Access to truth and surfeit of inquiry; The End of the South China Morning Post and legitimate investigative journalism in South Asia.

New South China Morning Post Editor, Wang Xiangwei

Not one media commentator can agree on the exact date when the South China Morning Post’s progression from relevance to inconsequence began, but it’s certainly been an incremental process. Considered one of the best papers in Asia, and certainly the best English Language paper, the SCMP has continually been the source for good investigative journalism in China. From its auspicious start in Asia’s most politically active city, the 109 year old paper is slowly becoming a negligible force, as it grows into the perfect example of China’s vision for a stultified news media.

Perhaps it’s lazy to imply that the rot set in after the paper was bought by the Murdoch Empire back in 1987, but that was certainly when its standing as a community paper was tested. Despite its unethical reputation however, the Murdoch group is guilty only of modernizing and commodifying what was still considered a ‘colonial era’ paper. This inevitable development marked the beginning of a shift towards a ‘corporate face’ and away from the community service that the paper had always provided. It was quickly re-floated as part of the much broader ‘SCMP publishing group’ in the early 90’s and bought by the Malaysian hotelier family, the Kuok’s.

The 90’s were a very sensitive time for press and expressive freedoms in Hong Kong, as after 150 years of separation and a decade after Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong became part of greater China under the “one country two systems” ruling. This was a socially tumultuous and frightening time for the Hong Kong Chinese, many of whom were refugees from violent communist repression. After the hand-over their worst fears were not realized however, Beijing sought to calm Hong Kong’s frightened residents; freedom of speech and assembly were upheld and for the best part of a decade the CCP stayed out of Hong Kong’s political affairs. During this time the South China Morning Post was still considered a reputable paper that made remarkable investigative finds regarding Chinese and Hong Kong politics. It kept politicians honest, and provided divergent and interesting opinions. Most importantly it faithfully served a community interested in improving their English, keeping up to date with the rest of the world and reading voices they could call their own.

Over time however, rumors emerged that the Kuok family, with an eye towards Beijing, had started to use their positions on the board of directors to effect a change in the editorial style. One after the other, newly hired and reputable editors quit the paper, meanwhile the contracts of many award winning foreigners and liberal-leaning locals were allowed to expire or had their work made impotent by the constraints of the Kuoks. In the interim, the gaps left by foreigners and disgruntled leftists were filled by staff from mainland propaganda papers. Some of these new journalists have barely attempted to hide their distaste for Westernism and Hong Kong’s distinct culture and they certainly have effected a change in the ideological output.

Protest over Li Wangyang’s death and the subsequent ‘cover-up’

Consumer and industry unhappiness with the paper’s direction had been building for the better part of a decade, but the seemingly politically minded layoffs of liberal and foreign staff were just a precursor to the concerns of CCP involvement. Notably, the recent appointment of a new editor, the 10th in as many years led to real problems for the paper’s reputation; claims of blatant censorship have blighted his tenure. It certainly didn’t help that he was a communist insider connected to media censorship committees, but in this case his actions was soon to speak louder than his reputation. Wang Xiangwei, was mainland born and had previously wrote for the very pro-Beijing, ‘China Daily’, and the mentioning of this past made up the initial extent of complaints against him. But after the 2012 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, real public anger about his editorship started to formulate. Notably, when he intervened to scupper a front page story on the suspicious death of Tiananmen era dissident Li Wangyang, the SCMP stood out as the only paper not to cover the issue. When bluntly asked to explain his decision by a senior sub-editor, Xiangwei’s furious response was leaked to the media and placed the paper on the covers of newspapers around the world for all the wrong reasons.

