April 16, 2014 1:00 pm JST

China's media control spreads to Taiwan, Hong Kong

KATSUHIKO MESHINO, Nikkei editorial writer

TOKYO -- Recent incidents in Taiwan and Hong Kong suggest that China's sway over the media is not limited to the mainland.     

     Student protesters left Taiwan's parliament on April 10 after occupying the legislature for some three weeks to protest an agreement with China to liberalize services trade.

     The trigger for the unprecedented siege, which started on March 18, was the way in which the government rammed the agreement through parliament. The administration of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou signed the accord with Beijing last year. Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party wanted the pact approved by parliament as quickly as possible and railroaded it through a legislative committee.

     Of course, it was not just anger over the approval procedure that set the protesters off; they are unhappy with the agreement itself, especially the sections that would open Taiwan's advertising market to Chinese companies. They fear that China, backed by its massive capital strength, could wield more influence in Taiwan's media through advertising, thus threatening freedom of the press on the island.

Self-censorship?

The protest and its fallout come amid a growing fear among many Taiwanese that China's influence is already starting to spread to the local media. Highlighting these concerns is the brewing controversy over how some major Taiwanese bookstores have decided not to sell a book by Yuan Hongbing, a Chinese defector and author.

     Titled "Shafo" (killing a Buddha), the book was published last autumn. In it, Yuan claims that the 10th Panchen Lama, a leader of Tibetan Buddhism and a living Buddha, died suddenly in January 1989 not of a heart attack, as the Chinese government says, but because he was assassinated at Beijing's behest for political motives.

     In November last year, Yuan spoke out against Eslite Bookstore, Taiwan's largest bookstore chain, and other shops for not selling the book. They defended their actions by pointing out the highly sensitive nature of the book. News reports later said many other Taiwanese bookstores also became cautious about carrying Yuan's books, and not just Shafo.     

     Critics say Eslite Bookstore is afraid that selling Yuan's book would hurt its aggressive expansion into the mainland, and that, seduced by China's huge marketplace, the company is placing profits over democratic principles. 

     Some observers have pointed out that Taiwanese media organizations are adopting an increasingly flattering tone in their coverage of mainland China. Lin Fei-fan, a leader of the student protest against the services trade pact, has also warned of China's growing influence within Taiwan's media.

Outspoken and in trouble     

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, a series of unsettling incidents has taken place since the beginning of the year. Commercial Radio Hong Kong, for example, abruptly fired the popular host of a current-affairs program in February. That same month, a former chief editor of the Ming Pao Daily News, an influential daily, was attacked by unknown assailants and seriously injured. Both journalists are known for being critical of Beijing's heavy influence in the Hong Kong government.

     Although many questions remain unanswered the truth behind these and other recent cases, what does seem certain is that Hong Kong's media is undergoing complicated changes with serious implications.