HK’s South China Morning Post Softens China Arrests

Hong Kong’s venerable South China Morning Post, long one of Asia’s most influential English-language news outlets, over the weekend illustrated the paper’s striking turn towards China under editor Wang Xiangwei, putting on page 6 the story of the arrest of at least 100 human rights activists by Chinese authorities, one of the biggest crackdowns since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The story was major news around the world.

It is additionally important with Chinese leader Xi Jinping having scheduled his first state visit to the United States for September and with Washington’s attention to human rights a traditional bone of contention between the two countries.

The US State Department has denounced the arrests, saying Chinese public security forces “have systematically detained individuals who share the common attribute of peacefully defending the rights of others, including those who lawfully challenge official policies” and urging China “to respect the rights of all of its citizens and to release all those who have recently been detained for seeking to protect the rights of Chinese citizens.”

But the story didn’t make the front pages of either the Sunday or Monday editions of the Post. On Sunday, the arrests took a back seat to a story about Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying discussing "the way forward" with Beijing officials and a picture of fish dead from pollution. On Monday, while the lead paragraph of the story did identify the 100-plus arrested as “mainland human rights advocates,” it added those arrested “were criminally detained in what state media said was a nationwide operation to smash a ‘criminal gang.’

The story on the paper's website on the issue was much stronger than the what appeared in print, but the printed story didn't come out that way.

Although human rights activists across the world have raised deep alarm about the arrests, the Post story didn’t mention human rights concerns again until the final paragraph, when it quoted China Human Rights Watch director Sophie Richardson in an abbreviated statement. Instead almost all of the story quoted Chinese media as saying the Ministry of Public Security “launched the operation to ‘smash a major criminal gang that had used the Beijing Fengrui law firm as a platform since July 2012 to draw attention to sensitive cases, seriously disturbing social order.’”

The tilt toward China is slowly closing a window on mainland affairs. Although the paper has gained its share of criticism over the years, it has been regarded as an indispensable source of information on China by governments, analysts and businessmen across the region and the world.

The diminishing amount of critical reporting on both Hong Kong and China has led to the creation of a new online publication called the Hong Kong Free Press by a young British journalism graduate that has shown every sign of becoming a success, easily drawing HK$150,000 in a crowd-funding campaign and ended up with HK$600,000. In operation just two weeks, the Free Press has already amassed 100,000 unique readers and half a million page-views.

“This is why we exist, the need for wider press freedom,” Grundy said.

Fewer independent voices

According to a July 2015 report by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, since the reining in of independent op-ed columnists in May, including Philip Bowring*, Steven Vines, Frank Ching and Kevin Rafferty, the paper has required them to send email queries for pre-approval of topics instead of simply filing their columns as they had done in the past.

“In mid-May, chief editor Wang Xiangwei sent a letter to every columnist featured on its Opinion and Insight pages informing them of the policy change,” according to the Journalists Association report. It read: “From Monday June 1, we will no longer require you to file your regular column … Instead, we would encourage you to email proposals on your specific areas of expertise to the op-ed editor for consideration…In addition, the Post will contact you if/when we have a topic in mind that we would like you to write about. This should ensure more flexibility for both sides.”

The demand for pre-approval of topics is a departure from the newspaper’s long established policy that allowed regular columnists ample scope to decide what to write about, the report said. “The pre-approval demand for columns was first introduced by Wang, a former Jilin Chinese People’s Consultative Conference member, for the China section in 2012. Under the policy, one article relating to a Chinese official’s comment on the country’s environmental policy was dropped on the ground that the topic had not been given prior approval.

Reduced coverage

"As Beijing tightened its grip, the Hong Kong media has been reducing its coverage on mainland human rights issue over the years," Sham Yee-lan, the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, told Asia Sentinel in an interview. "All Hong Kong newspapers, including the South China Morning Post, dedicated their front page to the alarm over lead in water supply at estate flats instead of large scale arrest of mainland lawyers. While the editors can justify that with the priority of local interest, it cannot explain any one sided report."

Wang first ran into domestic and international crossfire when he returned past midnight to reduce a front page story to a 2-paragraph brief on the inside pages. The story on the death in custody of longtime Chinese dissident Li Wangyang, was splashed in all main Hong Kong papers. Li’s family ridiculed the Chinese authorities for claiming he hanged himself. The old man was deaf, lame and frail from long abuse in prison.

Most western reporters have either left the paper or have been forced out. Staff members have told Asia Sentinel policy is confused on local and China news coverage, with a flashpoint the 79-day Occupy Hong Kong rebellion in which the territory’s young, apolitical for decades, were catapulted into activism in opposing Beijing’s diktat for the 2017 general election for chief executive, in which China’s leaders broke a promise for universal suffrage, saying that while everybody could vote, candidates must be approved by China. In its coverage, critics say, the Post repeatedly tilted toward the government’s version of events.

Reporters protested against what they regarded as unwarranted manipulation of copy beyond normal sub-editing for style, flow and length. In some cases critical paragraphs were grafted on under reporters’ bylines rather mysteriously. But according to a well-placed news executive, when reporters objected, they were told they could leave if they didn’t like it. Staffers who spoke to Asia Sentinel did so on anonymity as they feared being fired if instances cited were too specific.

In the meantime, basic human rights have come under increasing assault by the Xi Jinping government. From mid-2013, according to Human Rights Watch, “the Chinese government and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have issued directives insisting on ‘correct’ ideology among party members, university lecturers, students, researchers, and journalists. These documents warn against the perils of ‘universal values’ and human rights, and assert the importance of a pro-government and pro-CCP stance.”

Other reports indicate that more than 1,000 rights activists have been called in by authorities and told to shut up or have been arrested and imprisoned.

“The suggestion that these lawyers and activists are part of a ‘major criminal gang’ sets a new low,” Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, an advocacy organization, told the New York Times in an email. “It’s all the more ironic given the plethora of procedural violations by police in the last 48 hours. If anyone’s conduct requires immediate, thorough scrutiny, it’s the Ministry of Public Security’s, not the lawyers.’ ”

* Philip Bowring is a part owner and consulting editor for Asia Sentinel.