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Can China’s Best Newspaper Survive?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In December 2015, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba bought the Hong Kong media group of the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading English-language newspaper in the former British colony, where freedom of the press has resisted control by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. On September 9, the SCMP’s Chinese-language website went dark with little explanation, leading to concerns that censorship might next spread to the newspaper’s English-language coverage. Can Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, who has strong ties to mainland business interests and to the ruling party, support “objective, balanced and fair” coverage of China and his own business in English only? Are Chinese readers and readers of news in Chinese to be deemed second-class citizens, even by the venerable SCMP? —The Editors

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The most common question Americans ask me about working as a journalist in Beijing, which I did from 2008 to 2011, was “did your reporting get censored?” The answer is no—like most Western foreign correspondents, I wrote articles in English, mostly for an American audience. Newsweek, where I worked as a correspondent, wouldn’t delete or massage my copy to please Beijing. (If I had written for, say, the Chinese magazine Newsweek, my articles would have been censored.) While Beijing would certainly prefer to manage the coverage of foreign journalists writing about China, that is a secondary issue. Beijing is far more concerned with controlling what’s written about China in Chinese, because of the simple fact that the people it governs can access news in that language, and domestic politics always trump international.

In that light, the e-commerce giant Alibaba’s December 2015 purchase of the SCMP is more helpful to Beijing not in shifting the standards of the English-language edition, but in the Chinese-language one. Since the purchase, Alibaba seems to have taken the radical step of scrubbing much of the SCMP’s Chinese-language news from the Internet. In March 2016, the paper’s account on the popular microblogging platform site Weibo was deleted; according to the BBC’s Chinese website, that month also saw the SCMP’s last post on WeChat, the even more popular social media service. (It’s unclear if Beijing ordered the blocking, or if the SCMP closed its own accounts willingly; a SCMP spokesperson hasn’t immediately responded to a query about what happened to the Chinese language edition.) As of September 9, the online Chinese edition has seemingly ceased to exist. Not only did the SCMP stop publishing its Chinese-language website, but it seems to have removed all its old articles from the Internet; clicking on a link to a Chinese language news article sends the reader to the homepage of the international edition, in English.

The SCMP launched its Chinese edition in April 2013, publishing both content translated from the newspaper’s English side and original reporting. And some of the original reporting, especially on human rights cases in China, was excellent. It’s certainly a smart strategy for SCMP to curtail the Chinese edition in order to please Beijing—not only does it protect it from the censure of foreign observers, who rarely can/are willing to read the Chinese, but it further prevents Chinese from reading unfiltered news about their country. Still, it’s hard not to feel sad about the loss on the Chinese Internet of one more source of information and wisdom.

When the South China Morning Post found its own billionaire owner-champion, it wasn’t a free-market liberal sitting in the U.S. like The Washington Post’s Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, but China’s own online shopping king, Jack Ma, whose mainland business and connections immediately raised the specter if not the reality of influence and interference from the Chinese Communist Party.

The question of whether the SCMP can survive and thrive actually contains packed within it several separate issues.

The first is whether an English-language newspaper based in Hong Kong, where English is rapidly being pushed to third-class status behind the native Cantonese and the Mandarin of mainland business, can ever realize its ambitions to be a regional or even global source of news on Greater China.

The second is whether a newspaper owned by a China-based company and mogul can ever escape the bounds and even stigma of its proprietorship to do good, quality journalism and to be appreciated for doing so.

So far, the paper has made a number of serious missteps. An early hagiographic article on Ma’s Alibaba certainly raised questions. More seriously still, the paper published under an anonymous “staff reporter” byline a tendentiously acquired phone interview with detained Chinese activist Zhao Wei in which she “regretted” her actions—at a time when neither her husband nor lawyer could reach her or confirm her whereabouts. Most recently, the SCMP abruptly stopped its Chinese web edition and killed its archive.

All of these missteps could have been avoided.

The Zhao Wei story could have been made into a good one if the reporter had put his or her name to it, if the way the “interview” came about had been explained, if the restrictions on the interview were revealed to readers, if proper background had been put into the story. The closing of the Chinese edition in fact probably was a sensible business decision—the SCMP has never been known for its Chinese-language coverage; it was blocked in the mainland anyway, limiting its reach and commercial appeal; the Chinese-language market in Hong Kong and Taiwan is arguably overserved. But these things need to be explained; they need to be done in a measured way; and archives need to be preserved—otherwise you are simply asking for conspiracy theories.

For the SCMP to survive and thrive it needs to take action urgently:

  1. Write and publish a strong code of ethics and standards making clear that news decisions are taken without regard to politics or business interests.
  2. Hold the paper and editors accountable to that code by hiring an independent ombudsman or public editor or by appointing an independent board of trustees to oversee editorial independence.
  3. Learn to be open about decisions and missteps, building trust through transparency.
  4. Hire and train reporters who can build the paper’s reputation by good, solid reporting.
  5. Have editors who encourage reporting, guard against errors, and make the paper’s growth their only concern.

