Why People in Hong Kong Protest Over Bad Television

A recent decision to scuttle HKTV, a popular new network, has aroused anger in a territory fearful of Chinese encroachment. 
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Ricky Wong, the chairman of HKTV, became a popular figure in Hong Kong due to his production of high-quality television shows. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

HONG KONG—Last week, 100,000 Hong Kongers, as they have on many occasions in the past, took to the streets to defend their rights. But this time was different. For one, the protest featured housewives marching beside movie stars, including Andy Lau, something of a Hong Kong version of Brad Pitt. The message of the protest—“Give me back my dream!” might have seemed to have a political tinge, but the item which the protesters wanted back was far more quotidian: television.

Currently, there are only two free local television channels in Hong Kong. There are also two additional pay-per-view channels, giving Hong Kong natives a grand total of four to choose from. For a city of 7 million, one that prides itself on both its free market and vibrant film industry (Hong Kong ranks first in Asia in per capita production in film entertainment) this figure is almost absurdly low. And, correspondingly, the paucity of channels has had a detrimental effect on the quality of shows. Hongkongers often complain that the plot on most television dramas on air is predictable—to an eight year old.

This isn’t the first time people have demanded change. But three years ago, a potential solution arrived in the person of Ricky Wong, a 51-year-old self-made entrepreneur who made a fortune revolutionizing Hong Kong ‘s telecom industry in the 1990s. One day, Wong decided that he wanted better shows to watch. So over the next three years, he invested HKD $900 million (US $116 million) into creating his new network, HKTV, for which he hired a 500 person team comprised of the city's most talented actors, scriptwriters, production and technical staff. Under Wong's direction, the team studied American television, poring over every scene of shows like House of Cards, Glee, and Nikita, and trying to understand exactly what makes a show popular or groundbreaking.

It worked. Within three years, HKTV had produced hundreds of hours of original programming, focusing on dramas and documentaries. And this June, HKTV uploaded the pilot episode of its new police drama, Borderline, to Youtube, attracting over a million views to date.

Two weeks ago, however, Wong's efforts to revolutionize Hong Kong television came to a screeching halt. The local government announced that it rejected HKTV's application for a free-to-air television license, instead granting them to the other two applicants: the two existing pay-TV operators, PCCW and i-Cable. The decision from the Executive Council came with no specific explanation, sparking a public outcry and a crisis in confidence in the current Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, whose popularity has since plummeted to an all-time low.

Wong was unimpressed when he heard the decision, saying “Who rules Hong Kong: the law, the policies, or the chief executive? Let's put all the political theories behind us, and stop debates on whether citizens should have the right to elect the chief executive. But are you meddling with my choice of entertainment or TV station? Must we all buy the type of toilet paper designated by the government?”

To voice their anger, tens of thousands of people marched from Causeway Bay to government headquarters in Tamar, Admiralty in a protest organized on Facebook. For many of the participants, this was not just about television. Instead, they saw this decision as just the latest in a long line of policies put forth by the Leung administration to further the interests of China, of which Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region.

Last year, the Leung administration proposed mandatory “Moral and National Education” classes for schoolchildren, which some locals came to believe was a government ploy to brainwash young children into loving Beijing. Thousands of people took to the streets, with some even going on multiple-day hunger strikes, to oppose the plan. After the ten-day protest, the government reluctantly agreed to postpone the commencement of these classes. Then, earlier this year, tens of thousands more protested on July 1, the 16th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, to demand that the government institute democracy in the form of universal suffrage and address the widening gap between the rich and poor.

These protests express a commonly held fear in Hong Kong: that the territory’s core values are being eroded by the pro-Beijing administration.

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Kelly Yang is a columnist for The South China Morning Post and the founder and director of The Kelly Yang Project, a writing program for students in Hong Kong. 

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