Tea Leaf Nation
With New Ownership, Can an Influential Hong Kong Daily Keep Its Soul?
Early signs do not inspire optimism for the <i>South China Morning Post</i>'s future.
On Dec. 11, Chinese Internet behemoth Alibaba announced that it had reached an agreement to acquire Hong Kong’s flagship English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post (SCMP). The announcement came as no surprise, as the ailing paper was already known to have entered talks with Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma’s online empire. But the impending acquisition has raised fears about increasing mainland Chinese influence over the semi-autonomous port city and its strong traditions of rule of law and a free press — anxieties only heightened by Alibaba Group Executive Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai’s Dec.11 letter to SCMP readers.
Observers inside and outside Hong Kong are watching the development with concern, worrying that when push comes to shove, in an SCMP owned by a company whose commercial success is due in part to its close relationship with ruling Communist Party authorities, stories that reflect poorly on China’s leaders or political system will get the ax. Hong Kong’s journalists have increasingly felt the strength of Beijing’s influence; legislator and former journalist Claudia Mo told the New York-based nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists for a February 2014 report that self-censorship was a “plague” in Hong Kong. Its “media organizations are mostly owned by tycoons with business interests in China,” she said. “They don’t want to lose advertising revenue from Chinese companies and they don’t want to anger the central government.” The SCMP had represented a bit of an exception, but that could now be set to change. In a Dec. 11 statement posted to its Facebook account, the Hong Kong Journalists Association expressed concern that the acquisition would “further compromise press freedom in Hong Kong,” citing a media interview with Tsai in which he stated that he hoped the paper would pursue “a more objective angle.”
For close watchers of China, the term “objective” is a bit of a dog whistle, signaling what the mainland’s ruling Communist Party wants, rather than what the cornerstone ethics of journalistic independence actually demands. Veteran China journalists have witnessed first-hand the term’s appropriation by China media gatekeepers. Journalist Paul Mooney covered China for 28 years, reporting on human rights and other topics Chinese authorities deem sensitive. In an April 2013 interview with Chinese visa officials, Mooney told Business Insider, an official said to him, “If we give you the visa, we hope you’ll be more objective in your reporting.” Mooney called the demand an “obvious threat.” Then in November 2013, Chinese authorities denied him the visa with little explanation, ending his career as a China-based reporter.
Tsai repeatedly invoked the concept of objectivity in his Dec. 11 “Letter to Readers” included in Alibaba’s emailed press release. SCMP is “uniquely positioned to report on China with objectivity, depth and insight,�� wrote Tsai. Later in the letter, he repeated that “in reporting the news, the SCMP will be objective, accurate and fair.” A media executive’s commitment to objectivity, of course, is laudable, except that the totality of his letter suggested something closer to Beijing’s line. The latter portion of Tsai’s letter, which addressed the future of SCMP’s editorial independence, reads almost like a shaming of those readers who have already expressed their concerns, rather than a desire for input. “Some have suggested that ownership by Alibaba will compromise the SCMP’s editorial independence,” wrote Tsai. “This criticism reflects a bias of its own, as if to say newspaper owners must espouse certain views, while those that hold opposing views are ‘unfit.’”
Tsai’s critique seems to turn the concept of editorial independence on its head. In fact, it means that editors can publish stories from any perspective they deem fit — whether critical or laudatory of the powers that be — without interference from political or monied interests. That’s the opposite of Tsai’s straw-man assertion that calls for editorial independence indicate a demand that newspapers publish but one side of the story.
The warning bells continue into the next paragraph. “In fact, that is exactly why we think the world needs a plurality of views when it comes to China coverage,” Tsai continued. “China’s rise as an economic power and its importance to world stability is too important for there to be a singular thesis.” That’s surely true. The problem is that China’s governing authorities — whose close relationship with Ma has been a lubricant smoothing his path to success — have repeatedly demonstrated their will and ability to reduce China’s rise to a single thesis, one the state broadcasts constantly while actively, and sometimes violently, suppressing those who stray.
None of this means that Alibaba or Ma actively plan to meddle in the day-to-day affairs of the SCMP’s coverage. They might, of course — but they may not have to. As Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Foreign Policy in an earlier interview, China lacks “a strong concept of separation of church and state” where “keeping business and editorial concerns apart” are concerned. SCMP’s journalists, editors, and management will come to work each day knowing who the owner is — and what is most likely to please him. Whether that knowledge will muddy the daily business of commissioning, researching, and writing stories is unclear. It’s most likely to pinch if and when SCMP’s journalists and editors consider whether to publish or pursue a story with the potential to expose embarrassing but newsworthy information about those in the higher reaches of China’s leadership or in well-connected moguldom. At that point, the fact that SCMP’s owners have an extensive and lucrative business in mainland China is likely to enter their calculus, however quietly. It has happened before, in October 2013, when Bloomberg now famously spiked a story in process about the wealth of tycoon Wang Jianlin, evidently in part because of Bloomberg’s lucrative information terminal business in the country.
Even in the event that Ma decides to defend the SCMP’s editorial independence against all comers, it’s increasingly likely that Beijing will choose to intervene — at least when major exposés or news events threaten to blacken the party’s image. Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has been increasingly aggressive in punishing whoever threatens the party’s public face. In August, a financial journalist was forced to confess for spreading “panic and disorder” after writing that regulators were endeavoring to stop propping up the country’s ailing stock market; in October, authorities approved a revised code of conduct for party members banning them from making “negative” statements about party policy. “The statement talks about fair and balanced coverage, and you wonder if that’s going to include Xi locking up dissidents and those who disagree with him and the increasing intolerance of the regime for dissent,” Robert Keatley, formerly the editor of the SCMP, told FP. “I suspect not!”
In his first chance to demonstrate to SCMP’s readership his commitment to the publication’s legacy as Asia’s free press, Tsai instead offered less of an ode to objectivity, editorial independence, and a plurality of views, and more of a troubling reappropriation of those terms. If Tsai’s letter was meant to assuage apprehensions about the future of the paper, it has fallen short of its goal. SCMP will have a high bar to hurdle if it is to maintain the trust its journalists have worked so hard to earn. David Schlesinger, a Hong Kong-based media advisor at Tripod Advisors and former chairman of Thomson Reuters China, told FP that the SCMP “has always represented the views of the Hong Kong establishment — first a colonial establishment, then a business establishment and now an establishment that very much looks north, to China, for its direction.” It has done some “excellent journalism” in that role, but “the difficulty, as always, will come at that point when and if that journalism challenges the views and interests of the new owner and the new establishment.”
Isaac Stone Fish contributed reporting.
Photo credit: Getty Images
Correction, Dec. 11, 2015: A previous version of this article mistakenly misspelled Thomson Reuters China. Additionally, a previous version of this article stated that Joseph Tsai had referred to Western coverage of China as “tainted.” That quote could not be verified and has now been removed.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr