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A Storied Hong Kong Newspaper Feels The Heat From China

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A <em>South China Morning Post</em> advertisement at a Hong Kong subway station.

When Alibaba founder Jack Ma bought the South China Morning Post in December of 2015, he held a meeting with his new employees. The billionaire tech tycoon from mainland China told reporters he wanted them to cover China more deeply, more broadly and more correctly.

"The more I know about the outside understanding of China," Ma said in English to his newly-acquired editorial staff, "the more I feel that most of the things are not correct."

He railed against "biased" foreign news coverage of China and said he wanted the paper to rise above the rest.

The South China Morning Post is considered by many to be the paper of record in Hong Kong. It was founded in 1903, and counts Rupert Murdoch and Hong Kong real estate tycoon Robert Kuok among its past owners. In a city saturated with news, it's the largest English-language daily, and was once among the most profitable newspapers on the planet.

In recent years, though, the Post's coverage of mainland China has gradually softened and it's eliminated some of its content entirely: In early September, the paper shut down its Chinese-language website, deleting its archives.

And just this week, the Post announced it will, after 25 years, stop publishing HK Magazine, a popular weekly feature of the paper.

This didn't start with Jack Ma.

Change Comes To The Post

When Wang Feng was hired as digital editor of the South China Morning Post in 2012, he was called into a meeting full of other newly-hired young mainland journalists with then-editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei.

"He shared his visions with us," recalls Wang. "He convinced us that he wanted to make the paper even more authoritative, even more insightful on China. That's something we all wanted."

Wang's new boss was the newspaper's first Chinese-born editor-in-chief, and as a former mainland journalist, that inspired him. But it didn't take long for the inspiration to wear off.

"Some stories were, for example, killed at the editorial meetings in the brainstorming phase," remembers Wang. "Other stories were downplayed, placed online only, instead of going to the paper, shortened and moved to less important pages or locations. Headlines changed. Certain quotes taken out, stuff like that."

Wang says stories were either censored or spiked by his new editor-in-chief at least once a week, often through an email to him, "...saying 'You probably need to change that headline.' And obviously we ask why. 'Well, because I told you so.' Other times, he would just say, 'That was too negative. The interviewee called. He didn't like it.'"

Wang Xiangwei did not respond to an interview request from NPR. He left his position a month before Jack Ma bought the newspaper.

"I think South China Morning Post, you can think of it as a reflection of what Hong Kong is," says David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

Bandurski says Hong Kong used to see itself as a guiding light to its northern neighbor. "And the idea was that ideas in Hong Kong and free space in Hong Kong could inspire China. I think we're seeing the door is open now, and really the traffic is coming the other direction."

An "Exclusive" Interview - With No Byline

In July, the South China Morning Post ran what it called an "exclusive" interview with detained Chinese legal activist Zhao Wei. She told the Post she regretted her activism.

"I have come to realize that I have taken the wrong path. I repent for what I did. I'm now a brand new person," she was quoted as saying.

The article, which lacked a byline, was odd. Her own husband hadn't been able to contact her in prison. How did the South China Morning Post? Yuen Chan, lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and former South China Morning Post journalist, says it was the first time the paper was used as a tool by Beijing to publish a confession, which is usually how China's government uses its own media. Chan says it shocked readers.

"They didn't expect to see it there. They don't really expect to see the English-language media also being manipulated. And I think that that really jolted them."

The South China Morning Post declined an interview request, writing, "Editorial autonomy is one of the core values of the South China Morning Post...There is no change to this value."

Yuen Chan says she's not very surprised by the Post's new Beijing-friendly coverage, suggesting the newspaper hasn't changed very much from its earliest days as the paper of record for the British colonialists.

"If you look at it in the early days, it was very much the paper that was read by and would have sources in the Hong Kong government, that being the colonial government. So personally I don't feel that it's such a huge shock to find that the South China Morning Post is now pro-establishment, except now the establishment has changed."

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