Finally, the new ownership structure unfortunately will always raise questions about the SCMP’s ability to thrive. Unlike Bezos who bought The Washington Post personally, without involving Amazon, Ma bought the SCMP through Alibaba, a listed company.

Should Alibaba’s own vast China business ever be threatened by Beijing’s unhappiness at the newspaper’s reporting, the company’s board would surely have a fiduciary duty to ensure that a frisky tail did not kill off an otherwise healthy dog. One concrete action to take would be to change this structure and insulate Alibaba and the newspaper from each other.

When Jack Ma bought the SCMP, he said about editorial independence: “Trust us.” However, blind trust is not enough. For the paper to survive and thrive, readers need to say: “Show us.”

On September 9, the South China Morning Post announced the closure of nanzao.com, its Chinese-language website, attributing the decision to a need to “integrate resources.”

The closure revived the discussion over the editorial independence of Hong Kong’s leading English-language daily newspaper, which dates back more than 100 years.

While some Hong Kong readers have been criticizing the decline in the newspaper’s coverage for several years now, it has continued to produce insightful reporting on the People’s Republic of China.

This is not a question of whether or not the newspaper will survive, but rather whether or not it will continue to produce independent and objective coverage of Hong Kong’s neighbor to the north.

Jack Ma, chairman of the Alibaba Group, surprised observers last December when he bought the newspaper from Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok, who had run the newspaper since 1993. One of the wealthiest men in China, Ma has close ties to Beijing, and has little incentive to ruffle feathers in the Chinese capital by allowing the newspaper to operate independently.

It’s long been claimed that the Kuok family bought the newspaper as a favor to Beijing to keep it out of non-Chinese hands. There has also been speculation that Ma’s purchase of the newspaper was also a favor to the authorities in Beijing.

So far, there appears to be little noticeable change in how the newspaper is being managed under Ma. The SCMP has continued to do some hard-hitting stories. But at the same time, the editors have engaged in worrisome censorship behind the scenes.

I worked for the newspaper for several years and was forced out of the newspaper in 2012 by then editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei, who has close ties to Beijing.

Supporters of the newspaper point out that it continues to report on sensitive issues, and that’s true. But what outside observers don’t see is all the news that doesn’t make it into the newspaper or that’s been heavily edited. Talk to the current staff of the newspaper and you’ll hear complaints about stories being spiked, toned down, or strongly rewritten to make them more agreeable to Beijing. During my time with the newspaper, many of my stories were treated in the same way.

A more dangerous trend is that propaganda is increasingly being passed off as real news, deceiving the newspaper’s readers.

The best example was the recent alleged phone interview with Zhao Wei, a legal assistant to prominent lawyer Li Heping; both were arrested in China last year in a crackdown on rights lawyers. In the interview, which first appeared on the Chinese-language website in July, Zhao allegedly admitted regrets about her activism.

The interview, which was billed as an exclusive, raised eyebrows for several reasons. For one, there was no byline. Second, Zhao, who allegedly was released from prison, could not be contacted by her own husband, who had no idea where she was.

The South China Morning Post never explained how its reporter was able to track down Zhao when her family couldn’t, or how the story ran without a byline.

Some at the newspaper say the interview was handed to the China Desk by management—suggesting there was no phone interview at all and that the script may have been faked by authorities in Beijing to discredit Zhao. If true, this is a very serious violation of media ethics.

Robert Kuok, possibly worried about his reputation, seems to have been reluctant to see the newspaper completely turned into a Hong Kong version of the People’s Daily, which would have met with strong opposition from readers.

There’s no indication so far that Jack Ma will be bound by such concerns.

Three weeks ago, I screen-grabbed a story from nanzao.com, the now-closed Chinese language news site of the South China Morning Post, and shared it on my social media accounts with the snide comment: “What a bizarre article. I can’t understand how this website is still blocked by the Great Firewall.”

The article in question was a column written by Lei Xiying, a prolific Chinese media commentator and writer whose other works include a series of powerful “patriotic-themed” videos denouncing “hostile western forces” and their sinister intentions against a rising China. (My colleague, Jamil Anderlini, the Financial Times’ Asia Editor, wrote about one of these videos.) Columnist Lei directed his ire against a handful of Chinese human rights lawyers among the dozens who were arrested, tried, publicly humiliated, and sentenced to varying prison terms in the last few years. Among those he accused of receiving financial support from hostile forces to undermine China’s rule of law was Zhao Wei, the 24-year-old paralegal whose “exclusive interview” with SCMP’s English edition set off a storm of criticism in media circles in July.

