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Book review: Free Speech, Ten Principles for a Connected World

Timothy Garton Ash delivering the 2017 Central European University's President's Lecture_WikiCommons_© 2017 Daniel Vegel Timothy Garton Ash delivering the 2017 Central European University’s President’s Lecture_WikiCommons_© 2017 Daniel Vegel

The Internet and unlimited free speech are part and parcel of the modern world. Regulation on a global scale is neither possible nor desirable but should we perhaps adhere to some basic principles? Vaudine England looks at some of the arguments put forward by Timothy Garton Ash in his latest book, Free Speech, Ten Principles for a Connected World

Do we really need yet another well-meaning essay about how free speech is a nice thing and we should all have it?

Ever since I had to fold the church newsletter for pocket money I’ve had rather an aversion to the whole idea of preaching to the converted. And surely now that at least half the world’s population has access to the internet, we are all free to share ideas and marvels across boundaries, fuelling change through social media, right? Yes and no.

Several recent chroniclers of our times have pointed out that with every new freedom of the internet comes a new responsibility or fear. A recent review of several such books referred back to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon, a circular prison with an inspection chamber stuck in the middle. It meant that every prisoner could be watched at any time, but you would never know when the jailer was looking. (See the Weekend FT, 11 March 2017, for John Gapper’s review of new books by Donna Freitas, Adam Alter and Robin Boast.)

It is this landscape that the Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash has chosen to chart in his latest book, Free Speech, Ten Principles for a Connected World. Professor Ash did his post-graduate fieldwork in East Berlin, back before the Wall came down and an earlier book, The File, is a brilliant evocation of that time, and of layers of perception. This is relevant now, as Professor Ash told a Hong Kong audience in early March 2017, that what is now available about each of us (our File, as it were) on the internet would be a Stasi detective’s wet dream.

As he discusses in his book Free Speech (on page 284), surveillance is, in fact, the business model of the internet. He quotes a security expert as explaining how private empires such as Google and Facebook build systems that spy on people in exchange for services which are described as free. ‘Corporations call it marketing’, says the expert.

This is the new world that Ash, over the course of a decade of another set of layers of perception — academic research, interviews in Silicon Valley, and the vast global website project called — has set out to consider. Happily, Ash has the knack of the best public intellectuals of taking vast, complex, scary subjects and putting them into words we can relate to.

Most importantly, he has taken the debate into new territory by engaging directly with people far beyond a western liberal’s usual comfort zone. He has sat with and learned from intellectuals and internet practitioners from Iran to Brazil, from China to India, from Turkey to South Africa.

He makes the point that the vital other half of speech is listening and it’s clear he has listened intently in his quest to find new, workable definitions of free speech that cross cultural boundaries. This is a deeply thoughtful and informed look at how ancient, diverse cultures and peoples have tackled this fundamental issue of existence and how these various ideas work now.

He talks of the year 1989 as one of the most profound in recent history. In that year, the Berlin Wall was broken down heralding the end of the Cold War division of Europe; Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie (in one of many illuminating asides we are told that Rushdie’s American publisher had naively asked, what’s a fatwa?), the Chinese Communist Party reasserted its claim to survival via Tiananmen Square, and the World Wide Web was invented.

As a result, ‘We are all neighbours now. There are more phones than there are human beings and close to half of humankind has access to the internet… Never in human history was there such a chance for freedom of expression as this. And never have the evils of unlimited free expression — death threats, paedophile images, sewage-tides of abuse — flowed so easily across frontiers.’ (Ash, p1)

It is this consciousness of the here and now, and how dramatically different it is to the very recent past, that makes Ash’s book so important. He is illuminating on virtually every page. Some points seem blindingly obvious. But after a chapter going more deeply into what, for example, it means that ‘were each user of Facebook to be counted as an inhabitant, Facebook would have a larger population than China’, one is left in no doubt that some corporations have more power than most states.

That can be frightening, until Ash also points out that without users — and that is each of us — those uber-states are nothing. So it matters, deeply, what we do with our power. He calls the most powerful states (still led by the U.S.) ‘Big Dogs’, and the commercial superpowers ‘Big Cats’. Yes, we are the mice, but without us, the big animals die.

Ash knows all about the constraints on the internet, and the legal guarantees of freedom of speech, plus where these work and where, as in China, they patently fail. Ash takes things a large step further however.

He realised he needed to engage the monster he was talking about, and so the vast web-based project, Free Speech Debate, began. At one level, this is a website, most of it now in 13 languages, where all and any issue relating to free speech are debated, translated, discussed, disagreed with and published. In detail, it is a fascinating exploration of multiple cultures, ideas, histories and personalities.

Real stories, and accounts of actual, vigorous debate, of basic values is something we’re often all too scared to bother with these days — for fear of being labelled politically incorrect in some places, or being locked up or shot in others.

At the end of the web-based Free Speech Debate, ten points emerged as a kind of shorthand for how to live in this newly interconnected cosmopolis that everyone online in the world is now a part of.





  1. Lifeblood
    — We, all human beings, must be free and able to express ourselves and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.

  2. Violence
    — We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.

  3. Knowledge
    — We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge.

  4. Journalism
    — We require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.

  5. Diversity
    — We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.

  6. Religion
    — We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.

  7. Privacy
    — We must be able to protect our privacy and to counter slurs on our reputations, but not prevent scrutiny that is in the public interest.

  8. Secrecy
    — We must be empowered to challenge all limits to freedom of information justified on such grounds as national security.

  9. Icebergs
    — We defend the internet and other systems of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.

  10. Courage
    — We decide for ourselves and face the consequences.


Introducing… FCC new members, May/June 2017

The latest group of members to join the FCC are, as always, an interesting bunch. The membership committee meets regularly to go through the applications and are always impressed by the diversity of the prospective members. As you would expect there’s a healthy mix of Correspondents and Journalists as well as Diplomats and Associates – and all have interesting tales to tell – so if you see a new face at the bar, please make them feel welcome. Below are profiles of just some of the latest ‘intake’.

