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    Jun 13, 2014

    China 'stopped ads in HK paper'


    IN WHAT may be a major escalation of pressure by China on Hong Kong's independent-minded news media, two major British banks have stopped advertising with one of the city's biggest newspapers, a top media executive said.

    Mark Simon of Next Media said two London-based banks, HSBC and Standard Chartered, ended long-time advertising relationships late last year with Apple Daily, after being told to do so by Beijing.

    "The government is running their business now," Mr Simon said in an interview. "HSBC and Standard Chartered don't have to do what they did."

    Both banks said their advertising decisions were commercial in nature.

    The charge that politics may have played a role in the pullout illustrates the increasing power of the Chinese government to influence the behaviour of not only its state-owned companies, but also of global companies, using the strength of its huge domestic market as a tool.

    It also reveals the hard-nosed tactics China's central government will take to muzzle the relatively free news media in Hong Kong, the former British colony that was able to keep a high degree of autonomy and civil liberties as part of the terms for its return to China in 1997.

    Next Media, a newspaper, television and Internet company based in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is known for its strong advocacy of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.

    Mr Simon, the company's commercial director, said a representative from HSBC told him that the decision to stop advertising came after the deputy director of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, Yang Jian, told the bank to end its advertising relationship.

    A representative for the liaison office was not available to comment.

    Anson Chan, who served as the chief secretary under the colonial government and in the new administration, has been asking the banks in recent months about the pullout.

    In letters reviewed by The New York Times, senior executives at the two banks replied to Ms Chan, emphasising that advertising decisions were commercial in nature. Neither of them refuted Mr Simon's contention that the decision to end the advertising relationship was politically motivated. "They certainly did not provide the assurances I was seeking," Ms Chan said.

    "An international bank like HSBC and Standard Chartered, if you act this way, it is the first step down a very slippery slope," she said in an interview.

    "What happens the next time they call up and say 'We don't like you doing business with certain clients'? Are you also going to cave in?"

    Losing HSBC and Standard Chartered, which were until last year among Next Media's biggest financial advertising clients, has hurt the Hong Kong-listed company.

    The two banks had spent a combined US$3.6 million (S$4.5 million) last year on Next Media advertising before HSBC's spending ended in August and Standard Chartered's ended in December, Mr Simon said.

    Neither has advertised since.