Reporting Hong Kong: Foreign Media and the Handover
Edited by Alan Knight and Yoshiko Nakano (Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon, 1999). xxii + 223 pp. HK$255

Samuel C. Pearson
Fulbright Professor of American History
Northeast Normal University, PRC

This volume reports the findings of three communications researchers with journalistic backgrounds who examined the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China as a means of studying the process of reporting major events today and the manner in which the ideological and cultural assumptions of journalists as well as official press releases and staged spectacles shape our news and thus our perception of reality. It contains, in addition to materials from the two editors and their collaborator, Barry Lowe, interviews with a variety of Hong Kong, Chinese, and foreign journalists who covered the handover. In the process of explaining how one particular "reality," the reality of the handover, was constructed, the editors and their interviewees tell us a great deal of more general significance for anyone concerned about the transmission of information and ideas in this global age.

As an American who has spent considerable time living and working in China, I have long been frustrated by what appears to me to be inaccurate and misleading reporting on each country in the media of the other. This book both reinforces my judgment that media coverage is often inaccurate and helps to explain why there is so frequently a gulf between event and reports of it in the media whether in the relatively controlled media of China or the relatively free though often self-controlled media of America and the West. It certainly reinforces the skepticism with which, as a historian, I tend to approach almost everything I see on television or read in the newspaper.

The editors presume little special knowledge of Hong Kong on the part of readers and sketch its history and importance under British rule as Hong Kong emerged to become both the West’s economic avenue into China and its window on China and much of Asia. Hong Kong became "the most important centre for Western foreign correspondents operating in East and Southeast Asia, with more than six hundred foreign journalists based there" (p. 6). Yet this presence paled before that of the more than eight thousand journalists who descended on Hong Kong to cover the handover in 1997. Few of these "parachute journalists" were familiar with Hong Kong or spoke Chinese–Mandarin or Cantonese. They therefore became dependent on their own preconceptions or those of their editors and on information supplied by others.

Diane Stormont, Hong Kong Bureau Chief for Reuters at the time of the handover, is quoted as saying that "many [parachute journalists] came with preconceived ideas. Others were genuinely interested in what was going on, but clearly had to follow an agenda set by their editors back at home. You could almost divide the coverage into national characteristics. The British certainly went for nostalgia, as one would expect. The Americans banged the democracy drum. The Chinese did whatever they were told, although they were a lot less passive than many people expected" (p. 21). On the basis of their investigations of the handover, the editors conclude both that the national interests and political attitudes of journalists’ home countries shaped coverage and that far too large a portion of the international media "seemed more interested in the lavish spectacle than the substance of the events." Those concerned with the more fundamental issues "found access to official sources strictly rationed, and opportunities to ask questions restricted" (p. 158). They end their analysis of media coverage of the handover with the somber observation that "more news does not necessarily mean better news. Wall-to-wall coverage can overwhelm choices which might otherwise allow the public to make informed judgement" (p. 175).

In a similar critical vein, Ichiro Yoshida, editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Tsushin Monthly, expressed amazement at the ill-informed questions asked by many of the Japanese-speaking parachute journalists. He noted that "what’s special about the Hong Kong handover was that nothing was going to change. That’s why it was unusual. They didn’t seem to understand this principle" (p. 25).

Using its Government Information Services, the Hong Kong government sought to control media coverage through accreditation and limited access to media events. Journalists were isolated from others at major events, and very few opportunities were provided for interviewing participants. As a result, a considerable amount of the information available to journalists was that provided by GIS; and some journalists "even came to believe that what they were seeing was real. . ." (p. 37). One Hong Kong journalist reflected that by the time of the handover, GIS was working "very much with an eye to the new masters" (p. 39). Ironically, the editors believe that some of the better radio coverage of the handover was provided by NHK, Japan’s public radio. Ignoring official news releases from GIS and others and broadcasting from a cramped studio far from the Convention Centre where the actual events occurred, NHK focused on people and context rather than the news itself.

Yet it was not simply the GIS that sought to manage the media. The Democratic Party used the occasion to create its own media event when party chairman Martin Lee delivered a speech in Cantonese and English from the balcony of the Legislative Council forty minutes after the handover. Remarkably, few journalists appeared aware that Lee’s Chinese and English speeches were quite different and designed to appeal to different audiences and interests. While the English speech highlighted the party slogan "Fight for Democracy," the Cantonese speech focused on a second slogan, "Support the Return of Sovereignty." This latter emphasis, the crucial one for Lee’s Hong Kong audience, was essentially ignored in the West. More cynically, and far more troubling for anyone who would like to believe in a free press, Newsweek published two separate pre-handover specials, one for the American audience and another for Asian readers. Apparently the opinions of Newsweek editors are controlled by geography, changing each time they cross the international date line. Reporting by Xinhua in Hong Kong and by the Chinese media generally toed the party line, ignored dissent, and portrayed the British "in stereotypical and anachronistic terms" (p. 88). However, the Guangzhou Daily, while making its required submission to the government in such matters as running the official editorial, also published human interest stories and generally pictured the situation in Hong Kong in a more balanced manner.

Interviews with reporters and editors involved in the handover, labeled "Insiders’ Insights," appear between each chapter; and each chapter examines a specific and distinct topic. The result is a volume which challenges the reader with frequent shifts of focus, but the additional demands placed on the reader are well-rewarded as a general picture of the operation of the media in addressing contemporary events emerges. Appendices provide the reader with some of the source materials relevant to this study, and notes and an index are included.

Alan Knight is professor of journalism and media studies at Central Queensland University in Australia and was an honorary research fellow at the Centre of Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong in 1997. Yoshiko Nakano is a research assistant professor in the department of English at the City University of Hong Kong, has worked on award-winning TV documentaries and on reports for the Japanese media from the U. S. and from Hong Kong. Barry Lowe is associate professor of English at the City University of Hong Kong and is an independent documentary producer who has studied reporting on conflict and ethics in journalism.

This book is especially recommended for students of communications and for social scientists with an interest in Hong Kong. However, anyone concerned about the role of the media in contemporary society may read it with profit.