Then out of the woodwork came a letter of protest from a recently dismissed journalist, Paul Mooney, who condemned Xiangwei and the Kwok family as censors. On the editor’s proclivity to censor his work Moodey stated, “For seven months, he had basically blocked me from writing any China stories… some two dozen suggestions went unanswered by the China Desk–in one case a story was approved, but the editor told me Wang had overruled him”. On his award winning, anti Beijing article, “silence of the dissidents”, Moodey opined “it sat on China Desk for about three months; a practice I later learned was not uncommon when Wang wanted to let a story shrink in importance”. Around the same time a second letter, signed by 23 previously employed journalists and editors; both local and foreign, was published regarding their worries about the paper’s direction and content. Xiangwei’s response to all of this and to the increasing ridicule and condemnation from local and foreign publications alike was an un-characteristically honest admission of fault in the case of Li Wangyang. Despite this, his protestations that he wasn’t a censor came off as hollow. “If I had a hidden agenda, it would have come out a long time ago”, was his most substantial response; which seems a patently unprovable statement and a poor answer to the very serious charge of media censorship. Another poor excuse from the editor was that ‘because the issue wasn’t being covered in China then the SCMP shouldn’t cover it either’. If nothing else, this was the clearest confirmation so far; that indeed the SCMP would be taking its cues from Beijing from now on.

The results of the SCMP’s content re-jigg have been clear in supporting this assumption; recent high profile articles and opinion pieces on national education, foreign affairs and local politics have all drawn a great amount of criticism and read like pure propaganda. Among the more notable instances; Tammy Tam’s pedestrian interview with the controversial ‘Panchen Lama’, Alex Lo’s angry attacks on protesting high school students and all of Eric X Li’s anti-western tirades, come to mind. It used to be that if you wanted to hear that democracy protesters didn’t deserve their rights, that the Dalai Lama was a dangerous separatists or that Hong Kong people must become more patriotic then you’d turn to the Global Times. Sadly these talking points can now be regularly found on front page and inset of the South China Morning Post.

There is currently no need for another CCP-run English language paper; China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times and People’s Daily all run significant English news departments. At the regional level there are at least a couple more papers spread throughout China too. And since all Chinese publications are required to tow the party line, it means that for the most part they are all ideologically indistinguishable.

If we exclude the South China Morning Post there are no longer any reputable middle-ground or democratic-leaning papers left in Hong Kong. This is bad for Hong Kong’s press freedoms, but it’s also detrimental for journalism as a whole as foreign correspondents and news desks disappear across the world. The South China Morning Post was an invaluable source for un-biased investigative news stories and the gap in the ‘South Asian’ news feed won’t be filled easily.

Tiananmen Anniversary

On the 4th of June every year since 1989, Hong Kong holds the largest annual Tiananmen Square protests on the globe; tens of thousands of democracy protestors, as well as people who just want to remember what happened, fill up Victoria Park in the central suburb of Causeway Bay. The event has never really attracted attention outside of Hong Kong and certainly not in China where even referencing the anniversary is a dangerous taboo.

Regardless, every year, depending on the state of affairs in China, protesters ranging from the tens to hundreds of thousands camp on the grass for a solemn, respectful and passionate display of remembrance. Chants are exchanged, songs sung, speeches from real and escaped martyrs alike are read and most importantly promises are made; that the people of Hong Kong will resolutely stop anything similar to Tiananmen from ever happening in their city.

When I arrived at Victoria Park, late after work on the 4th of this month I had never seen anything like the side of Hong Kong that I saw that night. Many of the protests I had seen previously looked like a parade of the small and disenfranchised; there seemed more police than protestors in attendance. What looked like little more than a few bus-loads of wizened old aunts and uncles carried coloured placards and banged drums as they marched past the lines of disinterested policemen holding back the traffic. The Hong Kong democracy movement seemed in sad and disheartening shape, and I believe that many of the tourists who saw the march that day believed it was for a small religious sect, celebrating a holy day.

But that night, as I descended the escalator from my work, not more than three blocks away, I knew that tonight was different and that I was wrong. The democracy movement in Hong Kong is no small sect and it is obviously July 4th that is their holy day. The streets leading up to the park were more congested than anything I’ve seen in my life, and then my companion and I got to the park itself.

