Hop in a taxi cab any morning in Hong Kong, and the driver will likely listen to your directions with one ear while the other is firmly glued to Albert Cheng's radio talk show.
Mr. Cheng is the Rush Limbaugh of Hong Kong. Although he doesn't have the American talk-show host's conservative agenda, he has the same talent for driving government officials up the wall.
He recently got into a row with one of the government's senior civil servants, Secretary of Education and Manpower Joseph Wong. Cheng publicly accused Mr. Wong of "having no guts," when the official declined to appear on the air to discuss the territory's growing unemployment. The station later apologized.
His three-hour daily program, "Storm in a Tea Cup," is the most popular commercial radio show in Hong Kong. When people are not listening to Cheng skewer government officials, they switch over to Radio-Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the public broadcasting channel, which has its own stable of highly rated talk shows that are just as critical.
These are the salad days for talk. Seldom has there been such a rich source of gripes. People call in to vent their anger over everything from sinking property prices to the plan mandating that Chinese be exclusively taught in schools (which is unpopular with many parents who want their children to become proficient in English).
British 'remnant' attacked
For the most part, the bureaucrats hold their tongues and complain in private, but left-wing magazine publisher Xu Simin recently had heard enough. He stirred up more that just a tempest in a tea cup when he publicly attacked talk programs for being antigovernment and unpatriotic.
He didn't take on the popular Cheng directly. Instead, Mr. Xu aimed his salvo at the government-owned RTHK. Like some critics of public broadcasting in the US, he wondered why taxpayers should pay to have their values ridiculed over the public airways. The station is a "remnant of British rule," that unjustifiably bites the hand that feeds it, he maintained.
Xu's attack might have passed unnoticed if he had not made it March 4 in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where he was serving as a Hong Kong member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. His remarks made it look as if he were inviting the Chinese government to intervene in Hong Kong affairs.
Both Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and his deputy, Anson Chan, publicly upheld the station's freedom of expression and Hong Kong's right to decide such matters for itself without interference from Beijing.
Only autonomy defended
Even China's President Jiang Zemin weighed in, although it can be safely assumed that the Communist Party leader's concern had less to do with freedom of expression than preservation of the concept of "one country, two systems," under which the former British colony has wide latitude to run its own affairs.
Cheng is not so reassured. The public statements of support from Hong Kong's leaders fell somewhat short of a ringing defense of freedom of expression, he argued. Mostly the leaders were just defending Hong Kong's autonomy.
In reality, he says, "They are very unhappy with the talks shows." And in private, they have passed word that Cheng ought to tone things down, be more reasonable, and avoid making personal attacks. "This is censorship," he maintains. "We should thank Xu for waking us up about the [danger] to freedom of the press."
Some feel that Hong Kong's government could use the media, public and commercial, more effectively to get its case across. For all of the griping, the new government has a lot going for it, not the least being the smooth transition since China regained control of the territory from Britain on July 1, and the relatively moderate damage the territory has suffered so far from Asia's financial turmoil.
The former British colonial governor, long-time politician Chris Patten, was a master at using the media to press his positions, including a weekly "Letter from Hong Kong" broadcast on RTHK. But current leader Mr. Tung and most of his advisers were businessmen rather than politicians and their press relations have been much less skillful.
Meanwhile, Cheng is taking his popular brand of irreverence, sarcasm, and no-holds-barred commentary to television, where he expects to obtain similarly high ratings so long as the government keeps making mistakes and the region's economic prospects seem cloudy. "This is the kind of program that thrives on gloom and doom," he says.