New South China Morning Post Editor Confronts the Press

Wang Xiang Wei was appointed editor of the 110-year South China Morning Post in February. This is not the first time the newspaper, one of Asia’s most influential English language dailies, has had a Chinese editor. But Wang is the first from the Peoples’ Republic of China.

That has led to speculation, much of it pessimistic, on the direction the paper would take under his editorship. Barely two months into his job, he was invited to declare his vision for the paper this week at Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

Wang is tall - the twin microphones mounted on the FCC lectern couldn’t extend any further and he had to stoop awkwardly to speak into them. To a packed house of local and foreign journalists plus the usual FCC mix of public relations managers, lawyers and sundry others, Wang acknowledged the paper’s storied history. He pledged to carry on its reputation for reporting which has mostly earned it trust and credibility, albeit with some notable lapses.

To a question about news coverage priorities, he replied that he intends for the paper to be the most authoritative source on Chinese politics and economics while not neglecting the rest of Asia - given the strategic issues in the South China Sea and the geopolitics of overlapping maritime claims involving oil reserves and big power regional security pacts.

Wang’s editorship coincided with the most dramatic twists and turns of HK’s first contested selection for the next chief executive to replace incumbent Donald Tsang. He gamely conceded that he owed everything to the personalities involved: “I have to write thank you notes to Donald, Henry and CY Leung for giving me such a stream of news, controversies and scandals” for a rousing start.

CPPCC membership

Wang was at pains to clarify that his membership of the Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative Congress which meets annually in Beijing, derives from his origins in Jilin - the bleak central-northeastern province bounded by Inner Mongolia to the west and Russia to the east.

He feels obliged to “give something back” to the land of his forefathers, he said, as a representative of the party’s Jilin province branch. It does not, he averred, “imply any plot” for him to take over the Post with a secret agenda, adding that he wants to use his skills and networks to contribute to progress in Jilin within the consultative congress context.

He referred to western reports about HK’s “fierce media” defending human rights and press freedoms almost sarcastically. He noted that some things are illegal in China but legal in Hong Kong - such as the annual June 4th gatherings in Victoria Park, which attracts thousands of citizens to candlelight vigils to listen to speeches and sing songs to remember the students who were killed by PLA troops in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Wang confirmed that Post would continue to cover that with front page reports and pictures as it has done every year since.

On a question of how he would treat the chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying’s alleged communist party membership, Wang was clear - Leung has declared publicly that he never was a member of the communist party. “There is no story”. He added that until Leung starts implementing policies there is no point in ascribing unworthy motives or making dire predictions.

He noted that most of his FCC audience would be regular readers of the Morning Post and should not have any reason to doubt the paper’s commitment to objective reporting ‘without fear or favor’.

He said that two months was a short time for any indication of his editorship but “wait six months and perhaps you can invite me back” to discuss his agenda and direction for the SCMP. He hoped that he would still be editor by then as he was aware of the short tenure of editors in recent years at the paper.

While he spoke directly to his audience, Wang appeared spontaneous but when he cut back to his prepared text occasionally, he mouthed cut-and-paste marketing language from the SCMP brochure.

Deputy editor distorts HK history

On the very day Wang was addressing the FCC, pledging to uphold the fine journalistic traditions of the SCMP, his deputy editor Tammy Tam, known for her close relations with the Central Liaison Office, penned a piece titled “Beijing rethinks its HK policies” in which she ‘reinterprets’ HK history:

“Tung resigned as Hong Kong's chief executive in 2005 after the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak and a massive rally against the government's poor performance.”

That links Tung’s departure for the first time to SARS and the ‘massive rally’ to the 2003 government’s ‘poor performance.’ The Article 23 Security Bill which was the direct cause of the rally and Tung’s eventual removal is carefully avoided.