Hong Kong gets an appetite for Chinese politics
Rise in political magazines reflects growing desire for reform
Customers browse political magazines at a stall in Hong Kong
Long considered a bastion of free speech, Hong Kong has seen a rapid growth in the number of political magazines in recent years. Newsagents and market stalls now stock around 20 different titles, many focusing on mainland China; five years ago, there were only five.
The expansion points to a growing hunger for commentary on the state of affairs in China, despite these publications often retailing at triple the price of entertainment magazines.
“It’s no time for dancing and horse racing now. The need for political reforms in Hong Kong and in mainland China are pressing,” says Chen Ping, chairman of the iSunAffairs Weekly, a political magazine founded here in 2011.
Hong Kong people have been demanding greater democratic freedoms since the territory was returned to China in 1997. Its population, two-thirds of whom descend from those who fled mainland China in the turmoil of the 1950s, feel a close connection with their homeland, and thus a desire to bridge that divide through engagement with the situation there. Political magazines provide that.
“Local readers who enjoy full freedom are also curious to understand the mainland, where press freedom does not exist,” said Jin Zhong, Chief Editor of Open Magazine. Founded here in 1987, the monthly reports and comments on political developments in Greater China.
Besides local readers, the growth in magazines also caters for the 30 million mainland tourists who visit Hong Kong each year.
Hong Kong witnessed the first significant emergence of political magazines after China adopted its open door policy in 1979, and continued until the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. During those years, a political magazine could sell around 50,000 copies each month; in 1989, up to 100,000 copies were being sold, according to Lau Tat-man, publisher of Frontline, a monthly journal founded in 1991 that advocates press freedom.
The Tiananmen incident was followed by around 20 years of political stagnation. The second wave of publishing arrived around 2007 when Xi Jinping emerged to become the leader of the fifth generation of the People's Republic.
Exiled Chinese and disgruntled mainlanders had hoped Xi would enact political reforms in China and sate the hunger for free media, yet the continued dire need for information has prompted people to sneak these “banned books” back home.
“Every time I come to Hong Kong, I will buy and read as many [political magazines] as I can,” said a garment merchant identified only as Joseph, noting that these magazines are more resourceful and critical than the few available in mainland China.
Today, offering banned books as gifts holds higher status than the traditional cigarettes and wine.
“Giving clothes and watches as gifts shows off your wealth. But giving out banned books as gifts shows off your intellect and you get a kick out of it,” said Chen Xiaoping, managing editor of the US-based Mirror Media Group.
The media group, founded in 1991 by a mainland-born journalist, now owns five publishing houses and eight Chinese political magazines, all on sale in Hong Kong.
It is a cherished gift because “Chinese officials, same as the ordinary people, are secluded from news information,” said Lau.
The reliability of information circulating in Beijing’s political circles is also questionable, something that veteran editors are well aware of.
“Many rumors are unreliable and can only deceive those who do not understand China well,” Lau said, noting that “it is almost impossible to verify a news tip officially. They will deny sensitive information even if it is true.”
Despite the boom, political magazines face competition, both among themselves and from coverage in Chinese newspapers. Despite being the most popular in Hong Kong, Frontline’s monthly circulation is just 30,000 copies.
Other titles have tried to adapt to the shifting marketplace, with the iSunAffairs announcing recently that it would become an online monthly.
Chen Xioaping of Mirror Media however does not worry about survival, “as long as restrictions on freedom continue to exist in China.”
But he would rather see China become a free country. “If there are no more banned books, it means the market will be even greater because China is a virgin land for political magazines,” he said.
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