FCC new members FCC new members

Bill Cox is a British Chartered Engineer and has spent 40 years as a management consultant working with manufacturing companies to improve performance. Consultancy projects took him from the UK, across Europe, Southern Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, then into the Asia Pacific region working from Hong Kong. Bill also spent 10 years in China working on major industrial development projects sponsored by the World Bank and UK DFID.

In 2011 Bill started working for the Epoch Times, a New York based media group, dedicated to reporting uncensored news with emphasis on China. He is based in Hong Kong as a Senior Reporter, Photographer and Sports Editor

A native New Yorker, Sunshine Farzan is an accomplished business leader who has held senior positions at MetLife, American Express, and Harte Hanks. She has lived and worked in New York, Mexico City, Sydney  and Hong Kong. She currently serves as Head of Marketing and  Communications for MetLife Hong Kong.

Sunshine is a graduate of Rutgers University and has an MBA from the University of Michigan. She has been recognized as one of the top “40 under 40” marketers and a “Woman to Watch” in Asia.

Find out how to become a member here

Bernd Hanemann was born and raised in the south of Germany near to the borders of Switzerland  and France. Bernd moved to Hong Kong in 1985 and is the CEO of the Global Sourcing Office of the German Retail and Wholesale Group Metro. Bernd is also a member of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and is a keen sailor and motorcyclist.

Born in Liverpool, UK, James Legge is a copy editor working at the South China Morning Post. James spent 18 months freelancing as a reporter in Hong Kong for The Independent, Vice News, DPA and the Evening Standard, before joining The Post. James previously worked in London on staff at The Independent. James is also the presenter of the Hong Kong Football Podcast.

Jeff Nankivell took up the post of Consul General of Canada in HK and Macau in August, 2016. In his 28 years in Canada’s foreign service, he has served once before in Hong Kong and three times in Beijing, most recently as Deputy Head of Mission, 2008-2011. From 2011 to 2016 he was Director General responsible for Canada’s official development assistance in the Asia Pacific region.

His wife Alison Nankivell is Vice-President for Funds and Co-Investment  with BDC Capital, part of the Business Development Bank of Canada,  a Government-owned bank for small business.

They are both fluent Mandarin speakers.

Corliss Ruggles arrived in Hong Kong in May1994, just a few weeks after graduating from university in Canada. Looking for work in financial communications, Corliss worked hard to build a career which has kept her busy and rooted in Hong Kong for the past 23 years. It was here she met her husband, had two children and gave a home to four rescue dogs. Corliss enjoys her life in Hong Kong, “you meet people and make friends from all over the world,” she says. “There’s nowhere else like it.”

Former Consul General of Canada to Hong Kong, and High Commissioner to Singapore, Doreen Steidle is HSBC’s Regional Head for Government Affairs in Asia-Pacific. Before taking up her position with HSBC, Doreen served on several Boards including Invest Ottawa and was on Canada’s delegation to observe elections in the Ukraine. She is the mother of four adult children, a PADI-certified Rescue Diver and most recently completed a 100 km trek across the Gobi Desert in winter in support of Water Aid. She is now on the Board of Governors of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the FCC’s Charity Committee.

Lisa Yuriko Thomas recently relocated from San Francisco for her second stint at living in Hong Kong. She loves all things digital so is delighted to be working as senior producer and Asia Editor for AJ+, Al Jazeera’s digital only Channel. She is always on the lookout for great stories and new forms of video storytelling and social engagement. Swimming and yoga take up most of Lisa’s spare time.

Hong Kong Remembers: An unforgettable night for a good cause

The FCC Charity Committee went into overdrive to plan and execute the first of many events aimed at benefitting smaller, lesser-known charities which can all too easily fall between the cracks in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Remembers Hong Kong Remembers

A lot of people came up and said ‘You should do this at least twice a year’,” said FCC Second Vice President Tim Huxley a few days after the Hong Kong Remembers party. “Obviously they were people who weren’t on the Charity Committee.”

Indeed not. A lot of hard work went into the fun. The Charity Committee, of which Tim and Elaine Pickering are co-convenors, had only about two and a half months to put together, as it was billed, “An Evening of Music, Nostalgia & Entertainment in Aid of The China Coast Community”.

It required a transformation in the appearance of all the F&B venues and function rooms, as well as  laying on three separate buffets and an evening long entertainment programme running concurrently on all three levels.

The evening was an important event for the club. It brought members back together after a few difficult weeks during which the Main Bar had been closed for renovation. It also marked a resumption of active involvement in charity fundraising, following the decision of the organizers of the former FCC Charity Ball to make a change of address to the Hong Kong Rugby Union.

This however, Tim stressed, was something different and intended to mark the first step towards establishing a programme of community outreach initiatives in support of a raft of causes.

“There was a desire to have something not based so much on an individual event, but to develop a longer term sustainable approach to our role in the community and utilise all the talents that exist in the FCC,” he said.

“We were particularly keen to focus on areas where people risk falling between the cracks, and geriatric care is one of those – particularly for people who are not native Cantonese speakers, but who are going to be here long term. And that’s an increasing number of people. We went and looked at the China Coast Community when we were looking at how to start our initial fundraising for this year. Later on we’d like to expand this into other areas.”

As a first step though, rather than simply write a cheque to the charity, it was determined that an achievable target should be identified. This was to replace the home’s existing beds with surgical ones – a significant and tangible improvement in quality of life for both the residents and their care givers – and to provide occupational therapy services.

Scroll down for our photo gallery from the night

The way the second objective has been achieved, Tim said, is a model of the way the Charity Committee would like future FCC community outreach to work. Through a member of the committee’s connections, arrangements are being made for Hong Kong Polytechnic University final year Occupational Therapy students to take up placements with the China Coast Community.

“We were able to cover that one through connections of the club. Absolutely brilliant and absolutely what we wanted to do,” said Tim.

