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One colony, many voices in the press

China-funded newspapers go for jingoism, while others cover local scandals, writes Angelica Cheung
Recent visitors to Hong Kong would think that the biggest story in the British colony is not its return to China, but the family drama of a mega-rich movie star. His wife, 30 years his junior, and their four rebellious children, battled bitterly over his reported pounds 40m fortune.

For weeks, the story became an obsession in Hong Kong - knocking politics and financial news off the front pages in the Chinese press, and making the most gripping television soap look dull. To add extra spice to the story, there were allegations of mysterious lovers, triad connections, drug-taking and incestuous behaviour, stripping bare the public image of a model showbiz family.

The story, which mixed elements of Dallas and Coronation Street, was a welcome relief from heavy-weight handover politics. In general, Hong Kong people do not have much enthusiasm for politics, and this is reflected in the contents of the Chinese press, read by more than 95 per cent of the population.

There are more than a dozen daily Chinese-language papers, which, like those in Britain, are divided into tabloids and broadsheets. Both categories tend to use domestic stories on their front pages, relegating foreign news to a close second. While the two English-language papers in Hong Kong are wary of libel laws, the Chinese press sails perilously close to the wind, naming names and making detailed assertions and allegations.

The handover coverage of the Chinese press has focused on how issues will affect people's lives in a practical sense, rather than a philosophical debate over patriotism. But there are exceptions - the China-funded newspapers have been trying all they can to create an atmosphere of jingoistic pride at the return of Hong Kong to China after 150 years of colonial rule.

The China-backed papers carry endless reports and editorials to prove how wise the "one country, two systems" is, how enthusiastic Hong Kong people are towards the handover, and how caring the Chinese leaders are towards Hong Kong people.

Western criticism of China's human rights problems, the popularity of the Democratic Party, and polls showing Hong Kong worries over restricted freedom and corruption from China after the handover, are completely ignored by these papers. Their boring, lecturing style, dull layout and propaganda content attract few readers in Hong Kong. However, because they are the only "Hong Kong" newspapers allowed to be circulated in China, most Chinese believe that they truly represent the opinions of the Hong Kong public.

Quick to spot which way the wind is blowing, most Hong Kong papers, owned by pragmatic businessmen, are leaning further towards the official Communist Party line. Some even look for chances to slap Governor Chris Patten in the face, to win favour from their new Chinese bosses, while the tone and wording of their editorials are increasingly like those of the Communist propaganda mouthpiece.

In a recent editorial, the mass-market Oriental Daily described Mr Patten as "a defeated gambler unwilling to leave the gambling table" and "his blood-shot eyes [show] his inveterate hatred towards the People's Liberation Army".

It concluded that Mr Patten was "a weak mantis who cannot stop the historical chariot" - a line most often found when cursing the "anti-revolutionaries" in China, during its most turbulent Cultural Revolution period.

Even the Sing Tao Daily, which used to support the Kuomintang in Taiwan, became a keen supporter of the China-appointed provisional legislature and the post-handover leader, Tung Chee-hwa.

The daily and weekly owned by fiercely out-spoken and anti-Communist publisher Jimmy Lai, are the most daring Chinese publications when it comes to criticising China. However, their editorials are more of the "Li-Peng-Is-A-Turtle-Egg" style than products of reasoning.

The Hong Kong Economic Journal remains the only paper daring to criticise the Communist regime with rational, in-depth analysis. It criticises China's suppression of freedom, asks the leaders to trust Hong Kong people, gives candid advice on China's relations with the outside world and advocates a free market economy with as little government intervention as possible.

Its honest attitude and popularity among educated readers make it a thorn in the side of Peking representatives. Last year, the New China News Agency, China's unofficial representative in Hong Kong, carried a comment piece, pointing directly at "a business paper", warning that it should concentrate on business instead of politics.

Soon after, readers found the editorial written by a knowledgeable and sharp-minded veteran journalist was quietly relocated as a column in an inside page.