a case, whether we always want to get it into the media. I believe that this is almost always beneficial, but the trick is how. Before you do that, you have to understand the media landscape. Hong Kong has a very peculiar media environment because it’s next to mainland China. Basically, there are two factors affecting the media landscape in Hong Kong. One is mainland censorship, and the other is the emergence of the Internet and new media.

Censorship on the mainland created a vacuum in which certain books cannot be printed and certain subjects cannot be raised in conventional media, so these materials come to Hong Kong. This situation has always been kind of true in the past 25 years, and now it’s become clear that publishing in Hong Kong is one option that mainland people can take. The difference now is that ten years ago, not many mainlanders necessarily knew they actually could publish books in Hong Kong. Now, everybody knows that if they cannot publish in the mainland, one option is to come to Hong Kong.

As a publisher, I get manuscripts every couple of days from the mainland. Eighty percent of these are novels. The authors are people using the novel form to express their grievances while avoiding getting into trouble. It is their preferred form, but one that doesn’t necessarily work in Hong Kong. Everywhere else, print media is going downhill. But in Hong Kong, a small publisher like us can survive if we do the right thing, despite the shrinking of the printing industry.

The other impact of mainland censorship on Hong Kong is that it created the convention of doing guesswork—that is, self-censorship. This involves a two-part question: “If I publish this in Hong Kong, am I going to get into trouble in the mainland, or will the mainland authorities come and get me?” There are many publishers who are trying to do this guess work. And unfortunately, in the conventional media, the approach is largely cautious. People would say, “If we don’t touch on sensitive issues, we’d be better off.” That’s the general trend, which is different from how people in the mainland see Hong Kong media. When they think of Hong Kong media, they think we have a free media, that there are possibilities here. When I go back to Beijing, my friends would tell me, “幸亏有香港”— “we’re lucky that we have Hong Kong.”

The second factor affecting the media environment is the rise of new media. Different people have different responses to it. Hong Kong media have responded in several ways. One is trying to grab the largest possible audience who can pay. Another strategy is going with fewer words, more multimedia, animation, that sort of thing. Still another strategy is waging conventional media wars against one another. There are six or seven free newspapers now in Hong Kong. The media war is making these newspapers free in order to grab a bigger advertisement share in the market. In a conventional daily, there are dozens, sometimes over 100, 200 people working on a daily paper. To make a newspaper free, you have to cut staff. The consequence is that, there are often only three or four people running a free newspaper; the articles become smaller and shorter; and basically there is no room to get into any substantive discussion. Moreover, the distribution of free papers is becoming increasingly more difficult as more players get into the market. You’ll see people hiring women to give out the free newspapers, to attract takers. That shows you how tough it is right now to give out one.

The other thing is the new media. It’s true that more people are getting information through new media in mainland China. But before you invest a lot in the new media, you should be aware that it may not reach as broad an audience as you think. I had a lengthy discussion with the people who are trying to abolish Voice of America’s broadcasting operation. The argument in the United States is always that with new media, more people are getting their information through the Internet, so they should move the VOA from the conventional platform to the Internet. But guess what? New media tend to be fragmented, because different people use different media. For example, bloggers and the people who listen to radio and even those who read conventional articles online are separate communities; they are fragmented. So if VOA moves to a new media platform, they’re more likely to be preaching to the choir. You’ll find that this group will already have the capability of getting all kinds of information.

And the people who will actually be worse off will be the majority of the people on the mainland, who are listening to conventional radio. The people who want to abolish VOA’s broadcasting services are saying the Chinese are jamming these radio signals anyway. However, they only actually put the jammers in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. There are no jammers set up in the majority of the countryside. On three different occasions, three people—peasants from the central areas of Henan—actually took a train to come to Hong Kong to find us, because they wanted us to publish their books. When I asked them how they found me, they said, “Through French radio broadcasting.” So, whether adopting new media achieves the effect people want, I think the jury is still out and the picture is not clear yet.

The conclusion that I want to offer is that you cannot afford to ignore the new media. However, what you really should concentrate on is the message, on how you actually present your message in a conventional way: how to tell a human story and capture people’s imagination. And then you can actually discuss the existing new media, and how new media can work for you. This is because if you have a compelling message, people will want to hear it. They will want to listen to your story instead of investing a lot of time and resources exploring new ways of the new media. That’s one of the lessons that I’ve learned. So for now I’m going to stick to very conventional publishing. In a way it’s kind of an experiment, the way that I’m trying to very, very carefully construct my message, to pick the title and then find a new angle to present it. The results have been quite good and encouraging.

One of the examples that I can give is a friend of mine who is working on a construction project in a very remote area of Hebei. This county is very backwards and it’s very small. It’s probably the most unconnected community in China. And the local Party chief heard that my friend is from Hong Kong, and so he gave him a list of 10 books that he wants from Hong Kong. Guess what, five of them were ours. So you can see that if you have something that Chinese readers want, they will try to get it.

There is another kind of open secret about China’s firewall, which is that it’s got holes and it doesn’t work in some ways, of course. So people who are actively looking for information online will get it despite the firewall, and that is an open secret. And so, if we have a story to tell, we should keep that in mind.

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