Hong Kong’s refusal to hand a television license to a start-up operator drew about 36,000 protesters onto the city’s streets, underscoring dissatisfaction with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s 16-month-old government.
Black-clad marchers waved banners showing officials on puppet strings yesterday after Hong Kong Television Network was denied a license to broadcast free-to-air programming. Licenses were given to PCCW Ltd. and I-Cable Communications Ltd., both controlled by billionaires. The government has declined to disclose discussions that led to its Oct. 15 decision, saying only that political considerations weren’t involved.
The demonstration reflects concerns that Hong Kong’s policies favor big business, lack accountability and may undermine freedom of speech in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. A record wealth gap has spurred popular discontent and driven down poll ratings for Leung, the city’s last leader to be chosen by a committee of business and civic groups before full democracy promised in 2017.
“The public has yet to hear a clear explanation on the decision to reject the application,” Ma Ngok, political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said by telephone today. “The frustration over the lack of free-television choice has been penting up for a long time.”
Hong Kong Television Network’s founder and chairman Ricky Wong, who didn’t participate in yesterday’s protest, said a day after the government announced the licensing that the decision was “unreasonable, unfair and lacks transparency.”
The government said yesterday that the operator is seeking a judicial review of the decision. Shares of Hong Kong Television have slumped 25 percent since the licensing decision announcement on Oct. 15. PCCW has gained more than 2 percent and I-Cable Communications has doubled.
There was no political consideration in the licensing decision, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said in a statement yesterday. Decisions regarding free TV license applications are made by the Chief Executive in Council, and the discussion content of Executive Council meetings isn’t made public, it said.
Police said that about 36,000 protesters gathered outside the government headquarters yesterday. Hong Kong newspapers including Ming Pao quoted the organizer as saying more than 120,000 people marched.
The protests come a year after 10-day demonstrations prompted the government to scrap a three-year deadline to implement China-prescribed national education classes. Tens of thousands of people rallied in Hong Kong on July 1, the 16th anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to China demanding the government address a widening wealth gap and introduce broader democracy.
“The government, including the People’s Republic of China government, want to control the media and to manipulate the mindset of us so they can format a group of new Hong Kong people who only know to follow their instructions,” said Stephanie Tang, 33, a freelancer who participated in the protest yesterday. “We want to tell the PRC that the Hong Kong people are not idiots. Don’t cheat us.”
Politicians including Audrey Eu of the Civic Party and Emily Lau from the Democratic Party attended the rally.
Hong Kong Television Network’s Wong started City Telecom Ltd. in the 1990s to challenge a monopoly on long distance calls. Last year, he sold the telecommunications assets to CVC Capital Partners Ltd. for HK$5 billion to fund his television operations.
I-Cable is controlled by the family of Peter Woo, who is 161th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index with a net worth of $8.1 billion that’s largely made from investment in real estate in Hong Kong and China. PCCW was founded by Richard Li, son of Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man.
The government has said it doesn’t preclude handing out more permits in the future. Hong Kong last granted a new license in 1975 to Commercial Television Ltd., which ceased operations after three years.
“It’s not about any one company,” Simon Ngai, a 29-year-old social worker, said at yesterday’s protest. “In Hong Kong nowadays, the government says they don’t have to give you a reason or an appeal procedure, nothing -- it’s not justice.”