To raise money for the beds, the party was organised, in short order by, in Tim’s words, “that force of nature, Elaine Pickering”.

“It was all volunteers. She managed that committee with military precision, deciding who was delegated to do what, and they all went out and did it. Everybody was very enthusiastic about the cause and the event. There was a great team of people on the committee, and the staff were really behind it.”

To help establish a suitably nostalgic atmosphere Huxley recommended designer – and former FCC member, time you reapplied – Colin Tillyer, who set to work recreating iconic signs, logos and other paraphernalia of yesteryear.

Almost exactly 20 years after The Godown closed, the night’s jazzier performers recreated the atmosphere of its heyday. The Main Bar, with a Disco theme, became the 1970s Peninsula nightclub, The Scene, and the Verandah got a dai pai dong makeover as a hawker food area – although not all elements of decoration for that were Colin’s idea.

“The rubber mice and cockroaches that you saw in Hawker Street were Chef George’s idea. He turned up at a charity meeting with a plastic bag full of rubber mice and we thought ‘Yeah, that’s different’,” Tim recalls.

Members and the companies and organisations they work for or run were more than generous in donating goods and services, including all the prizes in  the raffle – for which all the tickets were sold – and lots for the silent auction. There isn’t space to name them all here, but you can find all 89 listed in the back of the programme and on page 32 of this magazine.

The musicians who perform regularly at the club also rallied round, and there were fine performances from The FCC All Stars, Miriam Ma & Hippogroove, Crimes Against Pop, and The Red Stripes, all in suitably nostalgic mode, not to mention  a pipa recital and very popular impromptu lessons in swing dancing. The dancers have also volunteered to perform at the China Coast Community, very much in the spirit of the evening.

There was some more poignant nostalgia as well. A screen in the Hughes Room – sorry, Luk Kwok Hotel – was playing a digital image gallery of photographs of FCC members accumulated by The Correspondent, and curated at Elaine’s suggestion by Terry Duckham.  Quite a few of us watching that were reminded not only of past times, other parties and of our younger selves, but of  many absent friends gone too soon – to reconvene, let us hope, at a celestial Main Bar.

Much of the success of the nostalgia theme can be attributed to so many members getting so much into the spirit of the evening in putting together their costumes.

We had rival air crews from Cathay Pacific and Pan Am, cheongsams and safari suits, hawkers and sampan ladies, all manner of colonial era headgear, and any number of ludicrous wigs.

The results? Apart from the enjoyment of the entertainment, the company and some great food from the kitchen, the evening raised more than HK$200,000. But that was not, as Tim – or for that night CX Captain Huxley – points out, the only important achievement.

“We threw open the club to a lot of members who maybe don’t come here that often, and to a lot of guests who came here and said ’Wow!’ At the same time we achieved our target of getting most of those beds sorted out, and the occupational therapy, and raising awareness. So it was a celebration of Hong Kong, and of the FCC, and of doing a bit of good. You can’t ask for more.”

May/June 2017

Take a look at the FCC’s new bar snacks

Chef George has once again outdone himself with the creation of delicious new bar snacks now available in the Main Bar, Bert’s and the Bunker.

Bar snacks are an essential part of any good drinking establishment but the FCC has taken it to another level. After a hard day’s work, a bowl of crisps or peanuts doesn’t always hit the spot.  Sometimes, you just want a little more, whether it’s a protein-packed chunk of tuna, a creamy taramasalata dip with freshly baked pita bread or the ever-popular Welsh rarebit.

The new snacks will be available from May 8 and offer a tasty selection of bites to share with friends or to simply take the edge off your appetite until moving upstairs for dinner.

Why it’s tough being a journalist’s source in China

After last year’s damning report by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) on working conditions, not much has changed. Correspondents, journalists and, more importantly, their local staff and sources continue to be harassed, threatened and jailed.

A BBC camera crew reporting in China earlier this year was attacked and later forced by police to apologise and sign a confession for trying to conduct an “illegal interview”, one of its reporters has said.

John Sudworth, a journalist with the BBC, and his team were attempting to interview Yang Linghua,  a villager in rural China who claims her father was killed during a land dispute with the government. As they walked towards her house, a group of men blocked their way, pushed Sudworth and smashed the crew’s cameras.

“As soon as we arrived in Yang’s village it was clear they were expecting us,” Sudworth wrote in his account.

After the BBC’s cameras were smashed, the crew left the village but were chased and surrounded by 20 men whom the journalists described as “thugs”. Uniformed police and two members of the local government later arrived and “under the threat of further violence”, they were forced to sign a confession apologising for “behaviour causing a bad impact” and delete some of the footage.

“It was a very one-sided negotiation, but it at least gave us a way out – a luxury denied to the petitioners who find themselves on the receiving end of similar intimidation and abuse,” Sudworth wrote.

While the assault and being forced to sign a confession are unusual, the journalists were treated comparatively lightly compared with Yang and others like her. Yang, who was due to travel to Beijing to petition the central government to intervene in her dispute with local authorities, was put under house arrest.

Critics beware

Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian specialising in modern Chinese history, is an outspoken critic of the Chinese government who is interviewed regularly by the foreign press – even when it leads to harassment from officials, a Committee to Protect Journalists report said. In February alone, he was quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Bloomberg, AP and Voice of America.

The foreign media’s frequent use of Zhang for expert opinion on a variety of China-related issues reflects a tough challenge for international journalists: it is becoming increasingly difficult to find citizens willing to speak to them.

Harassment of both local and international media is escalating in China. Harassment of both local and international media is escalating in China.

Zhang said that he has been under continuous harassment for speaking to foreign media. “Officers would often wait outside my apartment complex and when I go out by car, they would knock the car window and say, ‘We’ve heard that you are going to give interviews to foreign media. We warn you not to do it,’ “  Zhang said. “It’s very annoying.” He added that his phone line has, on occasion, been cut off while foreign outlets interviewed him.