This year was the largest commemoration since 1989, over 180,000 people, not just the people who had lived through Tiananmen, but passionate teenagers too attended. It was not just for Hong Kong natives but also Western, Taiwanese and Chinese people. In the space of time it took us to climb a commanding power box to sit with the photographers, all my misconceptions about Hong Kong people having no social heart, nor any political aspirations, were gone. And as the chants grew louder, the camera flashes flared at once and 80,000 candles rose in union I had the feeling that the entire expanse of what I was seeing was sincere, and right and good and that it dwarfed any admiration I’d had for anything I’d seen in the West since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Outside the sincerity of Victoria Park the cynicism, censorship and cronyism that I’d previously come to attribute to Hong Kong was working hard to dispel the message of the July 4th however. As has come to be expected the police force’s official count for the protest was at least half that of those who turned up, secondly Hong Kong’s pro-Bejing, crony-bound government continued their ‘seen but not heard’ stance when it comes to democracy in Hong Kong. The CEO had no comment regarding the commemoration, nor regarding the claims made therein; that Hong Kong was becoming less democratic and more stifling a place to live, as Beijing has slowly pushed for greater social prevalence in the city.

This years Tiananmen vigil, Victoria Park Hong Kong

At the same time blatant blocks on the Weibo accounts of pro democracy dissidents in China, coupled with attacks on the facebook accounts of many Hong Kong-based democracy protestors, effectively silenced some of the movement’s online voice in the lead up to the event. But that was nothing compared to what was to come. Three days after the protests, just after he had criticized the CPC in his first ever interview, the highly suspicious “accidental death” of Li Wanyang; the longest serving Tiananmen Square inmate did even more damage to Hong Kong- mainland relations.

The new mainland born Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post and high ranking Communist Party member; Wang Xiangwei only served to exacerbate the problem after being accused of the purposeful underwriting of the event to limit the damage to Beijing. Making things worse, a sub-editor’s questioning on the issue resulted in this leaked tirade; “I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do.” Two weeks later, after his reply hit the headlines of other publications world-wide, the South China Morning Post ran the issue in full and Mr Wang, shamed by the attention, attempted to talk the rhetoric down from ‘self censorship’ to ‘de-sensationalising’ a story until all the facts were known.

Considering all of this; that their government doesn’t care about their freedoms, that activists are still being threatened, censored and possibly killed and that their own media is being castrated by Beijing, the Li Wanyang issue is the next focal point for visceral levels of discontent in Hong Kong. Originally deemed a ‘suicide’, the angry and unprecedentedly large response to his death by pro- democracy activists in China and specifically in Hong Kong caused a huge CPC back-down and the promise of a criminal investigation. It also bodes well for the July 1st, Hong Kong handover anniversary protests, and you know that I’ll be there for that too.

Fishing disputes; a proxy for territorial conflict.

The South China Sea

Over-fished and under-policed by a corrupt, negligent bureaucracy, China’s territorial fish stocks, after sustaining the worlds most populous nation for thousands of years, are now collapsed. Conversely the consequences of this development seem to be being felt by China’s coastal neighbours the strongest, as China’s 300,000 boat fishing fleet looks elsewhere for their catch. As China’s local waters yield less and less fish, Chinese fishing boats can now be seen trawling (sometimes illegally) across the oceans of the world; in the Mid to South Pacific in the East and around the coasts of Africa in West. Because of this and the large distances to new open fishing grounds, China’s huge fleet has also continuosly been caught illegally operating in the national and contested waters of its neighbours.

Though the CCP has admitted in some news releases to the development of legislation to solve the problem by reducing the national fishing fleet by a third, the reality of the situation is that China’s food demands are growing faster than they can be satiated. The CCP (like with its other industries) is unlikely to endanger its maritime food industry for the sake of conservation or East Asian diplomacy. Likewise on issues of upholding the sanctity of its neighbour’s territorial China has a long standing belligerent stance that is unlikely to change. However when its fleet provokes international headlines like in the recent stabbing of two Korean Coastguard members by a Chinese fishing captain, has China attempted to tone down the overly nationalistic responses of the past. Chinese worries about balancing its ambition against alienating its neighbours into greater collusion with a more engaged US are more meaningful as Beijing sees its superpower ambitions hemmed in by its wary ASEAN and North Eastern neighbours. Recent anti Chinese protests in friendly Vietnam, along with anger in the less diplomatically friendly nations of Korea, Japan and Taiwan are the results of China overextending itself, and considering America’s new interest in the region, it now seems that China is in desperate need of a new strategy.