Between the SCMP’s English coverage on the issue and Lei’s column, one may naturally draw a conclusion about the status quo of “Hong Kong’s newspaper of record” now under Alibaba ownership. Yet, the reality seems to be a bit more complicated: despite the overtly pro-Beijing stance of these stories, both websites remained blocked in China. Even if these stories were unsuccessful attempts to appease Beijing censors and get SCMP sites unblocked, they still stand in stark contrast to the majority of its content, which remain fairly balanced, well-written, and very informative to those interested in China and Hong Kong.

SCMP’s Hong Kong LegCo election coverage, for example, as well as most of its reporting on the Causeway Bay Bookstore saga in the last two years, was timely, balanced, and commendable.

On the reasons behind nanzao.com’s closure, I tend to agree with most media analysis so far: Alibaba is primarily interested in the global outreach via SCMP’s English-language platforms, and the homeward approach was not a high priority for them. That point was made abundantly clear by interviews given by Joe Tsai and Jack Ma after the Alibaba takeover.

After trying unsuccessfully to unblock the Chinese sites, Alibaba and SCMP management probably decided that the several million pageviews the sites attracted were not worth the trouble of producing them. With the Chinese sites in particular, SCMP management faced the impossible job of trying constantly to please both Beijing on the one side, and discerning readers and media critics on the other. The team that produced the Chinese sites had gradually dwindled to just a few young editors, and I don’t believe their costs were a main concern to Alibaba or SCMP.

The SCMP has long been a barometer of the larger political situation in Hong Kong: anybody who reads news in English about China and Hong Kong for decades has had a kind of schizophrenic relationship with it—berating what seem to be frequent compromises with pro-government positions, and yet being pleasantly surprised at every hard-hitting report that still manages to get into print. Through the years, the newspaper has been making clear what its editorial line is by shedding some critical columnists (the last wave of dismissals saw the end of commentaries by Stephen Vines, Frank Ching, and Philip Bowring), while retaining some others, like Regina Ip, who make no mystery of being pro-government, pro-Beijing, and hostile to the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong.

English coverage online has often been surprisingly more open-minded: during the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong, for example, the SCMP kept a live blog that was timely, informative, and did not shy away from controversial topics such as excessive use of force by the police, the unwillingness of the establishment to open a meaningful dialogue with the protesters, or the frequent attacks perpetrated on demonstrators in Mong Kok. Online, the SCMP also has produced many high-quality multimedia stories on very sensitive topics, such as the 1989 Tiananmen protests and their bloody aftermath. In print, though, the attitude has been more cautious, tempered by columnists and editorials consistently preaching at the demonstrating students and unwilling to criticize Beijing and the increasingly unpopular local authorities.

As always, when Hong Kong becomes the center of attention, the SCMP turns into the major source of information for concerned people scattered all around the world—a fact that was not lost on Beijing, and which many think was behind Jack Ma’s decision to purchase the newspaper through Alibaba. We cannot know if the purchase was out of Ma’s own volition or following direct orders from Beijing. We cannot forget, however, that as soon as news of the acquisition circulated, prominent company executives said that it would help change the “negative” perception people had of China, a perception shaped by the existing mainstream English-language coverage of the country. The worry that the SCMP would be turned into a propaganda outlet was not idle speculation but stemmed from clumsy statements that had nothing to do with upholding high standards of journalism.

Since this highly controversial acquisition, the newspaper has had great trouble retaining its most experienced writers, but the quality of the reporting has not changed dramatically from before: it is still uneven, sometimes of very high quality, and at other times too keen to give support to the government.

The sudden closure of the Chinese-language website, on the other hand, came as a complete surprise: sure, it was blocked in China—but then, those Chinese who are keen on reading censored news are very skilled at jumping the Great Firewall, making the newspaper easily accessible. In the complete lack of transparency surrounding how this decision was taken, it is impossible to gauge if it was an economic decision—after all, Ma decided to abolish the online pay-wall, creating the assumption that finances were not the newspaper’s main concern. If we look at what was lost among the many stories that have vanished into thin air, we will notice an infamous interview that Jack Ma gave to the Chinese-language website of the SCMP in 2013, when he was quoted as saying that the crackdown on the Tiananmen protestors in 1989 was “the most correct decision.” This caused no small amount of grief to Ma, who was berated for this statement both at home and abroad. Until the SCMP Chinese-language website disappeared, the full transcript of that interview was still online.

We can only speculate, of course, but it seems that Ma has deleted an irritant, and something that ultimately is irrelevant to the greater aim of having a respected, if criticized, newspaper carry a jollier view of China to its English language readers.

Hong Kong Economic Journal? Too small. Sing Tao? Long ago. Ming Pao? Maybe. Apple Daily? I have a conflict of interest. But the South China Post (SCMP) as a great newspaper in Asia? No, and never really was.

