Five months ago when Wang Xiangwei was named editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language daily, local journalists shook their heads in dismay. Wang, a former China Daily reporter and current member of Jilin province’s Political Consultative Conference, had built a reputation as the newspaper’s in-house censor since he became China editor in 2000. Under his leadership, they feared, the newspaper would be even more shy about breaking news unfavourable to the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.
Those fears quickly proved justified. Last week an exchange of emails with a subeditor surfaced in which Wang admitted that he removed a 430-word article published in an early edition of the June 7 paper about the suspicious death of a Chinese dissident, and turned it into a brief for a later edition.
Challenged by the subeditor that this looked like self-censorship, Wang replied, “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.” About 40 of the paper’s journalists signed a protest letter asking for a better explanation. Wang issued a statement in which he said, “I want to make it absolutely clear that I did not try to downplay the Li Wangyang story.”
When asked for comment about the affair, Wang replied to the Journal by email that the emails were genuine, but those who accuse him of self-censorship “are totally wrong and our excellent record in human rights reporting is a testament to that.” It’s a defense that is true and misleading at the same time. The Post has published some excellent critical stories about China, but its coverage epitomises the self-censorship that afflicts the Hong Kong media.
Many of the Post’s award-winning articles on Chinese human-rights issues in recent years were written by Paul Mooney, a Beijing-based journalist. But as of May he no longer works at the paper because Wang did not renew his contract.
Mooney says that his ability to get his stories in the paper waxed and waned with Wang’s influence. Under former Editor-in-Chief Reginald Chua from July 2009 to April 2011, his stories ran regularly. But once Chua left, many proposals were turned down by Wang’s China desk, and after Chua’s deputy David Lague left in August 2011, Mooney was unable to get any article into the paper other than a couple of light features. ( Chua previously worked for The Wall Street Journal, and Lague worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review also published by Dow Jones.)
In April of this year, Mooney again won a Hong Kong Human Rights Press Award, this time for a series of four articles. One of them, “Silence of the Dissidents,” had initially been rejected by the China desk, Mooney says. After the proposal was later approved by Lague, the finished article languished for three months before it was published on July 4, 2011. Earlier this month, Mooney also won a Society of Publishers in Asia award for an article on heavy-metal pollution published on July 17, 2011.
Guangzhou correspondent Leu Siew Ying won the European Commission’s Lorenzo Natali Grand Prize in 2006 for her reporting on protests in the village of Taishi the previous year. She left the paper in 2007 after disputes with Wang about following up on Taishi and pressure from the Guangdong authorities.
Former Beijing Bureau Chief Jasper Becker had similar experiences. In 2002, he finally complained to the paper’s management, which backed Wang. Becker left the paper and now lives in London. He says that Wang regularly conferred with Chinese government officials stationed in Hong Kong about stories the paper planned to cover.
Wang responds, “I have never conferred with officials at Xinhua or the Liaison Office over SCMP’s pre-planned stories. Because of my previous job as a key editor in charge of China coverage, I has been in touch with the mainland officials, just as I am now in touch with Hong Kong officials, foreign diplomats in Beijing and Hong Kong, and leading Chinese and foreign analysts on China.”
When Messrs. Chua and Lague were in charge, they created a de facto second China section in order to work around Wang, according to several former reporters and editors who requested anonymity. The front page, features and weekend magazine departments would commission stories on sensitive topics that Wang didn’t allow his reporters to cover. The China section under Wang continues to run a steady stream of feel-good articles that would not be out of place in the state-run China Daily.
Wang has hired a cohort of young Chinese journalists who have replaced all the foreign journalists on the mainland. But while he discouraged early or follow-up coverage of topics such as the “jasmine spring” protests in mainland cities last year, it would be impossible to avoid covering them altogether and still maintain a modicum of credibility. His chief aim is that the paper does not stand out from other media on news that might embarrass the authorities.
The article that Wang killed earlier this month is a case in point. It concerned crippled dissident Li Wangyang, who was found hanged in a hospital in Hunan province days after giving an interview to a Hong Kong television station. The authorities called it a suicide, but the Post’s reporters quoted family and colleagues alleging that he was murdered to shut him up. A newsworthy story most editors would think, but evidently not Wang.
As it turned out, other Hong Kong newspapers had the same story and gave extensive coverage to the case. Once Li’s possible murder was already in the public domain, the Post published several articles about it, including two articles by Wang himself.
While the Post continues to produce some fine and critical coverage of China, it is a shadow of its former self in the late 1990s, when it was a must-read for anybody following the country. Robert Kuok, a Malaysian tycoon with significant businesses on the mainland, acquired a controlling stake in 1993. Many Post journalists identify the firing of China Editor Willy Wo-lap Lam and the elevation of Wang in 2000 following pressure from Kuok as a key turning point. Several editors say that Kuok’s son and daughter, who have run the SCMP Group since 1997, nurtured and protected Wang.
Leung Chun-ying will be sworn in as Hong Kong’s chief executive in five days, and Beijing’s Central government Liaison Office is pressuring community leaders to support the incoming government. In coming years the Post’s accelerating decline and the community’s response will be one of the key indicators of whether Hong Kong’s core values are eroding.
Category: Hong Kong