Several journalists covering China say there are still people willing to publicly express views, just not to the foreign press. “It is frustrating that smart, articulate people who, for example, post interesting views on Chinese social media, are then unwilling to speak with a foreign journalist. This happens routinely,” said Nathan VanderKlippe, the Beijing-based Asia Bureau Chief of The Globe and Mail. A China correspondent for a Western news organization, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to comment, added, “Some outfits hire experienced Chinese staff to improve sourcing, but even they struggle, as working for foreign media brands you. “Sources [in China] are taking a much greater risk and you can only give them very little in return,” he said.

As well as warnings and surveillance, outspoken critics can face jail. In January 2015, police arrested democracy activist Qin Yongmin because he “[wrote] too many articles and gave interviews to foreign media”.  He is still in prison. And Zhang Haitao, a Xinjiang-based rights activist, was sentenced in January last year to 19 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” and “providing intelligence overseas”. The court verdict stated that “[Zhang] for a long time frequently colluded with foreign media and websites, actively giving interviews.”

Punishing citizens for speaking to foreign media is in violation of China’s laws. Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the country’s constitution and laws regulating foreign media’s activities in China stipulate that foreign journalists are free to interview Chinese citizens, as long as they consent.

The risks for those who agree to be interviewed by the foreign press is illustrated by the case of Tashi Wangchuk, a Tibetan language activist who featured in a New York Times video at the end of 2015 about him challenging Beijing’s language policy in Tibet. Wangchuk’s lawyer said that he was detained early last year because of his contact with the paper’s journalists. He is charged with “inciting separatism” which can result in a 15-year prison sentence.

Sing Pao journalists harassed

Sing Pao journalists have been followed and harassed, and that newspaper’s computer system was attacked. Apparently the harassment is connected to a series of Sing Pao columns criticizing outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying, and the Chinese government’s Liaison Office — Beijing’s top representative body in Hong Kong — in the run up to the chief executive election on March 26.

Since mid-February, a number of unidentified people have been seen outside the newspaper’s office in Hong Kong or been seen following staff and taking their photos. Also the paper’s website came under digital attack and was down temporarily on February 18 and 19. There are also signs that the company’s computer and email system were hacked in an attempt to steal information about the company.

Flyers containing threatening language and showing a photograph of a Sing Pao manager were also posted near one journalist’s residence. Sing Pao said in a statement, that the flyer photograph appeared to be the same one used for the manager’s “Home Return Permit,” a document issued by Chinese police that allows Hong Kong residents to travel to the mainland. The media company said that photographs for the travel permits should be possessed only by the issuing agencies.

Sing Pao is known in Hong Kong as a pro-Beijing publication, but in recent months it has run anonymous commentaries denouncing Leung and the Liaison Office. In October last year, Xinhua reported that Gu Zhuozheng, chairman of Sing Pao Media Enterprises, was wanted by police for allegedly being involved in a corruption case on the Mainland. Gu denied the accusations and said he had been under a “revenge-driven political attack,” according to news reports. Gu has issued a statement condemning the threats to Sing Pao staff.

Kerry McGlynn: Working with Chris Patten was the best experience of my life

From left: Kerry McGlynn (Press Secretary to Chris Patten when Governor of Hong Kong), Chris Patten, Miss Lucy McGlynn (daughter of Jenny and Kerry) and Mrs Jenny McGlynn. From left: Kerry McGlynn (Press Secretary to Chris Patten when Governor of Hong Kong), Chris Patten, Miss Lucy McGlynn (daughter of Jenny and Kerry) and Mrs Jenny McGlynn.

Kerry McGlynn arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 to fulfil a two-and-a-half-year contract as a spokesman and advisor for the government. Being a spokesman for Chris Patten during the delicate handover negotiations was no doubt a highpoint in his long career. After nearly 30 years with the government in Hong Kong, London and New York, six-plus years with Cathay Pacific and three years with Swire Properties, Kerry finally returned to Sydney and a well-earned retirement. “I’ve had a ball doing all of these jobs,” he says.

Kerry spoke to club correspondent member Stephen Marshall on his thoughts on post handover Hong Kong, working with Chris Patten and on today’s world of alternative facts and fake news.

SM: What was it like to work with Chris Patten and how did that come about?

KM: Chris Patten was the first governor to have his own spokesman and I got a chance to work for him when my predecessor, Mike Hanson, went on paternity leave. Working for Chris was the best experience of my life. He taught me more about politics and PR than I’d ever managed in the decades before. And he became a great friend and mentor, supporting me all the way even when I might have misspoken to a journo late at night after the odd glass of lip-loosening wine.

SM: He was well known for being Margaret Thatcher’s speechwriter, how did that play on you when putting pen to paper?

KM: Chris was himself a fantastic writer. He would have been a great journalist. He always put his own touches to anything drafted for him and on overseas trips he’d usually tailor his speech for each particular occasion. I never wrote much for Chris, though people thought I did. I did the odd news piece for him and lots of letters to editors, but mostly with the help of his two famous “turtles”, Martin Dinham and Edward Llewellyn (now Lord Llewellyn of Steep). But before, and more particularly after the Handover, I wrote a lot of speeches for Anson Chan and later Donald Tsang, though my great Aussie mate at ISD, Brett Free, was Donald’s main man.

SM: Any favourite quotes you gave to journalists?

KM: As the Handover drew near, there was a noticeable shift in allegiances between the great and good who had prospered under the British to a more favourable disposition towards the incoming landlord. When Steve Vines asked me about this, I replied that ‘there are some people from Hong Kong who have gone from a garden party in Buckingham Palace to a banquet at the Great Hall of the People without even making a stopover at Damascus to announce their conversion.’ When Steve filed this quote for the Independent he was queried by London who thought he must have made it up. He hadn’t. I gave the same quote to Ian Buruma from the New York Review of Books and it duly appeared in that great organ.

