What Is Going on with this Flagship Hong Kong Newspaper?
First a strange interview. Then its Chinese-language operations went dark.
In December 2015, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba bought the Hong Kong media group of the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading English-language newspaper in the former British colony, where freedom of the press has resisted control by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. On September 9, the SCMP’s Chinese-language website went dark with little explanation, leading to concerns that censorship might next spread to the newspaper’s English-language coverage. Can Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, who has strong ties to mainland business interests and to the ruling party, support “objective, balanced and fair” coverage of China and his own business in English only? Are Chinese readers and readers of news in Chinese to be deemed second-class citizens, even by the venerable SCMP? —The Editors
Isaac Stone Fish, Senior Fellow, Asia Society:
The most common question Americans ask me about working as a journalist in Beijing, which I did from 2008 to 2011, was “did your reporting get censored?” The answer is no — like most Western foreign correspondents, I wrote articles in English, mostly for an American audience. Newsweek, where I worked as a correspondent, wouldn’t delete or massage my copy to please Beijing. (If I had written for, say, the Chinese magazine Newsweek, my articles would have been censored.) While Beijing would certainly prefer to manage the coverage of foreign journalists writing about China, that is a secondary issue. Beijing is far more concerned with controlling what’s written about China in Chinese, because of the simple fact that the people it governs can access news in that language, and domestic politics always trump international.
In that light, the e-commerce giant Alibaba’s December 2015 purchase of the SCMP is more helpful to Beijing not in shifting the standards of the English-language edition, but in the Chinese-language one. Since the purchase, Alibaba seems to have taken the radical step of scrubbing much of the SCMP’s Chinese-language news from the Internet. In March 2016, the paper’s account on the popular microblogging platform site Weibo was deleted; according to the BBC’s Chinese website, that month also saw the SCMP’s last post on WeChat, the even more popular social media service. (It’s unclear if Beijing ordered the blocking, or if the SCMP closed its own accounts willingly; a SCMP spokesperson hasn’t immediately responded to a query about what happened to the Chinese language edition.) As of September 9, the online Chinese edition has seemingly ceased to exist. Not only did the SCMP stop publishing its Chinese-language website, but it seems to have removed all its old articles from the Internet; clicking on a link to a Chinese language news article sends the reader to the homepage of the international edition, in English.
The SCMP launched its Chinese edition in April 2013, publishing both content translated from the newspaper’s English side and original reporting. And some of the original reporting, especially on human rights cases in China, was excellent. It’s certainly a smart strategy for SCMP to curtail the Chinese edition in order to please Beijing — not only does it protect it from the censure of foreign observers, who rarely can/are willing to read the Chinese, but it further prevents Chinese from reading unfiltered news about their country. Still, it’s hard not to feel sad about the loss on the Chinese Internet of one more source of information and wisdom.
Paul Mooney, freelance journalist:
On September 9, the South China Morning Post announced the closure of nanzao.com, its Chinese-language website, attributing the decision to a need to “integrate resources.”
The closure revived the discussion over the editorial independence of Hong Kong’s leading English-language daily newspaper, which dates back more than 100 years.
While some Hong Kong readers have been criticizing the decline in the newspaper’s coverage for several years now, it has continued to produce insightful reporting on the People’s Republic of China.
This is not a question of whether or not the newspaper will survive, but rather whether or not it will continue to produce independent and objective coverage of Hong Kong’s neighbor to the north.
Jack Ma, chairman of the Alibaba Group, surprised observers last December when he bought the newspaper from Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok, who had run the newspaper since 1993. One of the wealthiest men in China, Ma has close ties to Beijing, and has little incentive to ruffle feathers in the Chinese capital by allowing the newspaper to operate independently.
It’s long been claimed that the Kuok family bought the newspaper as a favor to Beijing to keep it out of non-Chinese hands. There has also been speculation that Ma’s purchase of the newspaper was also a favor to the authorities in Beijing.
So far, there appears to be little noticeable change in how the newspaper is being managed under Ma. The SCMP has continued to do some hard-hitting stories. But at the same time, the editors have engaged in worrisome censorship behind the scenes.
I worked for the newspaper for several years and was forced out of the newspaper in 2012 by then editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei, who has close ties to Beijing.
Supporters of the newspaper point out that it continues to report on sensitive issues, and that’s true. But what outside observers don’t see is all the news that doesn’t make it into the newspaper or that’s been heavily edited. Talk to the current staff of the newspaper and you’ll hear complaints about stories being spiked, toned down, or strongly rewritten to make them more agreeable to Beijing. During my time with the newspaper, many of my stories were treated in the same way.
A more dangerous trend is that propaganda is increasingly being passed off as real news, deceiving the newspaper’s readers.
The best example was the recent alleged phone interview with Zhao Wei, a legal assistant to prominent lawyer Li Heping; both were arrested in China last year in a crackdown on rights lawyers. In the interview, which first appeared on the Chinese-language website in July, Zhao allegedly admitted regrets about her activism.
The interview, which was billed as an exclusive, raised eyebrows for several reasons. For one, there was no byline. Second, Zhao, who allegedly was released from prison, could not be contacted by her own husband, who had no idea where she was.
The South China Morning Post never explained how its reporter was able to track down Zhao when her family couldn’t, or how the story ran without a byline.
Some at the newspaper say the interview was handed to the China Desk by management — suggesting there was no phone interview at all and that the script may have been faked by authorities in Beijing to discredit Zhao. If true, this is a very serious violation of media ethics.
Robert Kuok, possibly worried about his reputation, seems to have been reluctant to see the newspaper completely turned into a Hong Kong version of the People’s Daily [a mouthpiece for Beijing -Ed.], which would have met with strong opposition from readers.
