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.

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.

China’s Mental Illness

The CPC media has announced the enactment of China’s first Mental Health Law which is set to begin this year. During the Cultural Revolution, mental illness was declared as a self-delusion and has since been stigmatized throughout the nation. As a result, psychiatric problems are often deemphasized when it comes to media coverage within China, which has contributed to the slow progression of much needed change within the system. Along with understaffed facilities and lack of qualified professionals, recent evidence also shows that the mental health system continues to be exploited as a tool to restrain those seen as political dissents. Because both media and mental healthcare are directly controlled by the state, it is impossible to find coverage of such atrocities in the PRC’s media, so we must turn to foreign outlets to find out more.

According to a study from The Lancet, a British medical journal, 17.5% of China’s adult population suffers from a mental illness, ranking the PRC amongst the highest in the world for mental diseases. Meanwhile, China’s hospitals are severely lacking in resources and qualified psychologists, with only 1 in 12 patients in need of psychiatric care receiving it during 2009. Rural communities, where suicide rates are especially high, receive virtually no care at all. China’s movement towards a Mental Health Law comes two years after statistics released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed that over 100 million Chinese are being affected by mental illness. The new law is intended to emphasize the government’s responsibility to help citizens suffering from mental diseases. But after a number of investigations into the PRC’s mental health sector, foreign media has begun to ask: Just who is being labeled as ‘mentally ill’?

During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese citizens were institutionalized for homosexuality and political dissent. In fact, neighbors in Zhejiang province were encouraged to report on one another if they suspected ‘mental illness’. Unfortunately, those days are not over. For example, after a Buddhist nun organized a memorial in Tiananmen Square to honor victims of the 1989 massacre, she was forced to enter a mental hospital for psychiatric treatment shorty afterwards. She later took legal action against the state. Similarly, a 2010 report from the New York Times profiles an impoverished farmer who was locked in a mental institution for more than 6 years after he filed a series of complaints against the local government over a land dispute. He endured 54 electric shock treatments and was repeatedly roped to his bed and drugged. According to experts specializing in mental law, these instances are on the rise.

The PRC prides itself as a ‘harmonious society’, and when acts of violence occur because of mental instability, the State often avoids responsibility. When 6 men murdered 21 people during a series of schoolyard attacks, government authorities placed news blackouts on similar incidents. The blackouts were supposedly intended to discourage copycat killers, though it is also likely that the State did not want to invoke further public outrage, seeing as at least 3 of the 6 killers had already shown signs of being deranged or suicidal, according to news reports. Another incident occurred when a schizophrenic man, unable to seek psychiatric care, attacked two young children and slit the throat of another. Sadly, police failed to detain the man when he struck a neighbor in the head with an axe just days earlier.

If the State can see to it that ‘dissents’ are institutionalized, why can’t they offer treatment to the severely ill and potentially dangerous? It comes down to priorities. Will the new mental health law sufficiently help those in need of psychiatric care, or will it further enable officials to use the system as a loophole to assert power? As it stands with many issues within China, there is not enough public awareness to incite change. Although international awareness has placed pressure on the PRC to acknowledge concerns, such as the widely covered 2009 patient abuse scandal which China’s state-run media downplayed, China’s media will continue to mask controversies so long as it is remains under direct control of the CPC.

The CPC’s Media Blackout Strategy

China’s English news publications are now well funded players on the international news scene. On a daily basis they comprehensively cover a wide range of foreign and local issues from a pro-PRC perspective and can generally be relied upon in their editorials and news reports to echo the current mindset of Beijing. ‘Relied upon’, except when the issue of Chinese social disharmony and related policing matters comes to the fore; on this topic the country’s state – controlled media has taken an active role in downplaying the news. A noticeable pattern of non-recognition or the hiding and drip-feeding of worrying local events has arisen in China’s media. It is so prevalent in fact, that, now the only way to hear about Chinese social issues in any detail is through the foreign press.

Chinese issues ranging from industrial scale food poisonings, factory worker suicides, rioting, online political protest, attacks on kindergarten and school age children and even bombings have now become leading news pieces for Western papers and bloggers. Meanwhile, on the mainland these same events are either spun, ignored, underwritten or hidden in the back pages (sometimes all four across the media scpectrum) of PRC papers. Particularly puzzling are the local news events that garner no coverage in the country but are not obviously anti PRC or even political in nature. The resulting question to be asked is; is there a policy of PRC media blackouts on all internal troubles in the country?