Chinese fishermen resisting the Korean Coastguard

Unfortunately for the region as a whole, China is in a bind; it cannot easily climb down from previous nationalistic assertions over contested waters, nor can it easily reign in its fishing fleet, the members of which seem determined to act forcefully, even when they are caught illegally fishing in foreign waters. The result seems to be that Beijing, through its media, wants to straddle both a nationalistic stance and that of an innocent and rational actor until the issue dies down; so far it has been unconvincing.

On the issue of the conflict between the South Korean coastguard and illegal Chinese fishermen, especially regarding the recent murder of a member of that Coastguard service, China has only clumsily played the part of the good neighbour. Articles by the Global Times and Xinhua news began their PR responses poorly by challenging the truth of South Korean allegations, downplaying the murder as an “alleged stabbing” and then condemning the response of the angry Korean press and people as “overheated”, “out of control” and “irrational”.

Still having not offered any more condolence than “If the… coast guard was truly stabbed… Chinese public opinion will not take the fisherman’s side”, an editorial from the Global Times then went on to belligerently attack the Korean response to the event. It began by challenging Korea’s jurisdictional right to arrest Chinese fishermen caught in their waters, offers excuses for an “unjustifiable defence” against the murder; ‘that perhaps the Coastguard provoked the attack’ and then called into question the fairness of Korea’s judiciary in bluntly implying that the fisherman could be treated poorly and may not be given a fair trial. Unbelievably the article then went on to sincerely state its disbelief at the Korean media’s continual attacks on China and warned against further Korean provocation. This despite the fact that this is not the first time a South Korean Coastguard member has been killed by Chinese fishermen (one was killed and six were injured in 2008) as the rate of apprehensions for illegal Chinese fishing boats increases (20% this year alone to 470!).

This clumsy churlishness from Beijing beggars belief and makes one think that either it’s a deliberate provocation or proof that China really has no clue how to constructively and sincerely solve disputes with foreign states. Now, more than two weeks after the incident, China has yet to apologise or offer any kind of condolence more than noting the “unfortunate” nature of the death and paying lip service to its obligation towards respecting the territorial integrity of its neighbours. For their part the Korean side is still demanding an apology, is considering arming their Coastguard and is increasing the fines for illegal fishermen.

Unsurprisingly Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines; all close Chinese maritime neighbours have experienced similar issues with bolshie Chinese fishermen recently and all have condemned, to varying degrees of boisterousness (none have had success) the CPC’s indifference. Taiwan, a nation with complicated ties to the mainland has not been engaged in violent conflict with fishermen or the Chinese Coastguard, but the large numbers of Illegal Chinese boats in Taiwanese waters have also resulted in a large increase in fines and promises to step up its policing measures. Likewise have Vietnam and the Philippines have had trouble with ever increasing numbers of Chinese fishermen in their territorial waters. On the flip side, Vietnam especially has had its own fishermen blatantly intimidated and harassed by patrolling Chinese Coastguard boats in contested (and sometimes their own) waters on the orders of the Chinese government in Hainan.