A great newspaper is the voice of the people, a catalyst for greater freedoms, an enemy of oppressors, or even the official record for a city or people. The SCMP is not and has never been any of these.

The SCMP was a good English expat newspaper from the end of World War II up to its 1993 sale by Rupert Murdoch to the pro-China Mogul Robert Kuok. It survived as the establishment paper of the Brits, with owners like HSBC far more interested in economic stability than justice for the Hong Kong people or exposing the brutality of Mao. By the mid 1980s, with the rising of local talent in government, there was not even a need to read it to see what the Brits were thinking as their compradores briefed all of Hong Kong through local Chinese press.

Sadly, since my arrival in Hong Kong in 1990, the SCMP has been little more than an expat social read, with its real value being for those outside Hong Kong who could count on the paper for a fair and detailed account of what was going in what was by then a Chinese society with British landlords on their way out. That phase is the one folks are mourning. Point taken, but let’s not confuse decent reporting with greatness.

Please understand, I do not think the paper had no value, and it was an impressively popular and profitable paper. But it was a colonial paper, and by its birthright greatness eluded it.

As for the future of the SCMP. What Jack Ma does with it is meaningless. The international English press, the AP/AFP/BBC/CNN/FT/NYT/Reuters/WSJ/Guardian/TIME/Quartz and even Vice and Vox now cover Hong Kong in more detail and with greater freedom than the SCMP can muster.

Greg Torode of Reuters, Alan Wong of The New York Times, or Isabella Steger of Quartz have more in depth knowledge of local politics in Hong Kong than most SCMP reporters I meet. We are blessed with an abundance of good international reporting in Hong Kong, and start-ups like Tom Grundy’s Hong Kong Free Press.

There has never been a time in my 25 years in Hong Kong where English has played a bigger role in the local political scene, and sadly the SCMP, under ownership of Ma, is not taking part. Maybe it’s a younger educated audience, maybe it’s we at Next Media are all that remain of a free press in the Chinese media scene, or maybe it’s Facebook. Probably a bit of all.

But worrying about the passing of the SCMP into irrelevance is like worrying about finding tapes for your DVD player.

I don't think the SCMP will die or close. Rather, I suggest that Jack Ma and his good friends in the Beijing government not forget that if the world wants to engage and understand China, what is needed is a professional and trustworthy newspaper in English, rather than one more piece of China Daily.

Since nobody knows Ma’s real intention behind his apparent overpayment for the SCMP, let’s assume that he felt the acquisition was a good deal. And let’s acknowledge that there are many ways to feed a newspaper—by consolidating assets and injecting more investment when necessary, something that wouldn’t be hard for Ma. If he’s politically motivated to help the Beijing government penetrate the global English newspaper market, for example, then Ma has all the more reason to keep the SCMP alive.

I worked in the SCMP Beijing Bureau, and basically did nothing but politically sensitive stories—from human rights campaigns, dissident arrests and crackdowns on NGOs, to judicial corruption. I was never censored by the editors.

I think the SCMP, in the 20 years since 1997, has been a special, trustworthy window on China. It’s published bound by western journalism ethics. Legally and administratively, it’s free of central propaganda department censorship. It provides an abundance of stories on China, many of which are reported and written by mainland-born writers who understand the country but also have the courage and motivation to write in professional and independent language friendly to western readers. Compared with stories published by The New York Times, The Guardian, FT or Reuters, its stories’ quality are good but not outstanding. But the SCMP provides a more comprehensive range of daily accounts of China, and it's read by all embassies and foreign organizations operating there. All in all, the world needs such voice, and Ma knows it.

What I predict is bound to happen but I hope I’m wrong. I see a slow paralysis setting in at the SCMP, a kind of suicide by self-censorship as a direct consequence of Ma’s ownership. Ma might never give a direct order to interfere with daily editorial work—as he promised not to do in an interview with the SCMP news editor—because it's too obvious to be hidden.

However, self-censorship might happen in a softer way, "to give face" to the central government, or "to be cooperative" when the newspaper is granted special access to information, such as a seat in the trial for subversion case of human rights lawyer Zhou Shifeng, together with state media such as Xinhua. I overheard that the SCMP China team was given special access to the courtroom—unimaginable for Western media. No self-respecting news organization would reject such a reporting opportunity. It will be key to see how the SCMP develops the story, taking what angle using what narrative language. Will the paper keep digging and disclosing facts and truth? Or will it increasingly second-guess itself?

The true value of the SCMP as a decent newspaper lies in its close-up reporting on real China using professional journalism norms. In the future, if it failed to do so, then it would be regarded “dead.” Pragmatically, its survival depends on if Ma and the Beijing government see the value in a newspaper to help China’s leaders speak to the world—if they still want to.