Invariably the conclusion from outside reporters has been yes, this underreporting of local events is a deliberate policy from Beijing, a theory seemingly confirmed by a supposed online essay written by a frustrated Beijing journalist: “We’re just a bunch of shameless spectators watching these murderers take the stage one after another – and during all of this spectacle, forced to remain silent.” The CPC policy of media blackouts has become so distasteful and obvious that even the Chinese blogosphere has got involved, with some bloggers either tacitly or directly blaming the government for its its deception.

Recent Chinese news events in the foreign press but not covered or underreported by the Chinese media :

Mass suicides at Foxxcon factories.

Knife attacks on kindergartens and schools.

Jasmine revolution protests.

Terrorist strikes on government buildings and banks.

Sanlu Milk and infant formula poisonings.

A simple reading of the situation is that this subject; ‘evidence of disharmony in China’, is detrimental to the image of a government that has ‘ultimate’ control over culture and society. Beijing, as the architect of modern Chinese culture looks powerless and is also (via its monopoly on culture, education and media) directly at fault for disharmony in a way that more liberal governments aren’t. The PRC’s ongoing response to its culpability in these matters has been to attempt to shut down all discussion and diffusion of the issue or when it couldn’t; to emphasize strong government responses, deemphasize dangers and assign external blame. This behaviour will continue until a solution can be found that either solves the societal issues associated with the recent cultural changes in the China or exonerates the government of blame. Noticeably this issue has highlighted the PRC’s surprising inability to shut down these issues despite their media powers, and that it is being subjected to the kind of criticism that it was seeking to avoid, particularly at home.

Human Rights Backlash

Following the China-US Human Rights talks held in Beijing this June, the PRC has hit back strongly at US criticisms of Chinese personal and political freedoms with their own condemnations of US human rights policies. In several recent articles released by state controlled news giants People’s Daily and Xinhua, the Chinese media argues against both the validity of “human rights diplomacy” as used by the US and called into question America’s human rights record at home and abroad.

Branding the human rights diplomacy first enacted by US President Carter as ‘preaching’ and an “excuse to interfere in other nations’ internal affairs”, the Chinese media has attempted to put heat on the United States government by citing China’s own US human rights report. Charging the ‘world’s richest state’ with “rampant gun violence, serious racism, … increasing poverty” People’s Daily claims that the US, inaccurately cited as “the worst country for violent crimes”, also harms the rights of their citizens via their inaction on crime. Bizarrely, the article went on to claim that the US violated the civil and political rights of 6,000 people during 2008-2010 via airport ‘electronic device searches’ and that the “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act” passed in 2010, imposes “strict restrictions on cyberspace”. However, the act allows for the internet to be “shut down” only in designated ‘national emergency’ situations and cannot be compared to the vaunted ‘Great Firewall of China’ in terms of the severity of ‘internet restrictions’.

Also of note was the CPC’s coordinated attack of the perceived Western policy of ‘human rights, overriding national sovereignty’, something that People’s Daily columnist Wang Hanlu, in an apparent reference to NATO’s intervention in Libya, states is “messing up the whole world”. Hanlu then equates human rights violations with US refusals to sign the Ottawa anti-land mine treaty, and Kyoto climate change treaty. Though the Ottawa treaty is also currently unratified by China and under the terms of Kyoto; China currently has no obligations towards halting climate change, as it is a “developing state”.  Arguing for Western political cynicism, unnamed government sources cited in an April 11th People’s Daily article also state that Washington uses human rights as a “political instruments to defame” and “seek its own strategic interests”. The article goes on to cite statements from Beijing; that some governments exhort human rights as they violate the sovereignty of others, causing “humanitarian disasters” and “human rights scandals”, though no examples are provided.

In retort to the US report, the PRC’s media ultimately attempted to recast perceptions of human rights in China as a ‘case in progress’; with a seperate May 4th People’s Daily article on human rights stating that “China has always been open and pragmatic to advance human rights” and that “its people’s political, economic and social rights have improved remarkably”. In it People’s Daily called for foreign patience and understanding on Chinese human rights issues, rather than just condemnations. In the same People’s Daily article and in an article Xinhua China’s version of its human rights record was vouched for over the US’s and both went on to state that “the Chinese people are most qualified” to speak on internal human rights issues. In direct contrast to what the 2011 US human rights report says, they argue the growth of government sanctioned “grass-roots democracy” (despite the recent ‘Jasmine Revolution’ crackdowns) and greater social freedoms are signs of Chinese progress on freedoms. Again, no compelling examples of the Chinese claims on freedoms are evident or offered, although People’s Daily and Xinhua do cite irrefutable increases in living standards, healthcare acess and wealth as a positive influence on human rights in the country.