China’s crackdown on Jack Ma has come to Hong Kong’s paper of record

Another handover?
Another handover?
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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As the Communist Party’s crackdown on Hong Kong merges with its crackdown on Jack Ma’s tech empire, it’s sparking intense worry about the future of the city’s 117-year-old newspaper of record.

When Ma’s Alibaba Group acquired the South China Morning Post in 2015 from a Malaysian tycoon, amid increasing signs that Beijing was tightening control of Hong Kong, fears swirled that the new ownership would undermine the English-language broadsheet’s editorial independence. But Ma and Gary Liu, CEO of the paper since 2017, promised the Post would maintain its editorial independence. Now Chinese government regulators wary of Alibaba’s influence that spans from retail and finance to media, have ordered it to sell off its media assets, including the Post, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.

Current and former SCMP employees Quartz talked to described feeling blindsided by news of a potential change in ownership, one that comes as Beijing has effectively seized direct control of the city. Once boisterous, the city’s media industry has come under intense political pressure in recent years, exacerbated by the Beijing-imposed national security law that directs authorities to “strengthen” supervision and regulation of the media. In the past year, police have raided independent publication Apple Daily, opened prosecutions of its founder Jimmy Lai, and put in new management at respected public broadcaster RTHK.

Against that backdrop, any sale of the Post would most likely be to another Chinese entity. New ownership, employees fear, could mean that the tensions that currently prevail inside the paper about story choices, framing, and headlines—long mirroring the conflicts of Hong Kong itself—would be silenced in favor of a more pro-Beijing line.

In an internal email to employees, CEO Liu dismissed news of the publication’s potential sale as “rumors and insinuations,” assuring staff that “Alibaba’s commitment to SCMP remains steadfast.”

But an SCMP reporter, who declined to be named, said they would make plans to leave the paper rather than face the prospect of working for a state employer.

“The net is closing in,” said another reporter, who recently left the paper.

“Already indirectly controlled”

Founded in 1903 by an Australian-Chinese revolutionary and a British journalist in colonial-era Hong Kong, SCMP has changed hands many times—each time raising questions that editorial and management changes at the top would mean greater influence from Beijing.

When Malaysian commodities and property tycoon Robert Kuok bought the paper from Rubert Murdoch’s News Corporation for $349 million in 1993 shortly before Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, there were already fears that Kuok’s close ties and vast business interests in China could lead to changes in coverage.

But it wasn’t until around 2012, when the paper appointed Wang Xiangwei as its first mainland Chinese editor-in-chief that doubts about the outlet’s editorial choices emerged more openly. That year, Alex Price, a senior sub-editor, questioned Wang about the paper’s decision to report the suspicious death of prominent Chinese dissident Li Wangyang as a brief item. After the internal complaints became public, the paper carried multiple in-depth stories on Li’s death. Wang stepped down from the position in early 2016, but has since been an “editorial advisor” to the paper, based in Beijing.

Yet the tricky position of the paper—sandwiched between the rising tensions between China and the democratic world—has also given it outsize influence in shaping international discourse on China. Indeed, the paper’s stated mission is to “lead the global conversation about China,” and Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai, who sits on SCMP’s board, has said the paper should counter “negative” portrayals of China by Western media. Much of SCMP’s online readership now comes from overseas.

“I think the top management is already indirectly controlled” by the Chinese government, said Rose Lüqiu Luwei, a professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, saying that some media scholars already describe it as such when assessing its level of editorial independence. If SCMP ends up under state ownership, she added, that could in fact undercut Beijing’s goal of using international outlets to carry out its foreign influence agenda.

Yet the view from Beijing appears to be rather different.

The paper, whose opinion pages have carried pieces both supportive and critical of Party policy, appears to have become more of a liability than an asset to Alibaba. Chinese government officials have expressed concern about Alibaba’s influence over public opinion on social media—it has a major stake in microblog Weibo—and via investments in various domestic media entities as well as the Post, according to Bloomberg.

The paper has steadfastly rebutted allegations that its coverage isn’t impartial.

“SCMP remains committed to serving our global readers with independent journalism and in-depth analysis, as we have for over 117 years. Our newsroom does not shy away from tough stories, as our entire body of work shows, and we stand by our balanced and objective journalism,” said an SCMP spokesperson.

“You can’t tell if it’s censorship”

Though SCMP has come under criticism since Alibaba’s acquisition for its move away from journalistic independence and towards a subtle form of propaganda, the publication covered the Hong Kong protests extensively, and continues to break news and offer incisive analysis of Chinese domestic politics. Alibaba also pumped investment into the publication, helping the newsroom move to a fancy commercial building—where Alibaba has its own offices several floors above.

But current and former SCMP journalists say that it is at the edges where censorship comes into play, like editors quietly nudging reporters away from sensitive topics, tweaking phrases and headlines, or playing down stories related to China’s top leaders.

“I do feel like I am not encouraged to do investigative pieces on Xinjiang and sometimes editors quibble over wording and angles of pieces that are on a gray line,” said the SCMP reporter. “You can’t tell if it’s censorship, and it’s not egregious enough to keep protesting about, but you’re not entirely proud of the end product.”

More explicit forms of censorship and direct assaults on the press are already playing out across Hong Kong’s media landscape. Last August, a couple hundred police officers raided the newsroom of the independent Apple Daily newspaper; its publisher, Lai, is currently detained on charges of subversion. Meanwhile, a career bureaucrat with no journalism experience was last month appointed as director of public broadcaster RTHK and has already pulled content critical of the government.

Against this backdrop, whether or not SCMP is ultimately sold to another Chinese entity is only one more factor that will affect the speed and scope at which Hong Kong’s media freedoms are dismantled, said Lüqiu, the Hong Kong Baptist University professor.

A new owner could well intensify SCMP’s tilt towards Beijing.

But a more sophisticated approach would be a strategy of “subtle editorial decisions,” noted Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It makes the unsuspected think they are reading real news when they are actually primed to absorb Beijing’s views.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story described Wang Xiangwei as a “Party member.” He was listed as a member of the Jilin Provincial Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory body, not the Communist Party of China (CPC). He resigned his CPPCC membership after being made SCMP editor in chief in 2012.