Ever since its inauguration, the BBC World Service (formerly the BBC Empire Service, and later the BBC Overseas Service) has considered itself to be ‘Britain’s voice around the world’.
For over 80 years it has been reaching communities across the globe and broadcasting in multiple languages. Welcomed and trusted by many listeners, it has also rubbed up against national governments who do not appreciate a trans-national broadcasting service funded for many years by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The former British colony of Hong Kong, which was re-incorporated into China in 1997, has an interesting history with BBC broadcasting. From the late 1970s, the World Service was available there. The timing was significant. China was leaving behind its ‘cultural revolution’ and in 1979 undertook a reform and open-door policy, a decision motivated by the simple fact that its economy and society was in tatters. Hong Kong began to attract more Chinese immigrants, and the colony became a low-cost labour export processing zone. Hong Kong also began to receive refugees from Vietnam, the so-called ‘boat people’. Many of these were ethnic Chinese and victims of ethnic cleansing in Vietnam.
It is worth remembering that in the midst of the cultural revolution (1966 to 1976), Chinese people caught listening to overseas radio broadcasting ran the risk of being beaten up, publicly humiliated, or worse. Foreign radio was considered bourgeois. English-speaking radio broadcasting would have been considered particularly problematic given Britain’s imperial footprint on the Chinese mainland as well as its ongoing occupation of Hong Kong. So the introduction of BBC World Service broadcasting in the late 197os was no accident of timing. The East Asian relay station was established in an isolated area of the New Territories of Hong Kong in September 1987, and BBC radio infrastructure moved to Thailand after the 1997 handover to China.
Hong Kong listeners, both expatriate and Chinese, could still access the World Service after 1997, and until this year it was easily available. But this September, 30 years after the establishment of the BBC East Asian relay station in Hong Kong, the territories’ public broadcasting service, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), ceased providing 24-hour broadcasting of the BBC World Service. Chinese programmes now fill that listening gap, featuring Mandarin news programming as part of the Chinese National Radio Hong Kong Edition. The choice of language is significant. Reportedly, Mandarin has overtaken English as the second most commonly spoken language in Hong Kong and Mandarin has been strongly promoted by Beijing in the post-handover era.
While we might not be surprised by the decision by RTHK to stop rebroadcasting the World Service, it was interesting to see the rationale for the shift. It was taken, apparently, to ‘enhance the cultural exchange between mainland China and Hong Kong’. In the aftermath of ‘umbrella protests’ in 2014, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has decided to exercise greater control over this special administrative region of China. Hong Kong news organisations have felt more pressure than ever before not to irritate the CCP.
But other media commentators have highlighted something different. RTHK has a shortage of broadcasting channels, three FM and four AM to be precise. So one explanation for the shift is that RTHK is focusing more on the ‘needs’ of the local audience and rationing foreign broadcasting. RTHK spokespeople were swift to deny any self-censorship. Blaming a shortage of broadcasting channels, however, is a convenient way of making a change that is likely to find favour in Beijing.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) issued a rather more jaundiced judgement about the editorial independence of Hong Kong’s media organisations. Noting that the 1997 handover agreement stipulated that press freedoms should be maintained for at least 50 years (ie. until at least 2047), the IFJ concluded that editorial independence was frayed by mainland Chinese pressure. Media ownership is dominated by mainland Chinese players who are highly sensitive to upsetting the CCP. Taking the World Service off the air is another step towards ‘cleansing’ Hong Kong of its Anglophone broadcasting legacy.
Many residents also complain that Cantonese is also being downgraded in the turn towards Mandarin radio and television broadcasting. Chinese state programming is in the ascendency, and in the aftermath of the umbrella protests there was little local political appetite to resist.
Public faith in RTHK is likely to take a dip as local residents wonder whether the loss of the World Service is another manifestation of ‘mainlandisation’ – the assimilation of Hong Kong into mainland China. A petition was launched for the restoration of the WS with its supporters claiming that such a decision flew in the face of Hong Kong being a ‘global city’. The idea of Hong Kong as a ‘global city’ is, of course, exactly what disturbs the CCP in Beijing – an unsettling cosmopolitanism, eager to access information from elsewhere, such as the BBC.
Chinese officials know only too well that the BBC World Service is considered to be an elemental expression of Britain’s soft power around the world. The 2015 National Security Strategy pledged further funding for broadcasting to areas of the world suffering ‘democratic deficits’. And always bear in mind that countries such as China and Russia are also investing ever more in international media broadcasting.
This was published in the October 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.