SM: In 1996, during a blazing row with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen over the Hong Kong media’s right to openly criticise Chinese leaders, it was reported that you said “If personal attacks against the Governor were not allowed, there would hardly be any journalist not in jail… that’s a free press and that’s what Hong Kong has been promised.” Has that promised been upheld?

KM: As far as any of us can see, the answer is sadly ‘no.’ Beijing has put enormous pressure on the Hong Kong media – think how the locals derisorily call TVB ‘CCTVB’ – and, with one or two honourable exceptions, it shows.  But there are still brave journalists fighting the good fight in Hong Kong and we should all support them as far as we can. The FCC does a great job on that.

SM: Where were you on June 4, 1989, and what are your memories from working in such a heated environment?

Prince Charles awarding Kerry his OBE at Government House in 1997. Prince Charles awarding Kerry his OBE at Government House in 1997.

KM: I was running the Hong Kong government office in New York and was absolutely devastated. Just a day or two later I had to go to Columbus, Ohio, to give a speech to the local business chamber to tell them how Hong Kong would be hunky dory after 1997, put your heart at ease and all that.  When I got there, it was obvious that my stump speech was not going to cut it, so instead we had a pretty frank informal round table chat about what was going on in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Later that day I gave an interview to a business reporter from the Columbus Ohio Despatch and more or less off the cuff I outlined all the trials and tribulations Hong Kong had overcome in its brief but spectacular history and expressed confidence in us bouncing back in time. The interview splashed on the front page of the Business Section next morning. When I faxed the clipping back to Hong Kong, Tony Miller (then Information Coordinator) adapted it as the HKG’s line to take on how Hong Kong would no doubt bounce back from the trauma of June 4. And, of course, it did.

SM: Apart from demographics, how has Hong Kong changed for you, if at all?

KM: If a Man from the Moon were to land in Hong Kong today, he would be blown away by the energy, the pace of life and the smarts of the people he’d encounter in the teeming streets of Causeway Bay or Yau Ma Tei. And he’d wonder how long it would take him to get through all the fabulous restaurants, eateries and bars. But that’s all on the surface. Society is fractured and fractious. I know smart, well educated, highly skilled middle class friends with young kids who see no future for them in Hong Kong.  Some have already gone, others are making plans. It’s all very well for the control freaks in Beijing to drive a wedge in the community, but they should take time to reflect on what has caused the disenfranchisement of the young and the role their policies have played in it. But it’s not all their fault. The amateurish politicians we have on all fronts haven’t helped much, either.

SM: Given close to three decades as advisor and spokesman for the government in Hong Kong, what’s your assessment on “alternative facts” and press strategies taken from the “fake news” playbook?

KM: The most disturbing thing about Trump’s “fake news” and “alternative facts” playbook is that so many Americans choose to believe them. The scary thing is that until his core constituents wake up and see that the great promises he made to them can’t be delivered they are likely to continue believing them.  Telling porkies and just making stuff up and shooting from the hip is no way to run a government, particularly one as large and as globally important as the US government.

What do you think President Trump and his spokespeople, Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer, are really up to?

KM: God only knows what the Trump White House is up to. To quote one of Chris Patten’s favourite words, I am continually gobsmacked by Conway and Spicer – sounds like a comedy duo, doesn’t it?  Their contortions to explain away Trump’s accusation that Obama had wiretapped him would have been comical had it not been so serious coming from a spokesman from the most powerful politician on the planet.

SM: Will it work and how does that strategy differ from what you would suggest?

KM: How to get things back to normal? What is normal about the Trump machine? We’re living in the new normal now and no matter what good advice Trump might be getting – assuming there’s somebody sensible there or thereabouts – he can undo that in a single early morning Twitter tirade. He’s demonstrated that so often. It’s government by tweet.

SM: Are different approaches required nowadays given the advent of social and digital media?

KM: I’m famously technoplegic (a word I invented for myself) so I am the last person to comment on the rise of social media, other than to say get yourself a team of (preferably) young guys and gals who know all about it and listen to what they have to say.

SM: How do you see Hong Kong’s future?

KM: Hong Kong has been wonderful to me so I hate to slag off the place in any way. But it’s pretty scary the way Beijing has increasingly interfered in the running of Hong Kong to the point that they don’t even try to pretend they’re not. The way Carrie Lam was railroaded through the Election Committee by the Chinese Liaison Office in Western is but one egregious example when it was perfectly  clear that John Tsang was the person Hong Kong people wanted to lead them. Nobody should have been too surprised by Beijing’s arm twisting tactics. After all, as David Akers Jones once famously told the Guardian, the Chinese have nothing against elections  – as long as they know the outcome in advance.

SM: And what does the future hold for Kerry McGlynn?

KM: Longevity, I hope. I have a large extended family in Sydney and heaps of mates, mostly old journos. I love getting together with them to rehash old war stories. Reminds me how happy I was as a hack until I went to the dark side in Hong Kong.

SM: Can we expect to see you at the FCC from time to time, I’m reliably informed you were back in town only weeks after your farewell dinner!

KM: Yes, I was back to do a job a few weeks after I left – and I’ll continue to be back and forth between Sydney and Hong Kong – you can rely on seeing me on Sevens weekends – and the most important item in my luggage will be my FCC card.

China’s meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs is here to stay – get used to it

In 1997 Hong Kong was facing an uncertain future. Optimists clung to the promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ while pessimists took the first flight out. Twenty years on, realist Keith Richburg, says China’s growing involvement in Hong Kong’s affairs is here to stay, so get used to it.

The official handover ceremony was a lavish display of Chinese pomp and pageantry. The official handover ceremony was a lavish display of Chinese pomp and pageantry.

There were fireworks and flyovers. There was pageantry and protests. There were bagpipers and lion dances, colonial-themed dinners and raves. There was even a flotilla of illuminated giant pandas floating in Victoria Harbour.

