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.

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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.