Issues with Chinese fishing boats and the Japanese however, perhaps in equal parts due to historic tensions and Japan’s significantly larger and more powerful Coastguard, have been much more incendiary than run ins between the Chinese fishing industry and other nations. Notably the Japanese have resolutely patrolled the oceans around their nation, including areas that China claims as its own, and has made prosecuting illegal fishermen a priority. With both the fishermen and Japanese Coastguard being as equally determined it is obviously no surprise that the increasing conflict generated by more boats and belligerent crewmen could lead to a serious incident. That incident came in 2010 when a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese Coastguard vessel near the contested Diayou/Senkaku Islands, resulting in the arrest of the captain and a diplomatic fight which led to anti Japanese protests across China, trade sanctions, the downgrading of relations and eventually a Japanese back-down. What was originally a stubborn battle concerning differing versions of the conflict was eventually put to bed when a Japanese Coastguard member  released a video of the incident confirming the Japanese version of the story, but by then Japan had already backed down and the issue had ran its course. In Japanese waters however the war against illegal fishing is ongoing, the Japanese feel bullied by the Chinese who certainly manufactured the conflict and let down by their government; the issue could very easily relapse should either side wish it.

It seems regardless of whether a fight breaks out in contested waters, Chinese citizens are arrested or if foreign nationals are killed or injured that the impetus for conflict has been the attitude of Chinese fishing crews, encouraged by the CCP’s nationalistic responses. As such the two fundamental factors of the issue are China’s refusal to reign in its fleet and its wishy-washy responses to the confrontations that result; whereby incidents will be played down as “a normal fishery case” or inflated to impassioned diplomatic shut-downs seemingly at random.  China seems willing to play the conflict game to their benefit as situations warrant.  Chinese culpability is compounded in this case by its refusal to do anything about it, and means that the theory that this could be a strategy of Chinese escalation through ‘soft power’ cannot be ruled out. These disputes may be useful in compelling some neighbours to come to the negotiating table in a more compliant manner than would otherwise be the case, at the same time it allows China to size up the fighting spirit of its neighbours. Though China has in some cases tried to be diplomatic, the overwhelming amount of noise coming from Beijing on fisheries cases will not have been welcoming news to its neighbours, this could badly backfire. If China cannot find a more sincere and respectful way to address this issue in public then it is likely that the US will be able to increase the resolve of ASEAN nations in conjunction with its Korean and Japanese allies; tightening the noose around China even further.

Does the PRC news media lie?

Does the Chinese Media lie, or is their culture and worldview so diametrically opposed to Western norms that the recent “conflicts of narrative” between the two are more a case of cultural misunderstanding than Chinese moral malignance?

Reading through the recent content of the Chinese news media, any fluent and engaged reader can see the many recent instances where the PRC media has obviously distorted its’ information, downplayed an event, been duplicitous in its argument and perhaps even lied openly. At least when it comes to the English news content of the PRC media’s, spotting these aberrations of reality and the objectives behind them are relatively simple; whether the Chinese journalists flip flop on an issue, boldly oversimplify a complicated situation or deliberately falsify modern and historical events, their claims are usually framed within a self-serving PRC narrative.

As a nation that relies upon patriarchal top-down political control and Confucian modes of ‘social harmony’ rather than openness and political inclusivity, examples of dissent, protest and arguing with the Party directly challenges the power system and are usually shut out of the public sphere. Recent cover-ups and journalistic manipulation of issues that cast poorly on the PRC, like the high speed rail crash that killed dozens last month, the handling of the Sichuan earthquake and the Sanlu milk formula poisoning cases of 2008 illustrate this. All three examples were marked by underwriting, the purposeful withholding of potentially damaging information and blatant scapegoating by journalists unwilling to go against the Party. Meanwhile editorial pieces from Xinhua, People’s Daily and the Daily Times,  all PRC run publications, openly and regularly state historical mistruths as if they were irrefutable, evidence of which is so abundant that providing direct examples would be trifling.

When it comes to issues that cast poorly on the PRC, the Chinese media can be expected to fall in line behind the Party and to spin or ignore the story so as to cause the least amount of damage. Not only does the PRC maintain its own print, radio and television medias’ in order to affect this however, it also reserves itself editorial rights over any and all publications in China. Likewise, through the “Great Fire Wall of China” and the PRC’s internet censors it also edits online news and blogs; in effect, the Chinese news media is the PRC.

