South China Morning Post Shows its New China Stripes

Alibaba’s Jack Ma has made an immediate impact on his new acquisition, the South China Morning Post. Concerns are rising that the newspaper, considered one of the most authoritative in Asia on China despite its drawbacks, is going to become a cheerleader for Beijing.

The front page on April 5 led with an innocent enough headline, even it was an almost-unprecedented self-advertisement that raised hackles among journalists: “New Owner Alibaba Removes Paywall.” Now anyone can read the paper online for free. But what followed as a so-called news story was a blatant piece of editorializing under the byline not of a news reporter but of an editor, Yonden Lhatoo, who writes columns which mostly adhere to an anti-foreign agenda.

Lhatoo gushed: “The Post is blazing a new trail again by giving readers free access to its online and mobile editions, opening up the most comprehensive and credible news site on China to the rest of the world”.

The rest of the story consisted of quotes from Ma, the paper’s editor and chief executive about the new wondrous free supply of China news “from a within-the-region perspective” – clearly meaning the perspective of its owner rather than the wider region of which South China is a part. Inside, readers were treated to an editorial repeating all of the above.

This left readers wondering what sort of coverage of China – let alone Hong Kong’s immediate neighbors Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines – could expect which was intended for the world. A column in the Financial Times pointedly asked:

If the SCMP becomes a full-time China booster it will not win over global readers. There are plenty of state mouthpieces already. Alibaba may not care, whatever it says. Its priority is to participate, and help investors to participate, in the growth of China’s new economy. It can do this only if it stays on the right side of politics.

Sure enough, while media around the world were headlining the publication of details of famous people hiding their wealth via a law firm in Panama, fountainhead of a maze of offshore corporate tax havens, the SCMP buried the story low down on an inside page of its City section.

Readers gasped in astonishment at what appeared to be the Beijing and Russian line that this was all just western inspired propaganda. Even though relatives of Chinese notables were on the lists so far released, this was a huge story touching not just the Chinese and Russian leaderships but many more besides, from Iceland and the UK to the Philippines, via FIFA and a multitude of Latin American and African politicians with unaccounted and untaxed wealth.

Caught with its pants down, the SCMP proceeded to compound its obvious kowtowing with another article by its chief in-house apologist. Lahtoo launched into a defense of the Post, claiming that the paper had previously covered some Chinese named in the Panama cache. Without identifying any specific Post detractors Lahtoo accused disgruntled former Post employees (of which there is a legion) of spreading untruths out of spite and without any knowledge of the facts.

Regular and informed readers of the Post know full well that the paper has been adjusting its coverage to suit Beijing ever since Wang Xiangwei, a Communist Party member from Beijing, became editor in succession to Reginald Chua. But at least Wang, was like Chua, an experienced journalist who had held senior positions, a comment unlikely to be made about the Post’s current editor-in-chief, Tammy Tam, let alone Yonden Lahtoo.

What is in particular danger is the newspaper’s coverage of the so-called localist movement in Hong Kong as students and other disgruntled members of society pull away from Beijing. The paper’s coverage of what has become known as the “fishball riots” in the Mongkok district verged on hysterical, as was its previous coverage of the Umbrella movement last year. There must have been a certain amount of chagrin at the paper when 10 defendants of the Mong Kok riots walked free on April 7 when prosecutors said they had reviewed the evidence and found insufficient grounds to prosecute.