A Kinder, Gentler South China Morning Post

William Zheng Wei, a former Singapore Press Holdings business editor, has been named the chief editor of the South China Morning Post's new Chinese-language Web site. His mandate? Don't carry anything controversial.

Zheng's appointment was announced Monday in an internal company release by Robin Hu, the 55-year-old chief executive officer of the SCMP Group, himself a former Singapore Press Holdings executive. Hu replaced Kuok Hui Kwong last July after serving for six years as regional director in China for the Singapore Economic Development Board, a government agency, and as a senior vice president for an Internet startup.

The softly-softly approach to the territory's news may not go far in a city whose 7.5 million residents are growing increasingly impatient with a government that is regarded as being too willing to align itself with official Beijing to the detriment of Hong Kong itself.

The determination to remain rosy -- apparently because the Web site is in Chinese -- seems ill advised given the 13 Chinese-language newspapers of different political hues and stripes in Hong Kong. There are five pro-Beijing leftist papers; one semi-neutral one, Ming Pao; and three basically pro-democracy ones including Apple Daily, whose owner, Jimmy Lai, uses a successful formula of lurid crime stories and political coverage that savages the government at any opportunity.

In a company town hall meeting with employees earlier this year, Hu said the revamped Chinese language website would avoid coverage of Hong Kong's increasingly rancorous political scene and instead play the role of booster for the city's attractions as a travel and business center.

If anything, Hu's remarks resemble the Singaporean approach to news, where media outlets are de facto cheerleaders for government policies. Indeed, concerns have been growing inside the paper for more than a year and a half over what might be termed its "Singaporization," a reference to the Straits Times of Singapore and its family of other newspapers, which are notorious for rarely criticizing the Singapore government.

The 110-year-old South China Morning Post was bought by Malaysian sugar and hotel tycoon Robert Kuok Hock Nien from Rupert Murdoch in 1993, reportedly as a favor to the Chinese government to keep it in safe hands as the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the mainland was approaching. It has been through a revolving door of editors in recent years apparently in search of a formula that checks declining print circulation and finds a safe way to cover the mainland. Independent-minded foreign and local editors have lost out in a variety of struggles inside the paper.

The mild-mannered Chinese language Web site coincides with the reign of Wang Xiang Wei, the paper's first mainland-born chief editor and a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress. He was appointed to the top job in 2012 and immediately began weeding out Western editors and reporters.

Although it has been considered one of the most influential English-language broadsheets in Asia, critics say the paper has been steadily losing its independent voice, a growing concern for the international business and diplomatic communities in Hong Kong, who have previously regarded the SCMP as an important window into China..

"There has been a sustained and creeping clean-out of western reporters and editors for a couple of years," said a former SCMP executive who asked not to be named. "'Gweilos' (a derogatory term for Caucasians) are seen as a problem for a Chinese-owned and managed newspaper... They ask awkward questions at meetings which embarrass the puppets put in to manage them. They also, more importantly, have networks to international media which cause no end of unwelcome exposure to the men behind the screen who work best in the shadows."

Overseas Chinese from Canada, the United States and the UK are ostracized as well, a source said. And, while Western reporters and editors have steadily lost influence except for their work polishing stories from reporters for whom English is a second language, local Chinese reporters are beginning to despair as well, a source told Asia Sentinel.

"It hasn't seemed to have got any better from my point of view," the reporter said. "China reporters complain of their stories being axed on a near-weekly basis. A dozen or so Hong Kong and China reporters have left the paper recently because they were unhappy with getting stories censored and other restrictions."

The new Web site, www.scmpchinese.com, was launched earlier this year. Despite his remarks about the Web site, Hu reportedly the told employees that English-language coverage in the South China Morning Post will continue to "pull no punches" to inform the world about what's going on in China.

In the meeting, Hu reportedly dismissed accusations of self-censorship. "The job of any editor is to censor. Every editor has to decide what to put in the paper and try to provide balance."

In the same internal Sept. 2 company release announcing Zheng Wei's appointment, Hu also announced the appointment of Anne Wong, who is to assume the role of Consultant to the Celebrating Hong Kong Project, which has been described as a celebration of the city's culture and history along with the unsung deeds of ordinary people; it bears an uncanny resemblance to similar campaigns launched by the Straits Times of Singapore on a regular basis.

The paper launched the campaign on May 30. Reportedly the brainchild of Robin Hu, the launch drew Hong Kong's embattled chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, along with former British civil servant David Akers-Jones as the city's top tycoons looked on approvingly.

The event was featured on the front page of the South China Morning Post the next day accompanied by a large photograph of Leung. Following the campaign launch, several senior staff members approached Hu with complaints, according to a source.