By: Our Correspondent

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.