Are you listening, Beijing?

The handover of Hong Kong may be the trickiest story the BBC World Service has ever covered. Michael Leapman meets the woman walking on eggshells
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The BBC's hottest seat this summer is the one occupied by Elizabeth Wright, the 51-year-old Chinese scholar and former diplomat who runs the Asia and Pacific Region of the World Service from its headquarters at Bush House in London. It is up to her to see that the handover of Hong Kong, perhaps the trickiest story the World Service has ever tackled, is covered in a way that will not offend brittle sensibilities.

It will be like trying to report a state funeral and a coronation at the same time. Each step of the cortege will be movingly described, as the mortal remains of the old order are solemnly interred against a background of muffled drums. Then, at midnight on 30 June, firecrackers will herald the advent of the new emperor and his legions. Hong Kong is dead: long live Hong Kong.

Wright and her colleagues must strike a balance between properly mourning the dear departed and enthusiastically embracing the inheritors. Like others facing an uncertain future in the former colony, they will not know whether to laugh or cry.

Never has it been more important for a broadcaster to get the balance exactly right. The BBC has a huge stake in what happens after 1 July. It will need the goodwill of Hong Kong's new rulers to maintain its large regional news bureau and to continue broadcasting its 24-hour English- language service on the medium-wave transmitters of Radio and Television Hong Kong (RTHK).

The auguries are uncertain, for as far as the Chinese are concerned the World Service has a record as long as a dragon's tail. Its short-wave broadcasts in Mandarin and Cantonese have been jammed by the Chinese since a few weeks before the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Reporters from the Chinese-language services are seldom allowed to visit the mainland.

More than the BBC's own interests are at stake. If it provokes the authorities into restricting its freedom to operate in Hong Kong, other media could be caught in the net. This in turn would signal whether the territory's citizens could expect to keep their other rights and liberties. Seldom can so much have rested on a few weeks of broadcasting.

Wright is alert to the delicate path she has to tread: "If the clamps go down - which people assure us they won't - then it will be difficult for everyone," she comments cautiously. "I know RTHK has every intention of continuing to rebroadcast us, because they've told us so. But it's true to a certain extent that it will depend on the Chinese reaction to what we're broadcasting during the handover.

"The Chinese give preference to those who report favourably about China - they're quite open about it - but we can't go down that path. We have to do what we think is fair. If we did vicious, carping coverage of the handover that would upset the Chinese and affect the position of all media in the future. But why would we want to do that anyway? The bottom line is editorial integrity. Under no circumstances would we pull our punches in order to be allowed to stay somewhere."

Certainly she is not stinting on the volume of coverage: hour after hour of historical and cultural feature programmes, culminating on 30 June with blanket live reportage and commentary on the ceremonies themselves.

Examples of the difficult editorial decisions required crop up in the flagship six-part series being carried on the English-language channels. Hong Kong: Imperial Orphan is a careful account of the colony's history, giving vent to both sides of the argument: either it would not be where it is today without British stewardship, or for 150 years it has been wickedly exploited. No question of "Don't mention the opium war": there are as many hair shirts as halos.

In one episode Chris Patten, in his last days as governor, gets a rough ride from critics. He is accused of placing Hong Kong's future in jeopardy through his futile attempt to impose constitutional reforms without Chinese agreement. Patten is interviewed and allowed to make his own defence, but many listeners will come away convinced that this heavy-handed politician was an unsuitable choice to shepherd the colony through its difficult final days.

So Patten may find the series offensive; but at least it underscores the claim of the World Service that it is not a propaganda arm of its paymaster, the British Foreign Office. Are you listening, Beijing?

The answer to that question is probably yes. The Chinese efforts to jam its broadcasts are not completely successful. The programmes are carried on five short-wave frequencies; only three are usually interfered with, and these only for part of the time, possibly because jamming is such a costly business.

Two years ago the BBC surreptitiously carried out an audience survey in 10 major Chinese cities and found about half a million listeners in each. In Beijing and Shanghai, more than two per cent of the population tuned in to get an alternative view to that of their state-controlled media.

Last month the Mandarin-language service opened an Internet site; about 100,000 people have accessed it since. A competition inviting listeners to the service to give their views on the handover, with the best being read out on air, attracted 400 entries from all parts of China - a small proportion of a population of 1.3bn, but significant given that the mere act of writing to the BBC is frowned upon by the authorities.

Anecdotal evidence supports the view that the word is getting through. Says Wright: "Even high-ranking Chinese military men scoot up to me at meetings and say: `Gosh, I'm so delighted to meet you. I've been listening to you - my entire battalion has been listening to you - for years.' You get to think: `Good grief! How does this sit with the occasional official sideswipe that one gets?' "

Lorna Ball, head of the Chinese service, has a comparable tale: "I went to Beijing some years ago and was asked about what we did and why, and I could hardly get a word in edgeways. Then when the official got up to walk out and was close enough to me for the interpreter/minder not to hear, he just said: `Sorry!' "

The importance of the Hong Kong story to the World Service is reflected in the number of people it is sending there for the handover. Three Chinese- speakers are joining the one resident representative of the language services, and 26 other World Service staff are going to boost the regular bureau of eight - who cover for all arms of the BBC.

Some at Bush House believe there is a danger of overkill, of boring listeners with so much advance coverage that the event itself will prove an anti- climax. Wright is more concerned about what happens afterwards: "One of the things we have to be careful about is that it does not drop off the agenda. Great excitement - and then suddenly it's China's problem and we don't care."

While this might be deplorable from a broadcaster's viewpoint, for the people of Hong Kong it might be no bad thing; for it would mean the Chinese had done nothing extreme or unacceptable. Larry Jagan, World Service editor of news and current affairs for the region, is optimistic: "The Chinese are going to be so concerned that the handover goes smoothly and the period immediately after is a success, that they will be much more cautious about what they do in Hong Kong than in other parts of China. To some extent press freedom and our operations there are fundamental to its being a financial centre."

That is the rational analysis. Yet the world learnt in 1989 that reason, when applied to predicting Chinese intentions, can be a treacherous tool. This is why Elizabeth Wright is walking on eggshells, softly softly.

! `Hong Kong: Imperial Orphan': tonight 6.01pm, rpts Tues 7.30am, 12.30pm. Live coverage of the Handover starts 11am, 30 Jun. WS: SW9410, 3955, 12095, 15575kHz.