Hong Kong’s main public radio station, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), has been forced to end its 24-hour English language broadcast of the BBC World Service.
The British audio station, which provides news and current affairs in English, has been running continually over RTHK airwaves for almost 40 years. It was unexpectedly replaced with Mandarin Chinese state radio earlier this month.
China National Radio (CNR 1), known as the Central People’s Broadcasting Station in Chinese, provides state-sanctioned news and pro-Beijing propaganda in Mandarin to audiences across the country. It also airs arts and culture, lifestyle and financial programs.
Critics claim the removal of the service is yet another move by Beijing to interfere with Hong Kong’s political and cultural heritage. Residents recently set up an online petition to oppose the move.
The city-state and former British colony of Hong Kong was officially returned to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 after 156 years. Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration drafted and signed in Beijing in 1984, China had to accept certain conditions that would guarantee widespread autonomy prior to the handover. These included the continuation of Hong Kong’s Anglo-Saxon capitalist economic model, preservation of the Hong Kong dollar, as well as its human rights laws and legislative system. The territory still maintains a semi-autonomous local government, but the U.K. stipulations will expire in 2047.
In order to safeguard the conditions of the joint declaration, Hong Kong operates as a “special economic region” (Hong Kong S.A.R.) under the so-called “one country, two systems” (yi guo liang zhi) model introduced by former Chinese president Deng Xiaoping. Mainland Chinese residents usually require a visa or permit to enter Hong Kong and the two groups of citizens hold different passports.
In addition to the perceived gradual Communist Party encroachment on Hong Kong’s free speech and democratic rights, one of the most contentious issues is the different languages spoken in Hong Kong and most of mainland China. Cantonese and English are widely used in Hong Kong, while Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China. Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible. This is one of the main reasons why the move to terminate the BBC World Service has caused significant controversy.
Many — particularly younger — Hong Kongers dislike visitors speaking to them in Mandarin and will often respond in English or Cantonese. There are also substantial cultural differences and Hong Kong residents tend to regard mainlanders as “uncivilized”, often referring to them as “wong cung” (locusts).
Many citizens are increasingly concerned about censorship and the so-called “creeping mainlandization” of the region’s politics, local government, legal and education systems. These subtle alterations also appear to be becoming more active in language policy and media, represented by the unexpected change to RTHK’s programming.
A spokesperson for RTHK told Reuters that the move was not political, but simply an effort to improve cultural exchanges between Hong Kong and mainland China — the BBC channel will apparently still be played live from 11pm to 7am on RTHK Radio 4. However, internal sources at the broadcaster say the English-language service is likely to be completely phased out over time.