There was also the Handover kitsch — postcards, T-shirts, coffee mugs, “Red Dawn” beer, commemorative Reebok training shoes in the red and yellow colours of the Chinese flag, even a Handover-themed Barbie doll in an empress dress and long black tresses.

And then, when it was all over, when Hong Kong was officially handed back to the People’s Republic of China and after Chris Patten, the 28th and last British governor boarded the Britannia with Prince Charles to sail away, there was, for the most part, quiet.

For all the anticipation and drama leading up to that momentous day 20 years ago, the weeks and months that followed seemed strangely anticlimactic.  Business went on as usual, the shopping malls were full, the streets and bars of Lan Kwai Fong and Wanchai were just as packed on weekends, and Hong Kong settled into what appeared to be a period of mundane normalcy. The flags changed, and the police replaced the old British crown insignia on their uniforms with the new bauhinia flower emblem.  But things remained remarkably the same.

A bird flu scare briefly made headlines, but the legion of foreign reporters based here, including myself, were soon heading to Southeast Asia or to Seoul, where the biggest story in the region was the unfolding economic crisis that had collapsed local currencies in South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and brought angry protesters out into the streets. Other foreign journalists rebased to Shanghai or Beijing, as China was seen as the bigger story.

If Hong Kong in those days became an afterthought, it was because many of the most dire predictions did not come to pass. The People’s Liberation Army, despite sending a 500-man contingent over the border before the official midnight change of sovereignty, kept a decidedly low profile. There was scarcely any visible mainland presence at all.

Among Hong Kongers I spoke to at the time, including those in the pro-democracy camp, there was a general feeling of cautious optimism. Hong Kong’s new rulers in Beijing appeared to be keeping to their pledge to grant the territory “a high degree of autonomy” and refrain from meddling in its internal affairs. The untested formula known as “one country, two systems,” that was supposed to allow Hong Kong to maintain its independent courts, its competent bureaucracy and its free press, free speech traditions, just might work after all, many believed.  And in two decades time, Hong Kongers would be allowed to vote freely for their own leader under the principle of universal suffrage, one person, one vote.

It was democracy delayed, to be sure.  But democracy was coming, at a fixed date in the future.

China’s president at the time, Jiang Zemin, tried to sound benignly reassuring during the Handover ceremony.  This former colony, he said, measuring his words carefully, “shall gradually develop a democratic system that suits Hong Kong’s reality.”

The PLA arrives in Hong Kong. The PLA arrives in Hong Kong.

In 1997, twenty years seemed like a long time off.  China itself was changing rapidly, becoming more affluent and more open — and surely, it was thought, eventually more democratic.  China was taking over Hong Kong, but in twenty years, surely it would be Hong Kong’s free and open system that would eventually take over China?

Among certain China scholars — academics and journalists — there were even open predictions that the Leninist party was in its final throes, following the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union and across Eastern Europe and the fall of Suharto’s crony capitalist regime in Indonesia.  There was much talk about “the Singapore model,” where China’s Communist Party would remain dominant, but compete in elections with other smaller parties.

But twenty years goes by quickly.  And China’s Communist Party is arguably as strong as ever under Xi Jinping.  Xi is this year about to be reelected to a second five year term, and will have a chance to assemble his own team around him in the powerful Politburo Standing Committee; there is even talk he may stay on beyond the traditional two terms. His anti-corruption drive has been more sweeping than many anticipated, as he sets about remaking the party’s image. Dissent has been largely stifled.  The internet and social media, once seen as vehicles for popular mobilization and social change, have been thoroughly co-opted and controlled.

China’s global footprint is also expanding, with its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, and the establishment of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.  As President Donald Trump pursues his “America First” policy and appears ready to retreat from the world stage — for example, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, threatening trade wars and tariffs — China is eager to step into the void. In January, Xi became the first Chinese president to attend the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, where he took the decidedly un-Trumpian position as a defender of globalization and free trade.

Two years ago, in a widely-circulated article, Arthur Kroeber of GaveKal Dragonomics, an economics research firm, made a persuasive case debunking the drumbeat of predictions about the imminent demise of China’s Communist Party.  “Here’s the truth: the Chinese state is not fragile,” Kroeber wrote. “The regime is strong, increasingly self-confident, and without organized opposition. Its economic management is competent and pragmatic. Its responsiveness to social pressures on issues such as the environment is imperfect, but well-informed by research and public opinion surveys. It derives real legitimacy from its consistent demonstrated ability to raise living standards, provide a growing range of public goods, and maintain a high level of order while mostly letting people do what they want in their daily lives (unless what they want is to organize against the government).”

“In short,” he concluded, “China is a successful authoritarian developmental state which is now rich enough to start setting its own rules rather than just accepting other peoples’.”

That brings us back to Hong Kong.

China is not going to cede control of Hong Kong because it doesn’t have to. It will send its security agents over the border to abduct perceived dissidents and troublemakers, like the Hong Kong booksellers, because it can, and Hong Kong is sovereign Chinese territory. The National People’s Congress will step in and interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law any time it feels it needs to, without waiting for the city’s local courts to render judgement. China will not allow universal suffrage and free elections unless it is certain it can control the outcome. China will not allow Hong Kong to become a source of political instability that could affect the mainland.

If China adopted a more benign, hands off approach to Hong Kong in the early days, it was for fear of causing any immediate disruption, which might have sparked an exodus or panicked financial markets.  But for China’s leaders, the “one country” part of that formula was always more important than the “two systems.”  China made that clear in its 2014 “white paper” that said the central government in Beijing has “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the territory.  Hong Kong may have “a high degree of autonomy,” but the white paper defined that as “the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.”

And rather than Hong Kong taking over the mainland, as some predicted, what we have seen is the increasing Mainlandization of Hong Kong. Mandarin is fast becoming a dominant language, in some cases supplanting English. The influx of mainlanders working, studying and visiting here has dramatically changed the city’s complexion. And that Mainlandization includes Chinese businesses and the central government buying up media properties, most recently the Alibaba Group purchasing The South China Morning Post. China’s Central Liaison Office now reportedly controls about 80 percent of the book publishing industry in Hong Kong.