There’s no indication so far that Jack Ma will be bound by such concerns.
Wang Feng, Editor in Chief, FTChinese.com:
Three weeks ago, I screen-grabbed a story from nanzao.com, the now-closed Chinese language news site of the South China Morning Post, and shared it on my social media accounts with the snide comment: “What a bizarre article. I can’t understand how this website is still blocked by the Great Firewall.”
The article in question was a column written by Lei Xiying, a prolific Chinese media commentator and writer whose other works include a series of powerful “patriotic-themed” videos denouncing “hostile western forces” and their sinister intentions against a rising China. (My colleague, Jamil Anderlini, the Financial Times’ Asia Editor, wrote about one of these videos.) Columnist Lei directed his ire against a handful of Chinese human rights lawyers among the dozens who were arrested, tried, publicly humiliated, and sentenced to varying prison terms in the last few years. Among those he accused of receiving financial support from hostile forces to undermine China’s rule of law was Zhao Wei, the 24-year-old paralegal whose “exclusive interview” with SCMP’s English edition set off a storm of criticism in media circles in July.
Between the SCMP’s English coverage on the issue and Lei’s column, one may naturally draw a conclusion about the status quo of “Hong Kong’s newspaper of record” now under Alibaba ownership. Yet, the reality seems to be a bit more complicated: despite the overtly pro-Beijing stance of these stories, both websites remained blocked in China. Even if these stories were unsuccessful attempts to appease Beijing censors and get SCMP sites unblocked, they still stand in stark contrast to the majority of its content, which remain fairly balanced, well-written, and very informative to those interested in China and Hong Kong.
On the reasons behind nanzao.com’s closure, I tend to agree with most media analysis so far: Alibaba is primarily interested in the global outreach via SCMP’s English-language platforms, and the homeward approach was not a high priority for them. That point was made abundantly clear by interviews given by Joe Tsai and Jack Ma after the Alibaba takeover.
After trying unsuccessfully to unblock the Chinese sites, Alibaba and SCMP management probably decided that the several million page views the sites attracted were not worth the trouble of producing them. With the Chinese sites in particular, SCMP management faced the impossible job of trying constantly to please both Beijing on the one side, and discerning readers and media critics on the other. The team that produced the Chinese sites had gradually dwindled to just a few young editors, and I don’t believe their costs were a main concern to Alibaba or SCMP.
When the South China Morning Post found its own billionaire owner-champion, it wasn’t a free-market liberal sitting in the U.S. like The Washington Post’s Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, but China’s own online shopping king, Jack Ma, whose mainland business and connections immediately raised the specter if not the reality of influence and interference from the Chinese Communist Party.
The question of whether the SCMP can survive and thrive actually contains packed within it several separate issues.
The first is whether an English-language newspaper based in Hong Kong, where English is rapidly being pushed to third-class status behind the native Cantonese and the Mandarin of mainland business, can ever realize its ambitions to be a regional or even global source of news on Greater China.
The second is whether a newspaper owned by a China-based company and mogul can ever escape the bounds and even stigma of its proprietorship to do good, quality journalism and to be appreciated for doing so.
So far, the paper has made a number of serious missteps. An early hagiographic article on Ma’s Alibaba certainly raised questions. More seriously still, the paper published under an anonymous “staff reporter” byline a tendentiously acquired phone interview with detained Chinese activist Zhao Wei in which she “regretted” her actions — at a time when neither her husband nor lawyer could reach her or confirm her whereabouts. Most recently, the SCMP abruptly stopped its Chinese web edition and killed its archive.
All of these missteps could have been avoided.
The Zhao Wei story could have been made into a good one if the reporter had put his or her name to it, if the way the “interview” came about had been explained, if the restrictions on the interview were revealed to readers, if proper background had been put into the story. The closing of the Chinese edition in fact probably was a sensible business decision — the SCMP has never been known for its Chinese-language coverage; it was blocked in the mainland anyway, limiting its reach and commercial appeal; the Chinese-language market in Hong Kong and Taiwan is arguably overserved. But these things need to be explained; they need to be done in a measured way; and archives need to be preserved — otherwise you are simply asking for conspiracy theories.
For the SCMP to survive and thrive it needs to take action urgently:
- Write and publish a strong code of ethics and standards making clear that news decisions are taken without regard to politics or business interests.
- Hold the paper and editors accountable to that code by hiring an independent ombudsman or public editor or by appointing an independent board of trustees to oversee editorial independence.
- Learn to be open about decisions and missteps, building trust through transparency.
- Hire and train reporters who can build the paper’s reputation by good, solid reporting.
- Have editors who encourage reporting, guard against errors, and make the paper’s growth their only concern.
Finally, the new ownership structure unfortunately will always raise questions about the SCMP’s ability to thrive. Unlike Bezos who bought The Washington Post personally, without involving Amazon, Ma bought the SCMP through Alibaba, a listed company.
Should Alibaba’s own vast China business ever be threatened by Beijing’s unhappiness at the newspaper’s reporting, the company’s board would surely have a fiduciary duty to ensure that a frisky tail did not kill off an otherwise healthy dog. One concrete action to take would be to change this structure and insulate Alibaba and the newspaper from each other.
When Jack Ma bought the SCMP, he said about editorial independence: “Trust us.” However, blind trust is not enough. For the paper to survive and thrive, readers need to say: “Show us.”
Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish
Wang Feng has worked for the Financial Times as Editor in Chief of FTChinese.com since April 2015. Prior to the FT, he was the editor of scmp.com, the online edition of the South China Morning Post.