Guest post by Brendan Clift
Policy-making and reform necessarily involve communication between governments and residents. But Hong Kong is witnessing an escalation in government messaging that promotes a particular direction for electoral reform. This week, a lawyers group called out the government for masking political advertising as neutral “announcements in the public interest”, or APIs, which broadcast licensees must air.
The Progressive Lawyers Group says these messages breach the Broadcasting Ordinance prohibition on political advertising, although the code of practice for television advertising states that APIs are not advertisements. But the greater risk for the government is that its PR campaign is becoming overbearing. As such, it threatens to undermine the credibility of local media and galvanize opposition forces.
Publicity materials for last year’s electoral reform consultation issued a polite and open-ended invitation to residents to express their views. This was beforeBeijing declared its intent to vet Chief Executive candidates and the Umbrella Movement demonstrated the extent of public dissatisfaction with “fake” universal suffrage. After that, the tone became more urgent: Your vote. Gotta have it! The second round of consultation has brought another campaign: 2017: Seize the Opportunity. This echoes admonitions from pro-government speakers to“pocket” the proposed reform model which, it is insisted, aligns with public sentiment.
Undoubtedly, the Hong Kong government is under pressure to sell an electoral model in which Beijing plays the gatekeeper: universal suffrage with Chinese characteristics. But, by roping Hong Kong broadcasters into its PR effort, it is extending mainlandisation to the media. Government advertising which promotes only one view on a controversial policy issue diminishes the appearance of editorial independence, regardless of the broadcaster’s usual editorial stance, and fosters a lack of trust in both the message and the medium. And once the propaganda genie is out of the bottle, it is hard to stuff it back in.
With such a small and static pool of local broadcasters, not all of which are in good health, such action is rash. It also drives more Hongkongers into the arms of the alternatives: overseas media, which is seldom sympathetic to authoritarian governments; independent and grassroots media, which tend to be democratically-inclined; and social media, where many popular movements nowadays germinate and are sustained.
The government should tread carefully. Turning a deaf ear to the public’s views resulted in a massive outpouring of discontent during the Umbrella Movement. Communication is preferable to silence, but Hong Kong people are capable of discerning the public interest for themselves and will not unthinkingly accept a unilaterally imposed point of view. The more the authorities ram their message down the throats of Hongkongers, the sweeter the opposition voices will sound.
Brendan Clift researches, writes and teaches on law and miscellany. Follow him on Twitter.