The Cultural Revolution Gave Birth to HKJA – Indirectly, At Least

Mak Yin-ting - Chairperson, HKJA

[Jan 2011 - The Journalist]  How is the Hong Kong Journalists Association linked to the tragic Cultural Revolution?

Answer: It fostered the birth of HKJA.

At the time of the Cultural Revolution, the turbulence on the mainland spilled over into Hong Kong. Reporters frantically covered events. It was a dangerous time. Citizens of Hong Kong respected our work. But it was not necessary the case with policemen. In one incident, Chan Kiu, then a photographer with South China Morning Post, was beaten up by policemen while taking pictures of an incident. Previous to that local firefighters had turned their hoses on reporters and photographers. Angry journalists were aware of the importance of collective power to protect themselves. Some got together to discuss how to cope with the situation. Although the Foreign Correspondents Club had been set up in Hong Kong well before that, the pioneers seriously thought that a trade union to represent and safeguard the interests of local journalists was badly needed. After intensive efforts for almost half year, the Hong Kong Journalists Association was set up in 1968 with Jack Spackman as its founding chairman.

HKJA belongs to all journalists and some of them did sign on the wall. Did you?
Credit must also go to the 30 to 50 founding members, especially those from overseas, for upholding equality of people. As a matter of fact, most of the members and the executive committee members were foreigners when HKJA was first set up. So it was no wonder that people then joked about overseas reporters setting up HKJA to protect local journalists! To me, it coincides with the spirit of a trade union, namely, fighting for the interests of all in the whole industry, without regard to what nationality.

Regrettably, this dominance of foreigners in the association limited its membership to overseas-origin colleagues further. There were not many, i.e. Chinese journalists in the ranks. The situation remained more or less the same in the first dozen years or so, especially in the executive committee. In that period, seven out of nine chairpersons were non-chinese. Thomas Yan Sun Kong, the chairman who succeeded David Leith after he resigned in mid-term, said the ratio of Chinese and non-Chinese became more balanced after he took up the chairmanship in 1977-78. But of course, it was still far from being ‘local’.

Localization on the Agenda

The turning point in membership took place when the question of the future of Hong Kong emerged. With the return of sovereignty of Hong Kong to China scheduled, David Wong, chairman of HKJA during 1981-83, raised the succession plan in the executive committee meeting. He insisted that with the future of Hong Kong, JA must be localized. Wong Kwok-wah, one of the excom members then, quoted David Wong as said, “(The chairman) should not be a pseudo ‘guay low’”. David Wong is an Eurasian with family ties to the Ho-tung family and always teased himself as pseudo ‘guay low’.

He saw Wong Kwok-wah as the successor but the latter refused because he regarded himself as inexperienced. Cliff Bale then volunteered to stand for election as the chairman, with K.W. Wong as vice-chairman, who took up the chairmanship in 1985. Since then, the chairperson of HKJA has been a Chinese.

The number of Chinese members began to rise gradually from that time on and now make up fourth-fifths of our membership. Of course, this rise in membership did not come about suddenly. Some recruiting effort had to be made. Lam Hon-keung, one of the then excom, suggested hosting a football tournament to attract reporters, especially spot news and sports reporters. It was not known how many members were recruited because of the tournament. What is certain is that the first news item about the HKJA sent out by the Information Services Department was about the HKJA Cup. Why? Because the then director of GIS, Cheung Man-yee, was the honourable guest to present the award to the champion team, Wah Kiu Yat Po, a newspaper which closed down in mid- 1990’s.

JA Cup is only one of the many functions and activities that HKJA hold. All our activities, including training classes, workshops, tours, exchange trips, banquets, talks, are either aimed at benefit our members, enhancing professional standards or recruiting members.

But HKJA established its status in the society not through these activities which are known only to our members and some other news workers. HKJA gained its reputation from the strenuous efforts put into upholding freedom of expression in the run-up to 1997.

According to Thomas Yan, HKJA was more like an association for social activities than a trade union in his time. This was contrary to the wishes of the founders. Thomas puts the blame on the “unfriendly” legal and actual environment: “It is very difficult even though we want to be more trade union-like. Not enough support can be secured even when you want to hold industrial action.”

Politicized in the Post-Joint Declaration Era

The association changed its image during the early- to mid-1980’s. Cliff Bale, chairman of year 1983-85, noted that HKJA became more outspoken on press freedom issues from then because of the discussions about the Joint Declaration, a binding Sino-British document on the future of Hong Kong, and the safeguarding of human rights from different perspectives became prominent. The origin was the fear about China which is notable for its lack of press freedom. HKJA expended considerable effort on legal reform, submitting numerous suggestions, the first of which was concerned with the Control of Publication Consolidation Ordinance. HKJA of course urged the liberalization of control on political propaganda, which contravenes freedom of publication.

Over time HKJA became more like a pressure group than a trade union. It was especially so when the chairpersons were outspoken. Emily Lau, chairperson of 1989-91, is a good example. Her successors, no matter if they were high-profiled or not, put press freedom on high priority. Some improvements were made after our initiative in an overall review of freedom of information related legislations in the early 1990’s and the promulgation of Code on Access to Information in 1995.

Regrettably, the liberalization of law relating to press freedom almost came to a standstill after 1997 although HKJA had not slackened in its efforts. In fact we have to spend more effort to ward off the attacks on press freedom, some from the government itself.

The continuous effort to abridge our freedoms has turned HKJA into a freedom advocate. But we have not forgotten or forsaken our primary goal of protecting and enhancing our members’ working conditions and their entitlement to a fair wage. Our current executive committee members are very committed to our role as a trade union. We are now on a more balanced footing insofar as out twin objectives are concerned.

The present is the best time. This is not just the wisdom drawn from of Buddhism. It is a footnote to the development of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.