How Rejecting Free-to-air Television License Links to Further Discontent

Protesters set up camps outside the government headquarters on November 6 to await the result of a decision.

Will the government look into the decision to reject granting a free-to-air television license to Hong Kong Television (HKTV)?

HKTV was denied such a license without an explanation after the head of the network Ricky Wong invested $900 million Hong Kong dollars to build a new alternative TV network.

Wong, a self-made telecom entrepreneur, had spent assembled a ”dream team” of top Hong Kong entertainment talent – scriptwriters, actors, producers, and production staff. His team spent three years studying the best American TV dramas and documentaries Wong hired a staff of 500 to produce hundreds of hours of original programming. He said wanted to give Hong Kong locals a choice and raise the bar for free local TV.

The license rejection on October 15 caused a public outcry — tens of thousands took to the street to protest and demand answers from the Hong Kong government at a time when the chief executive C. Y. Leung’s popularity is at an all-time low.

Many residents were disappointed in the decision accusing the government not only in meddling the choice of entertainment, but failing to show how they arrived at their unpopular decision.

Yet pro-government groups like ‘Love Hong Kong,’ known for their Yellow Shirts and loud anti-HKTV slogans, arrived at government headquarters in Admiralty to support the Leung decision. Many in the group are elderly and some are young. And several argued that the executive council’s decision making process should be confidential as a rule, not made public, according to traditions..

We are here to back up the administrative work of the government. We are here to support the government together, and to voice it out. We want the government to know that many people here support the decisions,” said Heung Ming Siu of Federation of Hong Kong Guangxi Community Organisations. 

Pro-government group supported the government's decision of granting free-to-air television licenses. (Photo by Wendy Tang)
Pro-government group supported the government’s decision of granting free-to-air television licenses. (Photo by Wendy Tang)

The government granted two licenses out of the three applicants. The other two were PCCW and i-Cable. PCCW is a utilities company owned by Hong Kong billionaire Richard Li, the son of Li Ka Shing, Asia’s richest man. iCable is the property of Peter Woo, the head of Wharf Holdings, one of Hong Kong’s largest property companies.

At one point the Hong Kong government claimed that HKTV was insufficiently capitalized, and the lack of financial support from a parent company was the main reason for not granting HKTV a license.

The government eventually released a six-page explanation saying a gradual and orderly approach should be adopted in granting licenses. Officials said that too many competitors in a crowded Hong Kong market could dilute advertising revenue and cause a collapse of the free to air market.

But Hong Kong is a city of seven million people. And currently there are only four home-grown TV channels – two pay-per-view channels, two free-to-air. Critics say that for a city with a reputation as a free market – one that boasts Asia’s most vibrant entertainment industry, the number of TV competitors is too far too low.

Ricky Wong claims the problem is not about whether HKTV gets a license. It’s about the sudden change in a policy that was established in 1999 saying there is no upper limit on free-to-air TV licenses, and suddenly C. Y. Leung and Exco say there is.

But some came out to protest not just because of television. Actors and actresses marched and spoke alongside legislators and housewives. They called for justice.

I just wish that the government could just really listen to what citizens need and [understand] why they are so upset. In my opinion no one really wants to use the “special Legislative powers” to investigate the decision. We just want the government to address the public on this matter. Although the government issued a 6 page “explanation,” reading it and understanding it, I don’t see a very clear point as to why the license was rejected,” said actress Maggie Cheung Ho-yee.

Hong Kong residents who supported HKTV gathering outside the government headquarters to watch the Legislative Council's decision to investigate the decision of license rejection on Nov. 6 (Photo by Wendy Tang).
Hong Kong residents who supported HKTV gathering outside the government headquarters to watch the Legislative Council’s decision to investigate the decision of license rejection on Nov. 6 (Photo by Wendy Tang).

Many people see the decision as the latest in a long list of policies to further the interests of Beijing.

The South China Morning Post reported two lawmakers were approached by China’s central liaison government office ahead of a key vote the legislative council considered to investigate the license controversy.

This license decision has been widely linked to Beijing’s increasing influence in the special administration of Hong Kong.

Legislator Claudia Mo claims that Beijing gave a direct order to the chief executive to stop Wong from getting a license seeing Wong as an unpredictable maverick who could drive the pro-Beijing station ATV out of business.

At Beijing’s behest, it’s Beijing’s order absolutely. We are talking about free TV. You know it’s about ideology and you know the Chinese communist, the need to control the army of ideology,” said Mo.

Hong Kong protests have escalated in recent years – showing increasing dissatisfaction with the appointed Leung administration.

Last year, the Executive Council proposed a mandatory “moral and national education” classes in school aiming to promote a better identification between Hong Kong residents and mainland Chinese. Angry protests scuttled the program and caused the Leung government to delay the start of classes.

Some argued the program was designed to brainwash Hong Kong children into loving Beijing, presenting an imbalanced picture of China’s history such as praising the one-party state.

Many Hong Kong residents are worried the city’s core values are at stake.

Under the “one country, two systems” principle, Hong Kong has clung to its own independent economic, legal and political independence. But citizen confidence is at an all time low.

Hong Kong resident Bob Kraft, a retired pastor, has taken part in many protests involving the chief executive. He thinks there is a disconnect between the government and the people.

I’d say there is a great discontent among the general population about their living conditions, and their livelihood and their future and they have, what I hear over and over again, just from the public is that they have no voice, they have no avenue to speak out.  And how that’s put into place is something that’s very frustrating to them, so they have become angry, they’ve become discontented, and they want to speak out,” said Kraft.

As the anger and discontent grow towards government policy, what will happen to Hong Kong?

For most Hong Kong residents, the lack of choices in a free market are alarming – perhaps, they believe, Beijing has too much influence here, and that influence is growing.


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