In Greater China’s media wars, a Hong Kong start-up is trying to make peace.
- By Tabitha SpeelmanTabitha Speelman is a freelance correspondent based in Shanghai.
Hong Kong’s press scene is increasingly polarized. Taiwanese outlets are gossipy and superficial. And the ruling Communist Party keeps a notoriously tight grip over mainland Chinese media. What’s a Chinese-speaking news consumer to do?
Enter Initium, a Hong Kong-based digital start-up founded in August 2015. The start-up declares its mission to be providing quality news “for Chinese people worldwide.” It aims to stake out a neutral terrain among Chinese readers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, and abroad, creating an inclusive virtual space for all of Greater China. That’s no easy feat. In addition to the usual challenges faced by any new venture, Initium has to contend with language barriers, intrusive Chinese censorship, and growing distrust within Hong Kong society.
Initium’s coverage of the Feb. 8 protests in Mongkok, Hong Kong showcased its more unifying approach. On the eve of Chinese lunar year, a major holiday celebrated across the Chinese-speaking world, violent anti-police protests broke out in Mongkok, a major shopping district, during a night market. The eviction of unlicensed street food vendors tapped into popular fear that mainland control of the city was undermining Hong Kong’s traditional culture. While most Hong Kong media and residents condemned the violence, interpretations otherwise differed widely.
The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong English-language newspaper recently acquired by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, focused on pro-China perspectives, including a lawyer who called the Hong Kong police response “too restrained.” The Apple Daily, a tabloid newspaper popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan and known for its critical stance toward China, published rumors saying Chinese President Xi Jinping had decided against sending in the army because he wished to avoid a bloody crackdown like that seen in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. Meanwhile, reporting from mainland China, where the ruling Communist Party has always maintained a tight grip on media, was reliably monolithic; Chinese state media condemned the violence of “radical separatist forces,” praising the performance of Hong Kong police.
Taiwanese writer and bookstore owner Chang Cheng thought Taiwanese media had avoided addressing the underlying causes of the violence. But the day after the riots, he came across a detailed first-person account of the evening by an Initium reporter. “I found [Initium’s] reporting to be comprehensive and fair,” Chang told Foreign Policy. “So I decided to share it.” Initium also provided cross-border media analysis. On Feb. 17, it published a graph depicting the various terms Hong Kong media had used to refer to the protests, ranging from “violent riots” to the “Fish Ball Revolution,” a term that foreign media used liberally but that local media mostly avoided.
Since 2003, when pro-democracy protests rocked the former British colony, pressure from mainland China has begun to erode the wide-ranging freedoms that semi-autonomous city had long enjoyed. The silencing of public figures through financial pressure, acquisitions of media by pro-China entities, and even physical attacks of media workers have brought a chill to the city. Self-censorship is increasingly common. To David Bandurski, editor at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, media partisanship is an especially unfortunate consequence of the current tensions in Hong Kong society. “The middle ground is disappearing, or difficult to find,” he wrote to FP via email.
Hong Kong has had its share of online media start-ups in recent years, including the influential House News (abruptly shut down in 2014, with the owner citing political pressures), Stand News, and the English-language Hong Kong Free Press. All of these start-ups aim to reflect on changes in Hong Kong and provide an alternative to the city’s traditional media. But Initium wants to look more broadly, Zhang Jieping, Initium’s executive editor-in-chief, told FP. “We aim to respond to the entire nexus of China-Hong Kong-Taiwan relations. Since Xi came to power, changes in China have unleashed changes in Taiwan and Hong Kong. If you only look at local events, you cannot make sense of what is happening.”
“It is not like Hong Kong’s press freedom is going to disappear overnight, but each day does feel different from the previous one,” said Zhang. She grew up in mainland China and came to Hong Kong to study journalism in 2005. Zhang worked for other Hong Kong media outlets, and as a freelancer wrote in-depth features on Hong Kong-mainland relations for the Chinese-language website of the New York Times. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s governing document, its media enjoys space for substantive coverage that mainland-based media lack. But Beijing has stepped up the pressure, and the pressure for alternative voices has appeared to shrink.
Zhang told FP she felt an urgency to launch Initium, which went live online in August 2015. “China’s authoritarianism is much smarter than it used to be. It rules through fear,” Zhang said, mentioning the late 2015 kidnapping of five Hong Kong booksellers. “A couple of people disappear, and the entire industry is scared. In every industry in Hong Kong, you can feel this fear.”
Initium’s approach has also won fans in Taiwan, where its news application is currently the second-most downloaded in the Apple App Store, and among largely high-educated pockets of the Chinese diaspora; its website has so far attracted four million unique visitors, and about 100,000 people have downloaded the app. “The three regions have a mutual connection,” said Chang, the Taiwanese bookseller, referring to Initium’s effort to include voices from across the Chinese-speaking world, making it “very different from local Taiwanese media.” To a lesser extent, Taiwan media are exposed to similar pressures as Hong Kong media, with increasing financial ties to the mainland leading to self-censorship.
