Leading Columnists Purged at Hong Kong’s Paper of Record

The South China Morning Post, one of the region’s most influential newspapers, appears to be axing its star columnists, three of whom were persistent critics of the Hong Kong government and held views on Asia which were sometimes sympathetic to China’s neighbors.

The four are Philip Bowring*, Steve Vines, Kevin Rafferty and Frank Ching – all respected commentators. Their status is unclear, with at least one told he might be allowed to write once a month. The axe also has been more widely wielded, possibly to make room for free comment from academics, investment fund managers and others. It will nevertheless dilute the SCMP’s robust Op-Ed pages.

The departure of the four is significant because as China has tightened its grip on both its domestic press and international reporting, the South China Morning Post’s position as the most independent English-language look across the border is under threat. Paul Mooney, a prize-winning journalist who had reported from inside China for the paper for 20 years, was let go in July of 2012.

The current putsch does not follow the pattern of past SCMP decisions under owner Robert Kuok, where lame justifications were pitched to skeptical staff for “letting go” inconvenient members like Larry Feign (cartoonist), Willy Lam, Nuri Vittachi, Danny Gittings, Michael McBride and Jasper Becker, among many others.

After cycling through a half-dozen editors in succession, the SCMP in consultation with the Liaison Office, appointed China-born and former Jilin Chinese People’s Consultative Conference member, Wang Xiangwei as editor in early 2012.

Wang 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 prior abuse in prison.

Who wanted the columnists gone?

The ghostly nature of this weeding-out of columnists makes some analysts suspect it is an edict from the Liaison Office, convulsing already about the forthcoming 2017 Election Reform Bill facing defeat in the Legislative Council.

The Liaison Office has a history of bad advice to its bosses in Beijing. It grossly underestimated the massive public anger against the Article 23 Security Bill in 2003, the June 4 vigils to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the July 1st handover anniversary protests and other flash points that saw Hong Kongers take to the streets. The 80-day Occupy student sit-in of 2014 left the Liaison Office utterly befuddled.

The Liaison Office runs a "United Front" network of agents and loyalists to infiltrate, intimidate, quell and tame the civil service, academia, uniformed services, media, youth bodies and wherever the unruly Hong Kong spirit flares.

Where they largely stayed underground in leftist trade unions and schools under a tolerant Colonial administration before 1997, comrades now swagger above ground with a sense of entitlement. CY Leung, Hong Kong’s leader, has appointed many Beijing loyalists to prominent positions of power in the civil service, statutory bodies, universities and public organizations.

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

Election Reform Bill challenge

The Liaison Office declares that the majority of Hong Kong residents support the misnamed Election Reform Bill. Its frontmen have repeated the public signature campaign last engineered against the student Occupy protest, with a million sign-ups at crossroads and walkways. Several polls were also conducted to convince all that the silent majority wants "universal suffrage" implemented.

Beijing’s "universal suffrage," however, is for Hong Kong citizens to vote for a slate of two or three candidates selected by the 1,200 person Nominating Committee set up and stacked for the purpose.

The pan-democrats are accused of going against the wishes of the majority of Hong Kong residents. The pressure on the pan-democrats to cave-in is severe. If the democrats collectively withhold support from the two-thirds majority needed to pass the election reform bill, the Liaison Office will have egg on its face again. Beijing can be expected to roll a few heads if that happens. President Xi Jinping is not known to suffer fools gladly.

At the SCMP, neither Editor Wang Xiangwei nor CEO Robin Hu has yet explained what is happening. Staff are clueless. The two chiefs, in all probability, may have had nothing to do with the snuff out. The desperation of the Liaison Office may explain the lightning expiration of the high profile commentariat -- who do not follow the party line. Were the owners jumped?

Enter the Hong Kong Free Press

Ever since Robert Kuok bought the South China Morning Post from Rupert Murdoch in 1993, the prospect of one of Asia’s great newspapers turning into Pravda for China, was regarded as inevitable. But it has taken a long time to tame the 110-year old newspaper. It seemed to possess a rebel streak.

The twists at the SCMP are helping to make the case for a new English language website to be launched in June, called the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), which positions itself as the go-to site for “what is really happening in HK,” according to Evan Fowler, who with Tom Grundy helms the not-for-profit news venture.

They have gained a growing list of senior journalists, freelancers and academics willing to contribute news, translations from the Chinese press and analysis. HKFP in its first crowd-funding appeal in May, raised HK$220,000.

As the SCMP is run into the ground by its owners to please Beijing, there seems to be a groundswell of support for an alternative, independent source of news and commentary about Hong Kong and China.