Transparency, not television, brought HK street protests

By Wang Di Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-4 22:38:02

Once upon a time, I was a kid. Naturally, I was glued to the TV every day and my mother simply could not stop it. One day, she couldn't stand another minute of cartoons and threatened to lock me in my room for one month. Here was my reply, "I would rather die facing a TV than live my life facing a wall."

Today, I have to regret my childish behavior, since TV is no longer a necessity while Internet is. That's why I felt, at first, surprised by many Hongkongers' fury over the Hong Kong government's refusal to issue a free-to-air broadcast license to HKTV.

Their anger ended up an extraordinary protest held on October 20 outside government headquarters, joined by about 36,000 to 80,000 people.

But the issue here was not a lack of TV. This is not the first time that a local government decision has to face wide public defiance. This city is a place where protests take place regularly and routinely.

However, this time there is renewed sentiment that the Hong Kong government has done something wrong but refuses to admit it.

After three years of closed-door meetings, research and discussion, with barely any information released to the public during the proceedings, the Hong Kong government suddenly announced its decision on October 15, without a single paragraph explaining why the seemingly most competitive applicant, HKTV, was the only one rejected among the three.

The decision was even interpreted by some as a plot to secure the oligopoly of the two incumbent TV channels, ATV and TVB.

The quality of local TV programs has been criticized over years. ATV has lost seriously in the ratings in recent years, and today it mostly broadcasts purchased programs.

Clearly, locals are not satisfied with what is on screen. They expect a new entrant could bring in fresh air. But they are disappointed.

To what extent incumbent firms influenced the government decision is unknown. TVB and ATV have attempted to postpone the issuing of a new license. ATV even broadcast programs criticizing the possibility of a new entrant to the market.

But people don't know what's going on behind closed doors. This is exactly where it goes wrong.

With an opaque decision-making process, people tend to come up with their own theories.

Many factors drive this reaction, such as young people's passion for a change and HKTV's impressive preparation for the license application that makes people sympathize with their failure. These boil down to the lack of accountability in the Hong Kong government.

While there are people support the Hong Kong government for its efficiency and functionality, some worry that the administration shows the tendency of drafting policy on the basis of corporate needs.

They criticize that such "crony capitalism" as unsustainable, in particular given that the city will have a chief executive elected by popular polling in 2017.

It is not unlikely that a demagogue could be voted in then, thanks to the shared sentiment that the old government is too elitist to represent the people. This would bring uncertainty to both Hong Kong's growth and its relationship with the mainland, unless something can be done.

The government is capable of action. It could at least consider issuing another license in the next year and make a proper explanation to the public.

More importantly, it has to realize the urgent need to deal with the existing mistrust, and the potential long-term damage of being not transparent.

Wang Di, a PhD student in economics in the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Posted in: Viewpoint

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