The Occupy protests of 2014 showed that a generation of young people wants more political rights. The success of “localist” candidates in last year’s legislative elections showed many people are unafraid of antagonizing Beijing.  But it is really all for naught.

On March 26, Carrie Lam, the former chief secretary, was chosen by 777 members of a select group of 1,194 elite to be Hong Kong’s new chief executive.  She defeated John Tsang, the more popular former finance chief.  Tsang topped more than 50 percent in public opinion polls, some 20 points ahead of Lam. He ran an impressive campaign, featuring large public rallies and posters plastered in subways showing him surrounded by smiling fans taking selfies. Tsang also had the support of the pro-democracy bloc.

But who becomes chief executive here is not decided by polls or popularity or 7.3 million people. That decision is made in Beijing, and China’s rulers let it be known early on that their choice was Lam.  The rest was all theatre.

The dynamic was best summed up by Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s wealthiest tycoon, when he came out expressing support for Lam, without naming her. “Popularity certainly is important,” Li said, “but maintaining a good working relationship with the central government is also crucial.”

After 150 years as a British colony, followed by two decades as a “special administrative region” of Communist China, Hong Kong people’s desire to be able to choose their own leaders and truly govern themselves remains illusory. Major decisions about Hong Kong will continue to be made in Beijing, China will continue to meddle in local affairs when it sees fit, and the Mainlandization will go on unabated. Hong Kong will not see full democracy until China itself changes, and that is not likely to happen even in the next 20 years. To acknowledge that does not make one pro-China or a panda hugger or even a pessimist.  It is simply a recognition of the reality, and everyone needs to get used to it.

Professionalism in journalism will topple fake news, FCC Journalism Conference hears

The "missing" bust of Dr. Martin Luther King clearly seen on display during the recent meeting of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. The “missing” bust of Dr. Martin Luther King clearly seen on display during the recent meeting of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

Vigilance and professionalism will ensure journalism can rise above accusations of “fake news” and spreading misinformation and bias. That was one of the messages from the second FCC Journalism Conference, which took place at the club on 29 April.

The one-day programme was packed full of speakers, panel discussions and workshops. An in-depth review of the major topics will be published in the July/August edition of The Correspondent.

The title of this year’s conference was “Journalism in the Era of Fake News and Tweeting Presidents”, a hot topic set to keep discussions lively.

After a brief introduction, FCC President Eric Wishart interviewed Evan Osnos of The New Yorker via Skype video link from Washington, D.C. Osnos, a former China correspondent, said the leaky administration of President Donald Trump was encouraging a revival of old-school reporting. “It’s very face to face. There’s notebooks and pens and a lot [of information] is not making its way into the computer.”

The main discussion of the morning attempted to define fake news and addressed its challenges, especially in the United States. Wishart moderated a panel comprising Yumiko Ono of The Wall Street Journal, Jodi Fern Schneider of Bloomberg, Gerry Mullany of The New York Times and Simon Gardner of Reuters. Schneider warned of the verbal attacks from Trump and the increasing physical constraints, such as the plan to move media out of the White House.

The conference also addressed many practical issues for current and aspiring journalists. Former Club president Neil Western and Journal colleague Carlos Tejada hosted a writing workshop in the Main Dining Room. “The best stories are about conflict,” Tejada noted.

Bert’s hosted a graphics and data workshop, moderated by First Vice-President Juliana Liu and featuring John Saeki of Agence France-Presse and Richard Frost of Bloomberg.  Given that facts can be faked, Frost advised: “Use data in aggregate.”

Before lunch, Natasha Khan of Bloomberg moderated a panel on technology reporting featuring Ben Richardson of Asia Times, Juro Osawa of The Information and Josh Horwitz of Quartz and the Journal’s Li Yuan. “How could China harness the power of artificial intelligence to control society,” Li asked, ominously.

After the break, South China Morning Post Chief Executive Officer Gary Liu talked about positioning the Hong Kong paper for the future, in which its “intimacy” with China is leveraged to report on the country “in a different way.”

The afternoon was then devoted to several workshops. Club members Vaudine England and Kate Whitehead joined Cedar Communications editorial director Mark Jones and Nikkei Asian
’s  Zach Coleman to discuss freelancing, while Thomas di Fonzo of the Journal and Irene Jay Liu of Google looked at developments in new media, including 360-degree cameras.

Meanwhile, Alan Wong of the New York Times and Anne Kruger of the University of Hong Kong looked at the role of social media at a panel moderated by Florence de Changy of Le Monde.

Western then moderated a panel of correspondents from Associated Press, Bloomberg, the Financial Times, The Guardian, Reuters and the Journal to look at how the Hong Kong story is reported around the world.

The closing panel, chaired by Lui, looked at covering China with panellists Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times, Erika Kinetz of AP, former Washington Post correspondent Keith Richburg of HKU, Al Jazeera cameraman Miguel Toran and Paul Mozur of the New York Times.

In his closing wrap, Wishart thanked Khan and the Club’s Membership Marketing Executive for their lead roles in organizing the conference. “I don’t think there’s a more exciting time to be a journalist,” he noted.

And then it was, undoubtedly, time for a well-earned drink.


The FCC Journalism Conference held at the end of April, took a hard look at “fake news” and what it means in today’s world of viral stories and tweets. As George W. Russell writes, there’s nothing new in journalists inventing stories but this recent resurgence together with the technology has worrying implications for everyone, everywhere.

Once more, as was the case during the Watergate scandals, our right-wing and fundamentalist zealots are blaming the media for causing the various difficulties in which a president and his henchmen have embroiled themselves.”

This is not a recent outburst from an angry Hillary Clinton supporter in the United States. It’s from a letter to the editor published on 20 March 1987 in the St. Petersburg Times (a Florida daily renamed the Tampa Bay Times in 2011) as the U.S. media were experiencing one of their periodic crises of self-confidence.

