Too Much "Chinese-only" in Press Releases

Shirley Yam - Executive Committee Member, HKJA

English-speaking journalists have been complaining of an increasing bias towards the Chinese media by the government. A casual browse through official press releases can come up with an example or two.

On July 18, a press statement titled “No one should be left out: the population survey has the racial minorities at heart” was released by the Government Information Services department (GIS).

It’s about the Department of Statistics preparing questionnaires in ten languages to take care of the racial minorities. “Hong Kong is a metropolis with social diversity. Racial minority accounts for 5 percent of our population…How can a poll be successful without their participation?” said the statement.

Sounds very sensible? Not exactly, the statement is in Chinese only.

Is this an individual case or a telling illustration of a general bias towards the Chinese media among government officials or at worst the disappearance of Hong Kong’s international focus after 1997?

The answer from our study is less than comforting.

Given the difficulty in quantifying the attitude of government officials, our study focused on the Chinese-only government press releases in the past ten years.

Figures provided by the GIS indicated a rise in both the percentage of Chinese-only and English-only press releases between 2005 and 2010. (See table one)

For the first seven months of 2010, 4.17 percent of the government press release is Chinese only while the English only accounts for 3.1 percent. There does not appear to be any significant bias.

However, these numbers can be misleading. This is because figures regarding the English-only press releases include many non-news items. “Our figures included Attention-to-News-Editors items. Among them are fax log, photo log and event list, some of which are usually in English only,” said a government spokesman.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), therefore, decided to do a monthly item by item comparison. All the Chinese and English press releases in July 2010 were studied.

The Chinese-only press releases out-numbered the English-only releases by a ratio of 5.48:1. It’s not just about numbers but also the news value of these releases. (See table 2)

Of the 137 Chinese-only press releases, over half of were speeches of government officials and members in the Legislative Council. The fact that Chinese and English are the city’s official languages and anything spoken in the council will become part of our history does not seem to bother the government when providing everything delivered only in Chinese.

The second largest item is about officials speaking at various occasions. Among them are not just less news worthy meetings such as the anniversary of a kaifong association or charity groups; but also important meetings like the Guangdong-Hong Kong Economic Cooperation Summit.

The third items are transcripts of officials speaking at a media stand-up. This is a disturbing trend as officials increasingly resort to informal sessions and “stand-ups” instead of formal press conferences to announce government policies and positions.

The rest of the Chinese-only press releases are announcements of cultural and social events.

Executive Committee members of the HKJA have raised the language issue in a meeting with the head of the Information Services Department, Mr Michael Wong Wai-lun, in August.

Mr Wong stressed that there was no policy bias against Chinese or English. The apparent increase in the number of Chinese-only press releases, he said, is more a result of increasing transparency of the government and resources constraints.

In its written reply, the department said it has long been a policy to provide no translation to transcripts due to the department’s limited resources and the media’s pressing deadline. As for the cultural events, there is inherent difficulty in making English-only press release, it added. (See the box)

A comparison with the press releases ten years ago, however, found these explanations rather hollow.

First, the annual tally of government press releases remains at around 39,300 in the past decade, according to the GIS. It will be rather difficult to argue that a rise in Chinese-only press release has resulted in so-called increased transparency or the loss of translation as a result of growing workload. (See table 1)

Second, a study of the government press releases for a randomly chosen month – April 2010 - showed that there was a lot less Chinese-only press releases both as a percentage of the total or in absolute numbers. (See table 2)

Third, instead of transcript of officials, cultural events were the major source of Chinese-only press release.

Translations were often provided. A telling example is the Hong Kong Letter read by the then Attorney General Ms Elsie Leung at Radio Hong Kong on April 8 2000 to explain her controversial decision to seek interpretation of the Basic Law from China’s People Congress. No translation of Hong Kong Letter from any government official is provided nowadays.

Table 1. Number of press releases issued by Information Services Department 

Year Total number of press releases* Chinese only(as a percentage of the tally) English only(as a percentage of the tally)*
2000# 41,948
2001# 37,923
2002# 41,283
2003# 38,271
2004# 37,929
2005 37,665 931 (2.47) 955 (2.53)
2006 35,782 1,219 (3.41) 1,316 (3.67)
2007 42,739 1,183 (2.76) 1,400 (3.27)
2008 38,811 1,351 (3.48) 1,376 (3.54)
2009 40,789 1,434 (3.51) 1,162 (2.8)
2010 (Jan-July) 22,030 919 (4.17) 684 (3.1)
* Figures included non-press release items such as fax log, photo log and event list, some of which are usually in English only.
# The Government News and Media Information System was launched in 2005.  Figures with language breakdown are not available.  
Source: Information Services Department

Table 2.  What are the Chinese-only press releases?

Items July 2010 Chinese-only press release July 2010 English-only press release April 2000 Chinese-only press release
Number of press release 137 25 66
As a percentage of the tally 18.4 3.3 8.5
Cultural events 15 0 37
Speech by officials 29 7 6
Transcripts of ad-hoc media session 19 16 0
Announcement 9 1 16
Transcripts of officials or members speaking in the Legco 65 0 4
Sources: News Archive, Government Information Services