Because all mainland news outlets are either directly controlled and run, or stringently moderated by the Party it is impossible to tell if the various “untruths” in the Chinese media are solely the result of PRC directives and intervention or if they are also because of the intricacies of Chinese, Confucian based culture. Confucianism, now a reformed and accepted part of Chinese life since the end of the Cultural Revolution does, at least theoretically, make provision for journalists, unmolested by the Party, to feel obliged to protect it, even if they weren’t Party members (though it is unlikely that there are many non-Party affiliated journalists and editors in China). This Confucian concept of “Filial Piety”; child-like subservience to your superiors, is still a strong and certainly goes some way to restrict the acceptability of speaking out against the Party in modern China. This ingrained subservience, along with the practice of “Guanxi (good ol’ boys) networking” also ensures that people in power, support one another, maintain their control and respectability and that no one important “loses face”, another important facet of Chinese culture.

The very nature of the PRC and the culture that it exists in means that publicly accepting failures and mistakes is difficult; when you control everything with an iron fist the way the PRC does: from education all the way through to economics and even entertainment, then any and all problems within society become your fault. The people of China do not have the opportunity to vote out regimes that make mistakes like those in the West do. Thus, the only way for the Party to maintain popular support  is to make sure the news is always ‘good news’ or at least to ensure that scapegoats are ready to take the blame. As such the Party is compelled to act immorally and to deceive its’ people rather than face their condemnation, which in the worse case could result in mass protests, revolution, the ousting of Party heads or force Party reform.

As an organ of the PRC does the PRC media lie?

All we know for sure  is that, as an organ of the PRC, it is definitely in its interests to do so.

CPC Anniversary Continued.

A series of articles from People’s Daily  in the lead up to the 90th anniversary also spoke of CPC internal policies and their positive effect on the people of China. A rambling People’s Daily peace on June 8th speaks of the Party’s beliefs regarding religion and the religious rights of its people as well as the state of religious harmony in the country. While two similar People’s Daily articles from June 17th and 22nd lauded the positive achievements in the Party’s history; particularly increases in living standards and the nation’s economic rise. The June 8th article begins by making it plain that religious acceptance in China is high as long as belief does not supplant or challenge the Party, wherein the article even praises religion’s ability to contribute to an inclusive Chinese society. The same article, in providing China as an example to the world on religious tolerance does not comment on recent violent conflicts in Tibetan Budhist and Uyghur Muslim minority areas however. Neither does it elaborate on the meaning behind the contentious issues of CPC state interference in religious ceremonies and on the policy of the party choosing religious leaders.

The CPC’s newly appointed “Bishop Guo”

Central to the praise for China in the July 17th and 22nd articles was the argument that the Party has been primarily committed to protecting the Chinese people’s interests though “wise development strategies”, the “liberation” of its people and the “democratic” nature of the Chinese revolution. Statements which in themselves seem ill- fitting to the perception of China in the West, wherein observers generally see China as patently un-democratic, repressive and founded on the mistakes of the “Great Leap forward” and other CPC disasters.

While economically, China’s recent powers may be without doubt, it is on social issues where the Party seems most frantic to prove itself. Though it’s one dimensional attitude of repression, surveillance, blatant cover-ups and distortions of the truth, the CPC shows this desperation even clearer. When the CPC grafts freedom, liberation and tolerance to its own history at the same time as it blocks these words from Chinese search engine results, harasses journalists, represses minorities and lies about its past it shows its immaturity and its many insecurities.

Given the chance to spin its own stories on its anniversary the CPC has failed to make the positive impression it wished to in the overseas press. Many foreign newspapers, when if at all they covered the anniversary, touched on issues of corruption, minority rights, environmental issues and even on the blatant propaganda push the anniversary has spurred. If the CPC wants real respect from credible international players, not just 3rd world nations; (Kenya, Botswana, Bulgaria, Mongolia and Nepal being notable nations touted as congratulating the party on its anniversary) it needs to understand that its recent economic success has only increased its responsibilities and that the argument that “China is still a developing country” no longer provides a free-pass. China will not receive the respect it desires until it takes meaningful, sincere action toward the Western demands it so publicly detests.