South China Morning Post Turns to the Mainland

Hong Kong’s 110-year-old flagship English language paper, the South China Morning Post, is suffering another round of self-inflicted crisis. Editorial staffers despair of its confused policy direction on local and China news coverage. Disenchanted journalists are leaving or being let go. It is losing its cachet as a beacon of independent journalism.

The paper historically has been important well beyond Hong Kong. With its network of correspondents, it has been regarded as an indispensable source of information on China by governments, analysts and businessmen across the region if not across the world. With Chinese President Xi Jinping putting an ever-tighter leash on mainland reporting, the Post’s diminishing critical reporting is a slowly closing window on mainland affairs.

Today the newsroom is demoralized and angry at what reporters regard 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.

Staffers who spoke to Asia Sentinel did so on anonymity as they feared being fired if instances cited were too specific. Hong Kong political content and China news seem to suffer the heaviest ghosting.

The paper continues to win prestigious industry awards for its content. On June 11 it scooped four awards for journalistic excellence at the Society of Publishers in Asia annual banquet. However, it has switched with a surprising urgency to featuring prominent pro-Beijing personalities on its front pages in the guise of “interviews” to issue dire warnings on Occupy Central and the futility of political reform beyond what Beijing will allow.

Valuable front page space has become in-your-face propaganda which does little for the paper’s credibility or the professional reputations of its editors and journalists. Editorial columns once respected for clarity and firm policy positions now hem and haw between criticism and justifications for controversial local and national government policy. It can’t be fun for the leader writers forced to vacillate.

CY Leung placemen on chessboard

Deputy editor Tammy Tam manages to spin CY Leung’s dismally poor record on senior appointments in government and statutory bodies, as a determined chief executive putting trusted placemen into key roles for effective implementation and smooth relations with Beijing.

“Appointments may fly in the face of meritocracy but the city’s leader needs people who can help him” is how this hollow public relations piece masquerades as news in the City section of its June 16th edition.

Eyeball catcher’ as China editor

New China editor Billy Tianbo Huang lists Xinhua News Agency and Mediacorp in Singapore as references on his Linkedin profile. On his role for the state-owned Mediacorp, Billy says of himself: “under his leadership the company cracked highly-regulated China market and captured more eyeballs than before.”

Singapore press experience is highly valued by media owners in Hong Kong keen to have editors who know their place in politics and who enjoy the patronage of China’s propaganda czars. Beijing bureau chief Zhang Hong jumped off as Billy Huang arrived to take the helm of China news.

Apple Daily reported at end May that one Billy Tianbo Huang, head of One TV, a satellite operation commencing operations on May 6th had been arrested by HK Immigration authorities on suspicion of working illegally without a work-permit.

How the arrested Huang resurfaced as SCMP’s China desk boss is another gravity-defying feat of Chosen Ones from Beijing in the new Hong Kong. A grateful Billy’s first editorial for SCMP’s Chinese website, contains this sycophancy: “the advantage of China’s political system and courage of China’s leaders are obvious.”

Lawmaker’s aide to cover public policy

The long-suffering city desk is restructured again with former Hong Kong Standard reporter Cannix Yau to lead public policy and social issues. Yau returns to newspapering after years as a political aide to lawmakers in the CY Leung administration.

Perhaps the looming 2017 chief executive election by universal suffrage is causing China Liaison Office minders to redouble efforts to align local media to prop up the shambolic CY Leung administration and to amplify warnings from Beijing on the Occupy Central movement.

The CPC was never obliged to hold any election by universal suffrage since seizing power in 1949. In village and county elections all candidates are prior approved. The Party’s nervousness about free elections is understandable. It needs a rubber-stamp Nomination Committee to pre-screen candidates.

The people of Hong Kong remember the comic cover-ups of illegal structures by anointed CE candidate Henry Tang in 2012 and the subsequent undeclared structures at his accuser CY Leung’s abode. There is no guarantee that the next lot of party-approved nominees for 2017 would be any better. Competent Hong Kong-ers stay far away from this circus.

Occupy Central a soft target

The Occupy Central organizers challenge what they see as a distortion of universal suffrage. They demand a normal process for Hong Kong citizens to choose their leader as promised in the Basic Law.

Occupy Central seems to have been picked as the soft target to make an example of, instead of the deeply emotional June 4th commemoration of the Tiananmen massacre or the annual expression of disappointment on the July 1st handover which promised “One country, two systems” and “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong.”

A recent White Paper released by Beijing to correct “lop-sided, confused and wrong views” reasserts the party’s supreme authority and its right to keep interpreting the Basic Law to fit its concept of political reform for Hong Kong.

The SCMP is doing its bit to promote the Beijing diktat in Hong Kong. Perhaps the owners still hope to be rewarded with publishing access into the mainland for its languishing share price.