Mainlander named as South China Morning Post Editor

The appointment of Wang Xiangwei as editor in chief of the South China Morning Post, announced Tuesday, has reignited concerns that the paper, arguably the most influential English-language daily in East Asia, is being drawn closer into the mainland Chinese embrace.

Wang, who moved to the paper as a China business reporter in 1996, becoming deputy editor in 2007, is a member of the People's Political Consultative Conference of Jilin Province. He spent three years at the state-owned China Daily before moving to the United Kingdom, where he worked at the BBC and other news organizations. He returned to Hong Kong to work for the now-defunct Eastern Express.

The appointment caps a months-long search for outside talent through at least last November. One journalist who left the paper some time ago after arguments over coverage of China said the decision to name Wang and his deputy, Tammy Tam, “completes the Sinicization of the South China Morning Post.” However, those who have worked closely with Wang say he is likeable and is no stooge for Beijing despite the fact that he is the first editor-in-chief to have been born in Mainland China.

“He is his own man,” one observer said. “His commentaries on China are objective, critical and come from authoritative knowledge. He is respected by his peers and the Beijing brass. He is more of a scholar and intellectual than a manager. His role as editor in chief is probably more focused on leadership on China affairs than in running the newsroom.”

Likewise, although Tam, named deputy editor, is considered to be close to the Central Liaison Office and the Hong Kong-Macau Affairs Office, she is not considered to be an apologist for the party. She joined the paper from the mainland-owned ATV News, where she held a variety of senior editorial positions. She left the station following a horrendous blunder when the news program erroneously reported that former Chinese supreme leader Jiang Zemin had died. Sources say she refused to follow subsequent instructions to cut back on reporting on the pro-electoral reform Democratic Party. The bigger concern is that most of her experience has been in television rather than newspapers.

However, named along with the two as a senior deputy editor was Kenneth Howe, a former business editor at the San Francisco Chronicle who joined in 2007. He is said to be well-regarded inside the paper and a hands-on manager. Among other awards, he is a three-time winner of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers awards.

One of the questions being asked is which way Wang, a mainlander would react in the case of an ugly controversy between Hong Kong residents and mainlanders which blew up over the last month after a mainland family was confronted by locals over eating on the Hong Kong light rail line, which is not allowed. A film of the confrontation was uploaded onto YouTube and has generated huge controversy, with mainlanders branding Hong Kong residents as ungrateful and traitors to their Chinese heritage, and Hong Kongers describing the millions of mainland tourists who come to Hong Kong annually as uncouth and uncivilized. That was followed by a television rant by Kong Qing-Dong, a professor at Peking University, who called Hong Kong residents "running dogs for British imperialists."

The controversy shows no sign of going away, with two Chinese-language newspapers, Apple Daily and Sharp Daily, carrying full-page advertisements today calling mainlanders “locusts” and demanding a halt to the "unlimited invasion of mainland pregnant women in Hong Kong" and for Mainland Chinese to "respect" Hong Kong culture.

The newspaper has also been in a state of unease since Reginald Chua, the former deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, left abruptly after three senior Malaysian staff were brought into the paper without consulting him. He was followed out the door shortly after by his second in command, David Lague, both of whom have joined Reuters. Cliff Buddle has been acting editor in chief since that time but has been shunted off to become editor of special projects, according to a statement by Kuok Hui Kwong, the managing director and daughter of Malaysian sugar tycoon and owner Robert Kuok Hock Nien.

There has been growing speculation that the paper could be up for sale after Cheong Yip Seng, the former editor-in-chief of the Straits Times, quietly appeared in the newsroom late last year with no notice about his role, mission or existence, leading to speculation that the Singapore-based Straits Times could be interested in a buyout. Cheong has told people he is there as a consultant for three months.

Robert Kuok bought the newspaper in 1993, reportedly as a favor to the Chinese government to keep it in safe hands. It was seen then as a master-stroke by a Beijing-friendly tycoon who would reshape the internationally respected broadsheet for mainland distribution and growth. However, under a long string of editors the paper continued to show a dogged editorial independence which irritates the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities.

In a prepared news release, Wang emphasized that Hong Kong “remains the fulcrum for the century-old newspaper. ‘Hong Kong is our home and we are naturally proud of and committed to its success and progress,’ he said.’ Our coverage will therefore continue to defend and promote the qualities that make Hong Kong such a great city. We will also continue to publish news without fear or favor through our fair, relevant and thought-provoking coverage.’"