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.

Advertisements

CPC alternatives to censorship

Overn the last decade internet use has spiked in China, from just over half a million users in the mid to late 90’s to over 500 million  now. This huge multitude of people online has no doubt caused Beijing a great deal of anxiety. As a source of public dissent and promulgation of unsanctioned ideas the internet is a real threat to their hegemony. Because of this China has seen a number of solutions to fix the problem of ‘internet freedom’ over the years; in 1997 the CPC first started to regulate the use of the internet, the next year the ‘Golden Shield’ (Great Firewall) project was conceived and completed in 2006/2008. While in 2009 the ‘Green Dam” programme, which called for the mandatory inclusion of surveillance microchips in all new computers almost passed into law.

These solutions all had their limitations; the 1997 regulations only gave China the framework of laws and their prosecution, not the methods for action, the Great Firewall can be circumvented by proxy servers, subverted ideologically through subtlety and sarcasm and served as a focus point for more criticism. Meanwhile, the Green Dam project was a disaster; it was unwieldy and ineffective in many of its parameters, obviously and poorly plagiarised, a potentially huge security risk and poorly disguised an ‘anti-pornography measure’, as such it was unpopular and was scrapped during the testing phase.

The subtleties of the internet seemed to stifle complete control, but at some point, shortly before Green Dam, Beijing stumbled upon the best answer so far and it had nothing to do with new coding or programmes. Beijing’s solution involved the adding of a social element to the equation. In 2004 the Publicity Department of Changsa city, seemingly of their own volition, hired China’s first ‘anonymous internet commentators’; a group whose job was to surreptitiously post positive comments and discredit complaints. Over the next three years this method proved so effective in stifling online dissent that it grew exponentially, organically spreading to different parts of the country and through the different channels of the CPC’s body politic. From every regional and city council to news sites, forums, chat rooms and social networking sites, CPC commentators are now commonly found on foreign news sites too.

An internet commentator conference broadcast on Chinese Television

Originally paid 0.50 Yuan a post, the writers are now popularly (and derisively) known as the “50 Cent Party”, and their goal, according to the head of Guangzhou’s City Inspectors Committee Li Yangui,  is to “track and analyze… public opinion, prevent the spread of undesirable information” and ultimately provide “positive guidance of public opinion”. Highlighting their importance to China’s internet policy, three years after the germination of the concept in 2007 Premier Hu Jintao called for the proliferation of this method at a major politburo conference. CPC support of this method undoubtedly lies in its ability to effectively direct online opinion towards any narrative end almost anonymously. This use of anonymity, rather than just deleting or blocking offensive material, serves to effectively remove the spectre of CPC heavy-handedness and tricks users into thinking the pro-party talking points they’re reading are the unbiased opinions of regular netizens. In a widely circulated, leaked communiqué that says much about the ‘scapegoating’ culture of the CPC, the stated true objective of the ‘50 Centers’ was revealed; to undermine the influence of “Taiwanese democracy”; as if China’s societal problems stemmed from anything Taiwan has done. Included in the supposed missive was also this incredible list of guidelines:

  1.   To the extent possible make America the target of criticism. Play down the existence of Taiwan.
  2. Do not directly confront [the idea of] democracy; rather, frame the argument in terms of “what kind of system can truly implement democracy.”
  3.  To the extent possible, choose various examples in Western countries of violence and unreasonable circumstances to explain how democracy is not well-suited to capitalism.
  4. Use America’s and other countries’ interference in international affairs to explain how Western democracy is actually an invasion of other countries and [how the West] is forcibly pushing [on other countries] Western values.
  5.  Use the bloody and tear-stained history of a [once] weak people [i.e., China] to stir up pro-Party and patriotic emotions.
  6. Increase the exposure that positive developments inside China receive; further accommodate the work of maintaining [social] stability.

Estimations by some experts range anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands of full and part-time anonymous commentators working in China, according to local Chinese news media some large cities and regions openly employ hundreds of writers. On the other hand, some government and media sources deny the existence of paid commentators. In an interview with the Global Times, a former employee of the Public Security Bureau, Mrs Wang, implied that the 50 Cent Party was really an unorganised collection of pro-party citizens working outside of the state. Contradicting herself, Wang then went on to state that paid commentators are a real phenomenon; “It is necessary to have the commentators because sometimes truth may hurt social stability”.

Despite the occasional denials, the existence of the 50 Cent Party  is considered a well known fact, and the proliferation of the concept seems to imply that it is successful and here to stay. The concept does have its detractors and debateable weaknesses however; Hu Yong in an article by The Global Times argues that the commentators, because they are anonymous, dilute the veracity of their personas and that their very existence only makes “the public more aware of them”. On platforms like Twitter, he says, their anonymity means that “they can’t work if nobody follows them” and if they weren’t anonymous and people knew they are ‘50 Centers’ no one would. He concludes by saying that the ‘50 Cent Party’ has actually damaged the practice of ‘opinion guidance’ in China; it now “carries the stigma of immorality… commentators were only doing it for the money.” Furthermore, awareness of the ‘50 cent’ concept has damaged the reputation of China internationally, suspiciously pro-CPC comments by anonymous commentators are now often met with derision on Western news sites. As Zhang Shengjun, a politics professor complained in an article on the Global Times; the 50 Cent tag “has become a baton waved towards all Chinese patriots”. These are the eventual and obvious consequences of being duplicitous, no one will trust you.

Meanwhile the Chinese people have to live with the worry that their government are distorting and manipulating the news even in the commentary sections of their favourite websites.

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.