By Ufrieda Ho
It’s busy and noisy in the fast food joint not far from the old Hong Kong airport where Mak Yin-ting is sipping a cold red bean drink at a corner table. The noise doesn’t bother the journalist, who’s also head of the Hong Kong Journalism Association (HKJA), but the stranger at the next table leaning too far back in his seat, as if straining to hear what she’s saying, does. It’s enough for Mak to decide on a different venue to continue her conversation. She’s not prone to paranoia, but she also can’t ignore the HKJA’s recent experience with the tightening stranglehold on press freedom on the island.
China is digging in its heels more firmly in Hong Kong—a special administrative region that it governs under the One Country, Two Systems policy. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 miles away from the island, China is also exerting indirect pressure on freedoms in South Africa, a squeeze that bears an eerie resemblance to that which Mak and the HKJA are experiencing in Hong Kong.
Chinese investment entered South Africa’s media industry last year, most noticeably with the purchase of a 20 percent stake in Independent Newspapers, one of the country’s dominant newspaper groups. The investors, China International Television Corporation and China-Africa Development Fund, are wholly owned by the Chinese state. It’s a deal that was made possible with the smoothing over by the pro-Beijing, ANC-led South African government that has its own 25 percent stake in Independent Newspapers. With the Chinese purchase, 45 percent of ownership of the newspaper group is effectively put into the hands of two firmly allied governments.
It’s also a deal framed within the recent passing of the South Africa’s Protection of Information Bill. The so-called secrecy bill, which is awaiting President Jacob Zuma’s signature, is slated to be the biggest threat to press freedom and freedom of expression since the dawn of democracy in the country. The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) has called for South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, to rule on the constitutionality of the bill.
Of course, trade in and of itself is not the problem, and foreign investment in South Africa and foreign ownership of newspapers are not new. China is neither the fiery dragon hell-bent on new colonization, nor is it the first superpower to flex its muscles in Africa. Rather, China has brought in gifts and deals in exchange for Africa’s raw materials and minerals, deals that have made China Africa’s biggest trading partner in recent years. The Economist reported that in 2012 alone, around $200 billion worth of goods moved between Africa and China. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa reported that by 2011 South Africa had imported $13.5 billion worth of goods from China, while South Africa’s chief export of iron ore to China topped a record $15 billion.
It’s a relationship that has given Africa significant boosts in terms of infrastructural development, investment, and aid. Importantly, it has provided Africa, and specifically South Africa, alternatives to its traditional trade partners: the European Union and the United States.
Beijing though, is the master of exerting subtle pressure, putting on the squeeze not through policy or the contractual fine print, but through something altogether less tangible, less obvious, but potent and real all the same. And this soft power is not just about creating new narratives for China as the benign partner for the continent or about balancing news and views, as Beijing is repeatedly at pains to stress.
Within months of the Independent Newspapers deal going through, senior editors at one of the national dailies in the group were called in for a “special management meeting.” On the agenda: why the editors chose to run a travel feature on Taiwan—one of the thorns in China’s side. It makes for nervous times in South Africa for editorial independence and freedom of expression, and raises worrying questions about China’s role in decision-making in Pretoria.
Influence begins with indirect meddling over published articles promoting Taiwanese tourism and progresses to an agreement between China and the South African Department of Education that adds Mandarin Chinese to local schools’ curriculum. And it’s also political pressure that compels the South African government to kowtow to Beijing’s whims.
China’s presence was clear in the repeated and deliberate bungling by South African home affairs authorities over the Dalai Lama’s recent visa applications. The Tibetan spiritual leader was first denied a visa by South Africa in 2009 for a World Cup peace celebration in the country, and was denied again in 2011 as he sought to attend celebrations for Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday. Archbishop Tutu has repeatedly criticized South Africa’s ANC-led government for its all-too-cozy relationship with Beijing, having been quoted in the Sunday Tribune in 2009 as saying, "We are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure; I feel deeply distressed and ashamed.”
Chinese pressure also played a key role in setting up road blocks to prohibit the Dalai Lama from attending former president Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2013. This despite the fact that, in 1998, then-President Mandela invited the Dalai Lama to establish an Office of Tibet in Pretoria—the equivalent of a consular office for this government in exile.
However, that same year of 1998 saw the ANC government officially sever its diplomatic ties with Taiwan to keep Beijing happy. It’s a trend that is dominant in the rest of Africa: keep China happy because it affects everything from trade and aid to military and UN peacekeeping assistance.
Back in Hong Kong, the 'keep China happy or else' model is firmly in place. In June, China released the State White Paper on its One Country, Two Systems policy. It has been widely received as China’s attempt to further blur the terms of the economic and political freedoms originally promised to the special administration region as it moves towards reunification in 2047. Pro-democracy groups are outraged by Beijing’s backpedalling, especially over critical issues like universal suffrage for Hong Kong citizens, without which citizens will not be able to elect key members to their Legislative Council in 2017.
Rising anti-Beijing sentiments have made it a summer of discontent in Hong Kong. The anger exploded onto the streets at the beginning of July when an estimated 500,000 Hong Kong residents braved 34-degree Celsius heat and rain in a mass pro-democracy rally coinciding with the commemoration of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China.
As the 2013 HKJA reports states: “Despite its promise to abide by the One Country, Two Systems principle, China has placed greater emphasis on One Country since the end of 2003, and exerts greater influence on Hong Kong affairs. The media is no exception.”
Attacks and harassment of journalists are at their highest ever, the HKJA notes 18 cases in 2013. Mak says cases are not taken seriously or properly investigated by police. Media is also under pressure from advertisers, forced to pull ads from publications that are not pro-Beijing. And, perhaps worst of all, there is a definite rise in self-censorship, she says. Journalists will not openly criticize Beijing or tackle issues that place a critical spotlight on China.
Hong Kong is not South Africa; Hong Kong will eventually return to Mainland China’s jurisdiction, whereas South African is a sovereign nation. As Mak says: “Of course Hong Kong is part of China, but China should use Hong Kong to look to international horizons, not inwards to the hinterland.”
South Africa must learn from what Hong Kong is experiencing if it’s to protect its civil liberties and freedoms. The HKJA’s latest report is titled Dark Clouds on the Horizons – Hong Kong’s freedom of expression faces new threats; it’s a bad weather warning and one for which South Africa would do well to prepare.
Ufrieda Ho is a Johannesburg-based freelance journalist and author of Paper Sons and Daughters – Growing up Chinese in South Africa. She travelled to Hong Kong this summer as part of Wits University’s China-Africa Reporting Project.