By James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's public broadcaster RTHK dropped a 24-hour BBC World Service channel from its airwaves on Monday, replacing it with state radio from China in what critics say is a sign of encroaching Chinese control in the former British colony.
Tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing's ruling Communist Party leaders have grown in recent years, particularly over the "Occupy" civil disobedience movement in 2014 when tens of thousands of protesters blocked roads for 79 days demanding full democracy.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise of wide-ranging autonomy under a "one country, two systems" formula.
An online petition, titled "RTHK: Give us back our BBC World Service", had been signed by nearly 1,000 people in a bid to keep the British broadcaster's round-the-clock programming, saying the switch would make Hong Kong "feel more parochial and inward-looking".
However, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the city's main public broadcaster, went ahead with scrapping the exclusive BBC channel at midnight on Sunday. Instead, China National Radio - a state-run outlet carrying no sensitive or critical reporting on China - would be broadcast on its own RTHK channel.
The broadcasts are mostly in Mandarin, rather than the city's main Cantonese dialect.
Amen Ng, a spokeswoman for RTHK, told Reuters earlier there were no political considerations in the decision and said the Chinese broadcaster would enhance cultural exchanges.
She said there would still be BBC World Service broadcasts, although only overnight from 11 pm to 7 a.m. and occasionally on weekends.
Other RTHK staff said the move had been forced through without broader consultation.
"Nobody knew anything about it. We were told in a meeting just before it was announced," said a senior RTHK editorial employee who declined to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the media.
"People see it as a negative thing. The BBC is generally regarded as independent, and (Chinese) state media is not," he said.
Some listeners said the move could hurt RTHK's trusted place in the public eye with its self-professed mission for editorial independence, not unlike the BBC after which it was modeled.
"I'm quite disappointed. It's a shame but I don't know what we can do, seriously," said Dorothy Tang, an IT consultant.
Others said the move was in line with a gradual "mainlandization" of Hong Kong that has seen Beijing's creeping influence in many sectors, including local government, law enforcement, politics, education, the judiciary, and the media.
Gladys Chiu, the head of RTHK's program staff union, said there had been several recent incidents that had challenged RTHK's editorial independence, including staff being heckled by pro-Beijing voices on radio talk-shows and at public forums.
"Sometimes the pressure is very direct," Chiu said.
(Additional reporting by Hong Kong newsroom; Editing by Paul Tait)