Rule of Law or Rule by Law-Part 2

On Sunday, the day before Justice Hartmann delivered his decision on the civil injunction, I rode the MTR out to Chai Wan, to visit the offices of Citizen’s Radio. They’d called a press conference, and Long Hair and Tsang Kin Sheng “The Bull” were going to be there. Chai Wan is one of those working class Hong Kong districts that no tourists ever visit. Probably, at one time, Chai Wan was stunning: it is encircled by steeply rising green hills, and it faces the sea, the channel that leads into Victoria Harbour. But in the 1960s, it got “renewed” into a dreary, porcupine cluster of tightly-spaced housing estate high rises, and block-like factory buildings that cast long cold shadows over the narrow streets on a sunny day.

To get there, you ride the Island subway line all the way to the eastern end of Hong Kong island. “Chai Wan is where you jump off Hong Kong,” Long Hair chuckles. He grew up here before the urban renewal, when Chai Wan was a settlement of squatters, mostly Chinese from Guangdong and Fukien who’d fled the poverty and political chaos on the mainland. “I lived up there on the side of that mountain,” says Leung, pointing in the direction of a concrete jungle where laundry droops from every window.

I wasn’t expecting Citizen’s Radio to have a snappy headquarters, but still I was surprised when I got there. The broadcasting company that’s giving the HKSAR government migraine headaches operates out of a 150 square foot space in a humongous old warehouse building that rents work spaces to small manufacturers. There’s no window, and half the cubicle is occupied by The Bull’s silk-screening equipment (he’s also an artist). The makeshift broadcast booth in the back looks like it was carved from the original bathroom (the toilet is right alongside–it’s a good thing that Citizen’s Radio’s broadcasts are only 1 hour long).

I’m late, and the press conference has already started. Cameras from Hong Kong’s four major news stations, plus about 8 more local journalists have somehow managed to position themselves in this tin can of an office. I don’t really enjoy squeezing into a Hong Kong press scrum (once I got bongged on the head by a video camera), so I wait outside in the hall.

Let’s suppose you live in Hong Kong, and you want to start a radio station. According to the law, the first thing you must do is submit a proposal to the Office of Telecommunications and Broadcasting Authority, the department of the HK government that oversees radio licensing. Your proposal goes to a three-man panel for review. There’s no specified time limit for the review, and the reviews are completely at the discretion of the panel, there are no written guidelines. When the panel has come to a decision, they pass it along to the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. No matter what the panel recommends, the CE has the final word: if he likes the proposal,  he can give it the go-ahead. And vice versa, of course. One man, and one man alone has complete control of Hong Kong’s radio spectrum.

Hong Kong, a city of nearly 8 million people, has fifteen or sixteen newspapers, but only three radio stations.

Radio is an incredibly popular medium in Hong Kong. The radio talk show is a natural format for Cantonese speakers, with a language so rich in puns and slang and four-word aphorisms. Every taxi in town is tuned to talk radio; the typical soundtrack of small offices and waiting rooms and shops is the laughter and chatter of roundtable talk-show discussions. And the radio talk has always had a political edge–nothing makes for better chat than the affairs of the day. Three of Hong Kong’s most popular radio talk hosts have been thrown off the air, and everyone in town knows it was because their tycoon bosses got nervous about their pro-democracy, anti-government chatter. Two of the hosts, Wong yuk-man and Albert Chang, have since become politicians. (The third, Allan Lee, has retired, but he’s a member of the National People’s Congress).

In New York City, where I grew up in the 60s and 70s, you can tune into a dozen small and college community radio stations. Some broadcast in Yiddish or Chinese, or Hindi, others play jazz and indy rock and other music that the big corporate stations won’t play. I can tell you that I’d have grown up a very different person if it hadn’t been for the free community radio that I listened to as a kid. Low-power college stations like WFMU, and indy political stations like Pacifica Radio’s WBAI introduced me to everything from Bob Dylan to Susan Sontag, to anti-war politics. I’d lie awake after midnight with the antenna wire draped across my bedroom to catch the precious, but weak signals: echoes of other points of view, other worlds.

How would such a transformative power affect people in a radio-loving town like Hong Kong? I think that both the cultural and political impact of a more open broadcasting policy would be tremendous, the possibilities endless. Hong Kong’s language minorities, speaking Chiu Chow, Hakka, Mandarin and Fukienese could have their own voices. Local musicians, writers and theater people dying for exposure would have a stage, essayists and intellectuals too “hot” or edgy for mainstream radio could have a space. And, of course, there are all the social and political groups that would jump at the chance for a platform. I’m sure Apple Daily’s pro-democracy publisher-tycoon Jimmy Lai would be on the air in a nanosecond with “Apple Radio”.

But, according to Hong Kong law, anybody who wants to broadcast on the public airwaves has to pass through a gate that can only be opened by a single man.

Who has absolutely no intention of opening it for the people he considers his “opposition.”

So what do you do?

Well, in the U.S. and Europe, you could try to change these draconian broadcasting laws by proposing new legislation in Congress or Parliament. Since many of the people supporting Citizen’s Radio are also elected members of Hong Kong’s Legco, why not propose a new bill?

M’ dak! No can do. Hong Kong’s legislature can only approve or disapprove bills that are sent to them by the executive branch. All the “bills” proposed in Legco by its members are, in fact, non-binding motions. If you are in Legco and want to check and balance the enormous executive powers of the Hong Kong government, the only two words you have in your vocabulary are “Please” and “No.”

But there’s still one more possibility. Hong Kong’s judiciary, its common law courts, are the city’s last bastion of independence. The courts can–and sometimes have– declared a law unconstitutional. If you can get your battle into the courts–and use the battle to leverage your way into that other important Hong Kong faat teng, the court of public opinion–you stand a small chance of pushing through a change.

And that, in a nutshell, explains the closet-sized office, the dime-store transmitter, the rag-tag, once-in-a-while schedule of Citizen’s Radio. This isn’t a company whose primary goal is to broadcast.

From the hallway, I can hear “The Bull”, Tsang kin-sheng, reading his press statement. Citizen’s Radio has decided to stop broadcasting for three months. But if the Chief Executive does not, in this time, propose new legislation to open up the airwaves to the Hong Kong public, they’ll resume their civil disobedience and go back on the air.

In the topsy turvy Alice-in-Wonderland system of today’s Hong Kong, the only way to change an unfair law is to break it.

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