The Chinese squeeze on Hong Kong’s press: my mistake

I drew attention yesterday to two changes of editors, one in India and one in Hong Kong, which I thought important. One conclusion I drew was almost certainly wrong.

In the case of the new editor of the South China Morning Post, I thought that the tone of the commentary I read on Wang Xiangwei was overwrought. It seemed to be assumed that because he was born on the mainland, he would be the creature of the regime in Beijing. But I was writing from superficial knowledge and I sent a link to a journalist friend in Hong Kong. He rapidly corrected my opinion. He is pessimistic about what will now happen, even if the state’s influence over the paper takes the form of a slow squeeze rather than any sudden stifling.

My friend wrote:

“I think you underestimate the ruthlessness and determination of the Communist Party and its United Front Department to influence and manipulate the media in HK. It is not using the Propaganda Department and (powers of) confiscation as it does in the mainland, but the ‘capitalist’ means, like takeovers, mergers, pressure and lobbying.

“Mr Wang is a Jilin provincial delegate of the CCPPC and almost certainly a member of the Communist Party. During his years at the Post, he has got rid of staff – foreign, HK or mainlander – who challenged him and wrote stories that do not conform to his views of news. Do you expect him to have the objectivity and open-mindedness we wish from such an editor? Many Chinese believe that the Communists have no right to rule China. It is views like this that must at all costs be
kept out of the paper.

“The CEO of the SCMP is Sally Kuok, the daughter of Robert Kuok. She is well educated but knows little of HK, China, journalism or the East Asian economy. Those who work for her says that she cannot tolerate the slightest challenge, like many children of the very rich. Her father and his companies have enormous business interests in the mainland. He is like many tycoons in HK who put these interests ahead of what we could consider freedom of reporting.

“As I understand it, the dynamics work like this. Miss Kuok, who has never lived in the mainland and understands very little about it, meets officials of the Chinese government here and in China. She is ill at ease and not sure what to say. Mr Wang Xiangwei is with her; he says to her (in English) that he understands how to deal with the officials. The officials are charming to them both and praise Mr Wang. She thinks: ‘with him in charge, my heart is at ease. The paper will not upset anyone in Beijing and the business interests of all the Kuok empire will be protected. Mr Wang knows what is allowed and what is not allowed.’

“Despite having lived in HK on and off for many years, Mr Wang does not speak Cantonese. His instincts are not those of a HK editor. One day recently, all the HK Chinese-language papers led with a tape on the Net of a Beijing University professor calling HK people ‘dogs’. Many HK people call mainlanders who come here ‘locusts’ because they buy properties and occupy maternity beds that should go to local mothers. That day the SCMP did not have this as its lead story. A HK editor would never have made that mistake.”

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1 comment

  1. The SCMP may not have led on the “Hong Kong dogs” story, but it has certainly given it considerable coverage: and it continues, under Wang’s editorship, to write sceptically and critically about Hong Kong’s governance, Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland, and about mainland affairs. Commentators are allowed to be rude about, eg, Henry Tang, Beijing’s favourite as the next chief executive of Hong Kong and journalists are allowed to write about, eg, theb harassment still going on from the authorities in the rebellious village of Wukan. Wang knows very well that the SCMP has no audience if it is seen as a mere mouthpiece of Beijing. His problem will be convincing the Kuoks (or the Singaporeans) this, and convincing Beijing that it looks better for the mainland to allow an independent SCMP to survive.

    (Apologies for being Anne Onymous, but I’m too close to the action to give my real name.)