Blank Air in Hong Kong

ATV, a Hong Kong television station with close ties to Beijing, suddenly cancelled Sunday’s airing of Newsline, its tepid English-language political chat show, citing “technical difficulties”. The move quickly raised worries that Chinese political sensibilities were at issue or, more likely, the station’s political timidity.

The cancellation left the moderator, Michael Chugani, and both participants, lawmakers Allen Lee and Albert Ho, in the dark about why the show had been removed from the air.

“I am trying to find out what happened,” Chugani said in an interview Sunday night. The program had been promoted heavily starting on Wednesday. Allen Lee, in an interview, said the program dealt with Hong Kong’s electoral process but said he was at sea about its cancellation.

“It was fair comment at the time we were filming it,” Lee said, adding that he saw nothing controversial in his taped comments. “How can it be technical problems?”

The show had been taped and delivered with no technical problems in the filming.

Station officials were unavailable Sunday night and did not return calls. The cancellation of the program comes at a sensitive time for ATV, however, which announced it had sold 22 percent of its shares last week to Citic Guoan Group, a Shenzhen Stock Exchange-listed company partly owned by Citic Pacific, the major Chinese government-linked investment group. Although the Broadcasting Authority in Hong Kong has been informed and goverment approval is pending, the transaction could breach ownership rules which bar non-domestic shareholders from owning more than 10 percent of a local free-to-air company without the approval of Hong Kong's chief executive.

ATV said the sale would have no effect on its programming. However, the cancellation also comes as Hong Kong’s political season, such as it is, has begun in earnest with Chief Executive Donald Tsang “running” for re-election in March in a “race” that has already been decided in advance by Beijing. Tsang will be anointed by an election committee comprised of 800 virtually handpicked electors.

There is a semblance of opposition provided by a pro-democracy figure, Alan Leong, who has managed to get on the ballot but he has no chance of election.

Curiously, however, Hong Kong’s media insist on pretending that the so-called election is a democratic contest, which it is not. Beijing ruled out universal suffrage for Hong Kong in 2004, despite massive demonstrations and polls showing a majority of people in favor of democracy.

ATV’s Chinese-language news programming has consistently hewed close to political positions taken in Beijing although the English-language programs, including Newsline, have largely been left alone. Chugani said that he could not remember a previous cancellation.

Press freedom has been a major concern in Hong Kong ever since the handover of the former British colony to China in 1997. Although China generally has kept its hands off the territory’s media, Hong Kong’s cautious property and media empires have avoided either investing in or supporting independent reporting. Investment banks, for instance, have shied away from underwriting public offerings for Apple Daily, the wildly successful newspaper owned by media maverick Jimmy Lai which is the only paper in the territory consistently critical of Beijing.

The smaller of Hong Kong’s two non-cable broadcasters, ATV offers a 24-hour Cantonese-language home channel and a 22-hour English-language world channel as well as a satellite pay TV service. It also broadcasts on the North American continent and is allowed by

Chinese authorities to beam its signal into the mainland, a fact that keeps it extremely wary of controversy. Liu Changle, the chief executive officer of Phoenix Satellite Television, owns a controlling interest. ATV CEO Chang Wing-Lee, also owns a significant interest.

Mystified ATV staff have no idea of what “technical difficulties” could have resulted in canceling the show, sources said, and other observers cited management’s concerns, rightly or wrongly, about antipathy by officials in Beijing likely played a role.

“Beijing doesn’t like Allen Lee,” said an observer.

Lee, 67, a senior member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, is one of the founders of the Liberal Party. He resigned simultaneously from his seat in the National People’s Congress in Beijing and his job as a radio host in 2004, complaining that he was unable to express himself freely as host of Teacup in the Storm, a radio show on Commercial Radio. He resigned, he said, saying he was under pressure from pro-Beijing businessmen for being critical of the Chinese government.

Albert Ho is similarly viewed with less than charity in Beijing, or certainly at ATV. Born in Guangdong province, in 1951, Ho was a controversial talk show host and gadfly before being elected to Hong Kong’s toothless legislative council. He is secretary general of a group called the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China and is the chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party.

In August last year, Ho was attacked and beaten in a Hong Kong restaurant by unidentified men using baseball bats. It was the first attack on a pro-democracy legislator since the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese government in 1997. Ho did not answer a call to his pager Sunday night.