Initium has made itself broadly accessible through a language toggle feature between simplified Chinese characters, used in mainland China, and traditional Chinese characters, used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s particularly helpful because Hong Kong media tends to write with a local audience in mind, covering localized topics with slang outsiders may find difficult to decipher. Translations of names and other foreign terms, local slang, and political jargon are adjusted in both versions, with notes for Taiwanese readers included in brackets.
Yet Beijing, which often trumpets images of a unified China, has not shown itself quite so friendly to Initium’s goal of bringing readers in greater China together. Initium’s mobile app and social media accounts were promptly blocked in mainland China a mere 10 days after its launch — a harsh reminder of the realities of the media environment looming just north of the semi-autonomous city.
Ironically, while the Initium may be a bit too freewheeling in its coverage for mainland censors’ tastes, it’s also a bit too mainland for outside critics. Many of its staff, as well as its most prominent investor, actually hail from mainland China, and this provenance has raised concerns elsewhere about the outlet’s independence. “Major [Initium] Investor Cai Hua has close connections to Xi Jinping,” read a November 2015 headline in influential Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, famous for its harsh criticism of Beijing. The report offered little evidence for its claim, but did illustrate the broader Hong Kong environment, in which a media outlet’s financial connections to China are often subject to public scrutiny. (Cai, a Hong Kong-based lawyer, has stated that he invested in Initium because he had been seeking an independent Chinese-language outlet ever since he studied law in the United States.)
Apart from Cai, none of the other investors have publicly stepped forward. Editor-in-chief Zhang noted that some initial investors have withdrawn due to political pressure. In December, the company announced financing from global venture company WI Harper Group, designated specifically to expand Initium’s Taiwan operation. But finding investment is a struggle. “It is very difficult in China today to hold a middle position between actively supporting the Communist Party and actively opposing it,” said Zhang. “If someone wants to invest in media, the money is likely to come either from the party or from anti-party forces.”
The cautious attitude of the Hong Kong audience towards what some call “red capital” — funds that can be traced back to Communist mainland China — is understandable, according to Joseph Chan, a journalism professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “China has been making its inroad into Hong Kong’s media scene through various means, ranging from the exertion of political influence and controlling advertising to direct attacks on outspoken media figures and ownership,” he said. “Take the case of Alibaba,” a mainland Chinese conglomerate, “buying the South China Morning Post. It is supposed to be private capital, but as a mainland-based company,” pressure from Beijing is virtually sure to come. “To what extent can you be autonomous?”
Priscilla Man, a postgraduate student in primary education from Hong Kong, had her initial doubts about Initium. “When I heard their capital is Chinese, I was a bit suspicious,” she said. But she is now a regular reader. “They are quite neutral, and sometimes very critical of Beijing too. I liked their in-depth coverage of the Taiwanese elections. Hong Kong needs to pay attention to topics like that.” Man describes herself as a liberal, complaining that “the traditional media in Hong Kong are getting worse. They are not that neutral anymore.”
In such an environment, even casual word choice can be fraught. “Whether you choose to use ‘China’ or ‘the mainland’ already gives away your position on political issues — it is very sensitive,” says mainland-born Initium editor Zhang Ye, no relation to editor Zhang Jieping. Twenty-three-year-old Zhang Ye, who edits daily news from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, says that there are frequent discussions about key word usage in Initium’s newsroom, whose approximately 70 staff members hail from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan in roughly equal numbers.
But the gap Initium is trying to bridge goes far beyond differing political vocabularies or opinions, Bandurski noted. “Hong Kong and Taiwan are societies that work in ways that are fundamentally different from the mainland, and so they give rise to completely different sorts of media audiences,” he wrote.
Nonetheless, readers in the mainland remain hungry for something different. Although Initium is blocked in mainland China, editor-in-chief Zhang Jieping says that between 10 and 15 percent of readers access the website via a virtual private network, which mainlanders use when they wish to circumvent domestic censorship. Zhang says Initium is not interested in “playing the game” of self-censorship to gain Beijing’s approval, but that does not mean Beijing’s reaction is ignored. “We carefully think about approaches to sensitive topics, mostly to protect our mainland reporters and their families,” said Zhang. The publication is also careful to avoid a certain kind of anti-communist rhetoric, she said, in which each opponent to the Chinese Communist Party is automatically “a hero for democracy.”
Traditionally, Chinese students and expats abroad who wanted to read news in Chinese mostly relied on the Chinese-language channels of Western media like the New York Times and the Financial Times, or on overseas Chinese news websites focusing on topics off-limits to mainland writers, such as Boxun, Duowei, or the China Digital Times. Initium provides a different, broader alternative, says Wang Qing, a 26-year-old Chinese professional working in The Netherlands. She’s especially mindful that the Initium’s team is Chinese. “[Foreign reporting on China] can be quite comprehensive, but in the end it is still written by foreigners, for a foreign audience.” To Wang, Initium “reads different. They aim for objectivity, but you can still sense that they care.”