The relationship between the U.S. administration and the country’s media had begun to fall apart with the invasion of Grenada in October 1983.  The U.S. government denied all media access and censored all news about the operation for more than 48 hours.

Addressing the U.S. Congress later, then-CBS News president Ed Joyce said an Australian correspondent had told him: “We have just seen the end of 200 years of press freedom in the United States.” Yet the Grenada operation was ostensibly the removal of an anti-U.S., pro-Communist regime in America’s backyard and the U.S. public appeared to back the Reagan administration, at least initially.

The gloss of Watergate had receded by the 1980s and overall trust in media had plunged. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Common Ground, J. Anthony Lucas, said in 1985 that the public increasingly and correctly perceived the media as primarily interested in protecting established order.

Thirty years later, similar sentiments prevail. Eric Alterman, Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College in New York, excoriated The New York Times’s Washington bureau in a recent op-ed in The Nation. “Its reporters and editors see themselves as part of the country’s ruling establishment, along with politicians, lobbyists, and various hangers-on,” he wrote.

The rise of fake news

This time a new American president, Donald Trump, has energized the anti-media forces with his cries of fake news. “I’ve been dealing with the press a long time,” he said in May 2016. “I think the political press is among the most dishonest people that I’ve ever met.” In December 2015, he noted: “Some of the media’s terrific, but most of it, 70 percent, 75 percent, is absolute dishonest– absolute scum. Remember that: Scum, scum. They’re totally dishonest people.”

For those who thought it was merely campaign rhetoric, there was his famous tweet of 17 February this year, after Trump had assumed office: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

While Trump is a peculiarly American institution, globalization and social media have made “fake news” a worldwide issue. The U.S. is far from the only country where the government openly dislikes the media, and is certainly not the most dangerous place for journalists. China and Russia are chronically bad, and recent crackdowns have occurred in Belarus, Ethiopia, Gambia, Maldives and Nigeria, as well as in putative democracies such as India, Poland and South Africa.

But the current depth of anti-media propaganda in the U.S. is unusual for a modern, democratic nation. And what is all this “fake news” nonsense? It isn’t pranks and April Fools’ Day japes. It isn’t satire like The Onion or our own locally lamented Spike! It isn’t an Apple Daily-style beat-up, or an outright UFO hoax favoured by the Weekly World News.

A suitable definition could be content that is deliberately and maliciously misleading, biased or derogatory, without reference to fact, and influenced by political or some other kind of partisanship. More likely, it is news you simply don’t believe, or don’t agree with.

Sifting lies from fakes

In any event, “fake news” is a battle cry, the now familiar, almost automatic, watchwords of the offended and curmudgeonly, on Facebook, Twitter and in online forums. It is even pervading the comments sections of the South China Morning Post and its online rival, the Hong Kong Free Press.

With time it will lose its effectiveness and will become the media equivalent of shouting that the ref is on the take. But in the meantime, the media must regain the trust of huge swathes of readers. The digital era has not only made news faster, it makes errors more quickly. There is an online race to identify that terrorist, out that racist, name and shame that defender of criminals.

However, inaccurate or erroneous reporting isn’t fake news. Mistakes are retracted and corrected. Remember ATV and the “death” of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin in 2011? The report was wrong and careless but the abject grovelling and absurd soul-searching that ensued was worse – a similar event in 2015 involving the BBC and Queen Elizabeth II resulted in a simple apology. The episode was a local harbinger of the media’s present-day whipping-boy status with governments that have no claim to morality.

More recently, Time mistakenly reported that a bust of Martin Luther King had been removed from the Oval Office after Trump moved in. (It was apparently obscured by a person in the room). Time retracted and corrected, and correspondent Zeke Miller apologized.  When I pointed out Time’s immediate contrition to Lawrence Money, a former colleague who is a columnist with The Age in Melbourne and a Trump fan, he responded: “The horse had bolted.”

Combatting bias

To be sure, a lie will scamper halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on, but the very nature of corrections means they have to follow the original inaccuracy. From a journalism perspective, the more important question is whether Miller was perhaps overzealously seeking an angle that would make Trump look fittingly illiberal and retrograde. The headline, perhaps, had already been written and he needed to find the story.

Trump continues to kick at the pillars of the Fourth Estate: he refuses to address their questions at White House media conferences, his chief spokesman repeats half-truths and misinformation, the U.S. Secretary of State travels to China with a representative of a tame, right wing website.

Some editors see a bit of truth in the allegations of bias from the Trump camp. “Balance is not appeasement, it is a necessary burden of the journalist’s craft and a foundation stone of our liberal democracy,” Simon Bevilacqua, a former editor of The Mercury in Hobart, wrote recently.  However, there is no requirement for media to take account of every fringe view on every subject. If that were true, our political pundits would be psychics and homeopaths would write our health columns.

Journalists should not be cowed by the Trump stance, even as it encourages authoritarian regimes in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere to haul the press further into line. The positive side of the coin – at least in the U.S. – is that the Trump regime is energizing the media: ramping up its moral focus of keeping the powerful accountable while also stimulating its bottom line.

News organizations are strengthening their defences. The digital team at Le Monde has built browser add-ons to detect unreliable news articles. Its fact-checking unit, Les Décodeurs, was set up in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015. This won’t convince everyone, of course. “Technology cannot cure partisanship,” Rasmus Nielsen, Director of Research at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute of Journalism, told me before he addressed an FCC cocktail event on 27 March.

Even more encouragingly, newspaper subscriptions, especially digital, are trending up in the post-truth era, with The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Atlantic and Mother Jones all reporting a Trump bump. Outside the U.S., The Guardian and the Financial Times report strong growth.

In February 2016, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said the Trump phenomenon “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” The ripples caused by the “fake news” phenomenon might not be good for perceptions of the media but it just might help keep the business alive.

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