For some correspondents from abroad, and their editors, Hong Kong was the worst of things – an old story. The handover was over and done with. Hong Kong was quietly becoming part of China. Next dateline, please.
Then came surprisingly robust resistance to the Hong Kong government’s plan to enact national security legislation that seemed a little too one-country, one-system. Then came SARS, a dramatic story of disease, death and discovery that engaged the world.
And then came July 1, a holiday for supposedly celebrating the return to Chinese sovereignty, but which instead became – as a half million protesters marched on Central Government Offices – a day symbolizing a thirst for full democracy.
For some in the international media, Hong Kong was alive again. The presence of a “home story” – a story correspondents with regional responsibilities can cover without getting on another airplane – created an argument for staying in Hong Kong, or coming back.
Hong Kong's Advantages
Some two years after closing up shop, Newsweek International is coming back. Next month, George Wehrfritz, who has been the Tokyo bureau chief, will reopen Newsweek here. His mandate is to keep an eye on Hong Kong developments while reporting stories of regional economic importance.
“The city and its relationship to mainland China has been and remains one of the most important stories both within the region and to readers much farther afield,” said Nisid Hajari, the magazine’s managing editor in New York.
Like all others in the international media, Newsweek makes its decisions based on what it sees as its mission and where its resources are best deployed. But for many media whose focus is economic or whose reach is global, Hong Kong remained a key outpost all through the feast or famine of news since the handover and the advertising dip wrought by the 9/11 atrocities four years later.
Hong Kong has the logistical support. It has the location. It has the language – English, the mother tongue of international business. It also has freedom of the press and easy access to the biggest non-combat story in the world, the Chinese economy. For all those reasons, the Financial Times selected Hong Kong as the base for its new Asian edition, which it launched in September last year. Meanwhile, the Spanish news agency EFE is opening an office here next month, as is a state-owned news service from Russia.
“The sort of things that keep people here, or attract them here, are Hong Kong's free access to information, telecommunications, air connections and infrastructure, in addition to their interest in Hong Kong and China as news stories,” said Paul Brown, assistant director of the Hong Kong government's Information Services Department.
The government does not keep an official record of overseas media here because journalists who work in Hong Kong – unlike virtually every other place in Asia – are not required to register for press accreditation. What the government does have is a record of the number of overseas media that have requested notice of government announcements and press conferences. In 1990, the number was 115; it rose sharply during the handover, then fell to almost the same level in 2001, before falling again after 9/11 to its lowest number ever, 92, at the end of 2003. But today it is 96, and due to climb to 98 in July. The difference over the 14 years is in one of four categories – newspapers. The number of news agencies, magazines and TV/Radio operations is the same today as in 1990.
The names, of course, have changed, as have the individual organizations’ needs. The BCC and Reuters moved their regional headquarters to Singapore a few years after the handover, but kept correspondents and staff here. In the case of the BBC, it was a matter of getting closer to where its Hong Kong-based correspondents were spending most of their time, covering this or that upheaval in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
“Since the 1967 riots, Hong Kong has not been the hot potato other places have,” Brown said. “The doomsday scenarios painted for the city after the handover also have failed to materialize. But the things that continue to interest media organizations about Hong Kong are its position as a financial centre, and that it is an Asia hub, a gateway to China and an international city.”
It was, of course, important to the Financial Times, which chose Hong Kong to complete what editor and publisher John Ridding called the newspaper's “global jigsaw”. The newspaper's home base is London, but it also was publishing editions in Europe and the U.S. before it began looking for a base for an Asian edition. “Our research told us that readers in the world were hungry for information about Asia and, in the end, about China, because they are clearly becoming integrated into the global economy,” Ridding said.
Ridding said the Financial Times looked at several cities before choosing Hong Kong. “Singapore is an alternative,” he said, “but frankly the action in Asia, myself and my colleagues thought, is going to be in China, and here we are closer to that story.”
Ridding spoke on a day of developments in an unprecedented story, the battle between a U.S. brewery and a South African one to take over a listed mainland company, a takeover the U.S. company eventually won. “It is an incredible story,” Ridding said, “and investors from all over the world are interested in it.”
Hong Kong's infrastructure advantages also figured heavily in the Financial Times’ decision. The newspaper's editorial staff was expanded from 2 to 15, and it also added positions on the business side. They work at the International Financial Center and many, including Ridding, travel frequently. But they don't have to go far to catch an airplane – the Airport Express station is an elevator away.
For similar reasons, Business Week magazine has its regional base in Hong Kong, as do the Wall Street Journal and Time, and they all publish Asian editions. “Hong Kong has not lost its attractions,” said Mark Clifford, the Asia bureau chief for Business Week before becoming the Hong Kong Standard's publisher and editor-in-chief. “And the international media here is as free to report on China and Hong Kong affairs as it would be to report on U.S. companies and politics from New York”.
To cover China well, overseas media who can afford it also keep correspondents in Beijing and Shanghai. Beijing is the political center; Shanghai a historical and cultural center with an emerging economic story. “China has arrived,” said Keith Bradsher of The New York Times. “It is the biggest economic story in the world. You are talking average 8% growth a year for two decades in a country with a population three times the size of the European Union, and that is changing the world.”
With forays into the booming Pearl River Delta region, Bradsher covers that story as The Times’ bureau chief in Hong Kong. But the city has proven newsworthy in other regards since he arrived in 2002. “To some extent, Hong Kong is a lab for where China might go,” he said, “and where China might go is going to be a story for a long time in the future.”
When the SARS epidemic arose last year, overseas media with correspondents in Hong Kong had an obvious advantage over competitors back home with fewer resources. Bradsher filed pieces that gave readers in The Times’ global audience dramatic windows into the outbreak's pernicious human consequences. “It was invaluable to be based in Hong Kong for SARS,” Bradsher said. “Covering it any other way would not have been as effective. I would say the same about the democracy-movement story.”
But as the BBC example and others show, overseas media make decisions about staffing based on their own particular assessments and circumstances. The Washington Post departed Hong Kong for Shanghai a couple years ago, believing that Shanghai is becoming China's New York. After current correspondent Martin Cohn soon ends his tour, the Toronto Star may move its only Asian correspondent to Beijing, where its Toronto rival, the Globe and Mail, keeps its correspondent.
Further, despite the views of Tyler Marshall, its Hong Kong correspondent the last four years, the Los Angeles Times is moving out for Islamabad, when Marshall's tour ends this summer. Marshall's newspaper will keep two correspondents in Beijing and one in Shanghai, but he argued for keeping the bureau here because of two emerging stories – the economic one and democratic developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“Wherever you go in this region, you hear government people trying to figure out ways to hitch their wagon to China,” Marshall said. “There is a sense of common destiny in this region that wasn't here when I arrived four years ago. And how China deals with the democracy issue is going to be of major interest.”
Days after Marshall spoke, a crowd said to be the largest since 1997 attended the June 4 vigil at Victoria Park. The turnout suggested continuing major interest in the democracy issue – and more Hong Kong datelines in the days ahead.