By: Our Correspondent

Hong Kong’s venerable South China Morning Post, long one of Asia’s most influential English-language news outlets, over the weekend illustrated the paper’s striking turn towards China under editor Wang Xiangwei, putting on page 6 the story of the arrest of at least 100 human rights activists by Chinese authorities, one of the biggest crackdowns since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The story was major news around the world.

It is additionally important with Chinese leader Xi Jinping having scheduled his first state visit to the United States for September and with Washington’s attention to human rights a traditional bone of contention between the two countries.

The US State Department has denounced the arrests, saying Chinese public security forces “have systematically detained individuals who share the common attribute of peacefully defending the rights of others, including those who lawfully challenge official policies” and urging China “to respect the rights of all of its citizens and to release all those who have recently been detained for seeking to protect the rights of Chinese citizens.”

But the story didn’t make the front pages of either the Sunday or Monday editions of the Post.  On Sunday, the arrests took a back seat to a story about Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying discussing “the way forward” with Beijing officials and a picture of fish dead from pollution. On Monday, while the lead paragraph of the story did identify the 100-plus arrested as “mainland human rights advocates,” it added those arrested “were criminally detained in what state media said was a nationwide operation to smash a ‘criminal gang.’

The story on the paper’s website on the issue was much stronger than the what appeared in print, but the printed story didn’t come out that way.

Although human rights activists across the world have raised deep alarm about the arrests, the Post story didn’t mention human rights concerns again until the final paragraph, when it quoted China Human Rights Watch director Sophie Richardson in an abbreviated statement. Instead almost all of the story quoted Chinese media as saying the Ministry of Public Security “launched the operation to ‘smash a major criminal gang that had used the Beijing Fengrui law firm as a platform since July 2012 to draw attention to sensitive cases, seriously disturbing social order.’”

The tilt toward China is slowly closing a window on mainland affairs. Although the paper has gained its share of criticism over the years, it has been regarded as an indispensable source of information on China by governments, analysts and businessmen across the region and the world. 

The diminishing amount of critical reporting on both Hong Kong and China has led to the creation of a new online publication called the Hong Kong Free Press by a young British journalism graduate that has shown every sign of becoming a success, easily drawing HK$150,000 in a crowd-funding campaign and ended up with HK$600,000.  In operation just two weeks, the Free Press has already amassed 100,000 unique readers and half a million page-views.

“This is why we exist, the need for wider press freedom,” Grundy said.

Fewer independent voices

According to a July 2015 report by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, since the reining in of independent op-ed columnists in May, including Philip Bowring*, Steven Vines, Frank Ching and Kevin Rafferty, the paper has required them to send email queries for pre-approval of topics instead of simply filing their columns as they had done in the past. 

“In mid-May, chief editor Wang Xiangwei sent a letter to every columnist featured on its Opinion and Insight pages informing them of the policy change,” according to the Journalists Association report. It read: “From Monday June 1, we will no longer require you to file your regular column … Instead, we would encourage you to email proposals on your specific areas of expertise to the op-ed editor for consideration…In addition, the Post will contact you if/when we have a topic in mind that we would like you to write about. This should ensure more flexibility for both sides.”

The demand for pre-approval of topics is a departure from the newspaper’s long established policy that allowed regular columnists ample scope to decide what to write about, the report said. “The pre-approval demand for columns was first introduced by Wang, a former Jilin Chinese People’s Consultative Conference member, for the China section in 2012. Under the policy, one article relating to a Chinese official’s comment on the country’s environmental policy was dropped on the ground that the topic had not been given prior approval.