HONG KONG - Hong Kong's decision not to grant a licence to a new TV operator has been met with an uproar that taps into deep mistrust of the government and concern for the city's stagnating popular culture, say analysts.
Thousands of demonstrators massed at government headquarters Wednesday night for the latest protest against a decision to award only two new free-to-air television licences.
What would likely be an uncontroversial issue elsewhere has become a lightning rod for public suspicion towards the territory's Beijing-appointed leadership and frustration over the waning cultural significance of the former movie powerhouse.
Hong Kong Television Network, a pay-TV service set up by self-made tycoon Ricky Wong, failed in its bid to secure a licence, the first to be offered in 40 years in a move to shake up local free-to-air programming. The company announced more than 300 job cuts following the October announcement.
The city of 7 million is currently served with two local free-to-air broadcasters and two subscription services - a situation that critics say is stifling creative output.
Hong Kong's move to grant permits to already established players i-Cable, a subsidiary of conglomerate Wharf Holdings, and Now TV, controlled by Li Ka-shing's billionaire son Richard, was criticised as favouring big business and going against the city's cherished free market principles.
"The underlying factor is the deep public mistrust towards the government, especially the non-transparent decision making process," Sonny Lo, social scientist at Hong Kong Institute of Education, told AFP.
Public frustration has manifested itself in increasingly fervent demonstrations since Hong Kong's unpopular Chief Executive C.Y. Leung took on the role in 2012.
Hong Kong's semi-autonomous status enshrines civil liberties not seen on mainland China, including the right to protest, until 2047 under the "One country, two systems" handover agreement. But many believe those liberties are steadily being eroded.
Leung faced mass protests last year that forced his administration to scrap plans to introduce "national education" classes in schools that for many smacked too much of mainland Communist ideology.
"The government has lacked the ability to anticipate public reactions towards its policies," Lo said.
'We have become so weak'
Analysts said the licence row also tapped into concerns over a decline in Hong Kong's influence in the regional cultural landscape, with it unable to compete against South Korea's dominant K-Pop, film and television output as well as content from Taiwan and Thailand.
One protester said the move quashed hopes of a revitalisation of the television scene.
"The government is preventing the development of creative industries. Other Asian countries are doing well. We should feel ashamed that we have become so weak," Ho Tung-wing, 28, told AFP.
Protesters have been demanding an explanation from the authorities for rejecting the bid by Wong, who has proven his ability to bring competition to other industries dominated by the city's wealthy families, such as telecoms.
But officials have rejected calls to release full reports of the decision-making process, citing confidentiality.
Police said that up to 9,500 people joined Wednesday's rally, while organisers said 50,000 took part. At a similar rally in October, organisers said 120,000 attended compared to a police figure of 36,000.
"A cultural issue like this has triggered large-scale collective action," Chinese University professor Joseph Chan, an expert on the city's mass media, told AFP.
"Television permeates every social strata. Television watching is part of daily life for the overwhelming majority of people," he said.
"There is such uproar because people are frustrated and angry that the government dampened their hopes," he said.
A sense of identity
Former HKTV screenwriter Danny Chan, one of hundreds who lost their jobs after the firm failed to secure a licence, vented his anger.
"The fact that the government is not giving a licence to a newcomer only shows that it is not fulfilling its promise on revitalising creative industries," Chan said.
"It is impossible to increase competitiveness when the sector is dominated by a few."
Hong Kong's free-to-air television has been dominated by incumbents TVB and Asia Television for the past 30 years.
In its heyday it was a training ground that nurtured local talent and also provided a career stepping stone for future international stars such as Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung and Andy Lau.
But in recent years the sector has been criticised as being tired and lacking breakthrough talent.
"It was also popular culture that brought a sense of identity of Hong Kong in the past. It was also influential in the region," Chan said.
"In recent years, the sector has stagnated. People were expecting a new driving force that can bring us back to those glory days until their hopes were quashed."