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Why People in Hong Kong Protest Over Bad Television

Under the doctrine of “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong has maintained its own independent economic, legal and political systems since the 1997 handover, allowing its citizens to enjoy civil liberties such as free speech and the freedom of religion while still remaining technically inside China. In the years since the handover, however, faith in the durability of Hong Kong’s special arrangement has eroded. A recent University of Hong Kong poll found that public confidence in the “one country, two systems” principle is at a net level of zero (meaning that as many people have confidence in it than don’t), the lowest point since 1996.

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But was the decision to kill HKTV motivated entirely by politics? Wong isn’t sure.

“If the ‘politics’ you were talking about involves the central government, I can tell you with utter certainty that to my knowledge, that is not the case,” Wong said. “I don’t believe the decision was driven by the rumored intervention from central government.”

A better explanation for HKTV’s rejection may be economics. Of the three companies seeking licenses, HKTV was the only non-existing television channel—and the only one which got rejected, indicating that the motivation behind the decision was to preserve the status quo and expand the existing monopoly of the four television license holders.

Nonetheless, the decision still raises questions whether Hong Kong’s free market—an essential part of the territory’s identity—still applies. These days, newspaper reports now speculate that the relationship between government and big business has become too cozy.

The two successful channels—PCCW and i-Cable—awarded free-to-air licenses are both owned by Hong Kong tycoons. Richard Li is the founder and chairman of utilities company PCCW and the son of billionaire Li Ka Shing, Asia's richest man with a net worth of $31 billion and the head of Hutchison Whampoa and Cheung Kong, two of the most powerful conglomerates in Hong Kong. The other successful company, i-Cable, is owned by Peter Woo, the head of one of Hong Kong's largest property companies, Wharf Holdings, and a man with a net worth of an estimated $8 billion.

Not long ago, tycoons like Li and Woo were treated with reverence in Hong Kong. However, this perception has waned; incidents like a large dockworkers strike in April have tarnished their image. Hong Kong’s population instead became fond of Wong who, in contrast to the tycoons, was an underdog who started his first business with just HKD $1,000. When Wong’s dreams got quashed, it was more than just his misfortune—in a way, the aspiration of his fans was quashed, too.

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For now, this simple problem remains: Hong Kong residents are deprived of a television network that had the promise of delivering popular, thought-provoking content. For a city that has precious few popular forums for cultural expression, this is a shame—not simply for the lost entertainment potential, but also for the loss of an opportunity to define a cultural identity that is unique to Hong Kong. Television, after all, does not merely entertain; it has the power to transform the societies that the shows reflect.

But in Hong Kong, a thriving city with limited (and bad) television options, this possibility is remote. Unsurprisingly, many in the territory have turned to Japanese, Korean, and American shows in order to find entertainment. Hong Kong children grow up hooked on Glee and thus identify more with Americans than with each other. Without local television, Hong Kong people risk having no common bond, no overarching cultural identity, and no greater, cultural influence in Asia.

Whatever the real reasons behind Leung's decision, the rejection of HKTV may have serious cultural and economic ramifications for Hong Kong. But more immediately, instead of assuaging popular concerns in Hong Kong—that Beijing wields too much influence in the government and that the free market is being eroded—this decision exacerbated them. If the current pattern of regular, massive protests in response to government non-responsiveness continues, a crisis in government may become imminent.

“Hong Kong is our home, but it's our home for very specific reasons. We don't want it to turn into another Chinese city,” says former chief secretary Anson Chan.

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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