Tea Leaf Nation

The Freedom to Say Nothing

Hong Kong journalists have found another way to protest against Beijing's encroachment.

It may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but Hong Kong citizens perceive a gathering storm darkening their windows. When the owner of one of the city's largest newspapers tried to replace the editor-in-chief, its staff and columnists staged a dramatic revolt. The episode is the latest symptom of collective anxiety over the state of free press in this former British colony, more than 16 years after its handover to China.

On Jan. 20, more than 110 staff stood outside the headquarters of Ming Pao, one of Hong Kong's most respected Chinese-language newspapers. Dressed in black, each journalist held up a copy of the paper and solemnly observed a five-and-half minute period of silence in protest against the owner's decision to sack the paper's editor-in-chief, Kevin Lau. On the same day, four of Ming Pao's writers sent in blank columns, also as a form of protest, leaving glaring white spaces in the print edition.

A journalist at Ming Pao, who asked to remain anonymous, told Foreign Policy that the newspaper's senior management has not offered a good reason for Lau's removal. According to the source, many among the staff speculate that it is an attempt to interfere with the newspaper's journalistic independence. The paper's ultimate owner is a Malaysian-Chinese tycoon named Tiong Hiew-King. Ming Pao did not respond to an email seeking comment.

In Hong Kong's noisy media jungle, Ming Pao occupied a clearing in the center that has drawn in the educated middle class. Consistently rated as one of the territory's most trusted papers, it has been careful not to venture too far along either side of pro- and anti-mainland spectrum that divides Hong Kong's print media. Being in the middle does not necessarily indicate neutrality on key issues, but neither does it signal reluctance to report on government wrongdoing. Most recently, in October 2013, the paper published aggressive, wall-to-wall coverage of the controversy over the Hong Kong government's refusal to grant a license to a new cable television operator. Many believe that the decision to withhold the license was made at the behest of Beijing. Ming Pao's approach in that story showed that its journalists stood in defense of Hong Kong's freedom of media, a core value that the self-governing territory holds dear because it sets it apart from mainland China. 

Ming Pao's owner, Tiong, plans to helicopter in fellow Malaysian-Chinese Chong Tien Siong, a former editor of a Chinese language newspaper in Malaysia, to head the newspaper. According to the unnamed Ming Pao journalist, all available indicators point to Chong being “pro-Beijing” and not knowing much about Hong Kong’s local affairs. While senior management gave reassurance that Ming Pao’s editorial independence would be left alone after the switch, the staff remain skeptical.

For their part, Hongkongers cannot seem to shake the nagging suspicion that the Chinese government is using all the tools at its disposal to control media in the territory. The cable license denial and the Ming Pao editor change are but two examples. On Jan. 14, the founder of am730, a free daily newspaper in Hong Kong, revealed that several mainland Chinese companies abruptly pulled approximately $1.2 million worth of advertising from the newspaper in November 2013, likely acting on orders from above in retaliation against the pro-democracy positions of am730's writers. A Hong Kong publisher working on a book on Chinese President Xi Jinping was reportedly arrested in China in November 2013. 

At Hong Kong's handover to the mainland in 1997, the Chinese government promised to keep Hong Kong's existing institutions intact for 50 years. But less than a third of the way in, denizens already fear that much of what has made the territory special will be lost. 

Tea Leaf Nation

Net, Interrupted

Chinese wonder who rerouted two-thirds of their Internet.

When the Internet in the world's largest country largely stops functioning, does it make a sound?

On or around 3:20 p.m. on Jan. 21, most Chinese websites became inaccessible --"about two-thirds," one technology expert with anti-virus company Qihoo 360 told state-run China National Radio. According to tech news portal Tencent Technology, during the service interruption, which lasted for almost six hours, many of China's most popular websites, including Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, as well as top search engine Baidu and social media giant Tencent, began redirecting to an IP address (the numerical label of a networked computer) owned by U.S.-based Dynamic Internet Technology (DIT). In a Jan. 22 press conference, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said the incident showed China was "a victim of hacking," but named no aggressor. The massive service interruption, coupled with the lack of a full official explanation, left many Chinese wondering whom to blame.

China's state-run media quickly insinuated that foreign interference was involved. The official China News Online stated that a "preliminary investigation" determined an "online attack" had taken place, while Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, cited an expert who said a "hacker attack" was a "very probable" explanation. An unnamed expert quoted by reliable Communist Party cheerleader Global Times speculated that the prolonged hiccup resulted from a deliberate assault: "We cannot eliminate the possibility that real hackers used this IP address," the expert said, "as a springboard for their attack." The article, which carried the Chinese title "Chinese Internet Experiences Mysterious Attack: IP Involved Directs to Censorship Circumvention Software Company," repeatedly mentioned DIT and the fact that it produces Freegate, a software program that allows users to bypass China's enormous censorship apparatus, known colloquially as the "Great Firewall." (DIT founder Bill Xia said in a telephone conversation with Foreign Policy that his company was not responsible for the outage.)

Readers, by and large, had a different theory. Comments on platforms including news aggregator Netease and Sina Weibo evinced a sense that the protracted glitch was in fact an (accidental) inside job. "I think you messed up while tweaking the Great Firewall," an anonymous Netease commenter wrote, "and you're using hackers as a scapegoat." "You weren't careful when you were moving a rock and you dropped it on your own foot," a Weibo user named Wang Rui joked, as if speaking directly to China's authorities."Then you said someone else threw it." One anonymous Weibo user asked, somewhat more obliquely, "Was the Matrix upgrading again?"

That's not to say Chinese state media didn't hit a nerve. Cybersecurity is not just an American anxiety, after all: Former U.S. national security contractor Edward Snowden told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post in June 2013 that the United States had tried hacking "hundreds" of targets in China, including universities and government officials. The vulnerabilities of Chinese cyberspace are clearly real, even if this particular wound may have come from friendly fire.

"China's online spaces are easy pickings for other people," wrote one Weibo user, concluding, "We should improve Internet security defenses." Root name servers, which form the backbone of the Web, "are all abroad," lamented another, noting China's lack of critical Internet infrastructure. "The minute we anger" U.S. President Obama, "he could send us right back to the Stone Age."

Wholesale loss of the Internet was a frightening prospect for Chinese netizens, but regaining normal service did not dispel dissatisfaction with the status quo. After the Web recovered, one Weibo user wrote sarcastically, "A lot of websites remain inaccessible to me, like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter," sites currently banned in China. "How can I fix this?"

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