Questions about how do deal with a Global China (in Hong Kong)

I love to listen to the witty and very knowledgable banter of Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn over at the Sinica Podcast on SupChina. I’ve been listening to these guys for years now—long before they started SupChina when it was still hosted at Pop-up Chinese (and also long enough to know that they are much more knowledgeable about China than their poor puns and re-reading of the week’s Caixin News on the Caixin-Sinica Business Podcast would suggest—yuck). These guys have an engaging rapport with one another, they are funny, extremely well educated, very experienced in China, and have GREAT guests and the best recommendations. They typically ask timely and provocative questions of their guests too. If you’re not subscribed to the Sinica Podcast from SupChina, then you are truly missing out. These guys and their podcasts really are a great China resource and my only complaint is that we don’t get enough of them. More, please! (No, I get nothing for shamelessly promoting them.)

But a couple of weeks ago I was stuck by the simple answers from a guest that seemed to be allowed without much follow up (except, of course, for Jeremy badgering the guest about how they were going to make money—we still don’t know). I couldn’t stop thinking about the conflict of interest presented and so I put my thoughts down in this short blog.

Listening to Gary Liu, the new Editor in Chief (EiC) of the South China Morning Post (SCMP), talk with the SupChina guys,  it’s clear that he’s pioneering a new path through the mire that is Hong Kong-China relations. But it’s also clear that there are some real unanswered questions in his presentation of journalistic objectivity, independence, and integrity at the SCMP.

Now I am not questioning the integrity of the paper, Mr. Liu, or any of the staff. But I am not sure I can comprehend his explanations about how the paper plans to navigate its complex relationships with China.

Granted, I’m neither a journalist nor do I have to manage cross-border (cross-customs?) relations. But I’ve interviewed scores of people that do and I’ve also worked in China with an office in Hong Kong (and Bangkok) for most of the last 25 years. My “China-sense” is up when I hear somewhat vague explanations of how to manage professional/governmental relations.

First, in terms of content that offends China, according to Mr. Liu there is an identified but undefined line that he explicitly said the paper wants to go up to but will not cross. He says they will not back down covering controversial content, but that there is certainly a line they are aware of. He states that this act of act of self-censorship (my term, not his) shows that the paper has both editorial independence and moral integrity. Come again? If the paper is willing to do, just to be polite, what it claims it will not do under duress, how is that being independent?

Further, how can anyone go right up to a line, if it’s not clearly defined? And, if there indeed is a content-specific line that someone else (the CCP) has defined for the paper, then the paper is explicitly not independent, right? The integrity in the editorial process that comes from this awkward position is, at best, limited to accepting fuzzy standards set outside of their own boardroom (and country?). In the Mainland, Hong Kong is widely considered to be the spoiled step-child that will eventually be taught a lesson. That they still publish on topics that Beijing doesn’t allow Mainland papers to cover doesn’t mean they are independent, just not yet reprimanded.

Second, the SCMP does not make a profit and doesn’t expect to any time soon (nor do they know exactly how they eventually will, if ever). All of their funding comes from their new owner, Alibaba, as does all of the physical hosting of their archives and content—which, by the way, has now been transferred 100% to the Alibaba cloud servers (in China).

For the moment, lets ignore related news from just this last year that will likely directly affect this relationship: Online editing of historical and academic archives by the CCP. Tracking of journalists and citizens inside and outside of China by the CCP. Kidnapping of journalists/booksellers by the CCP. The CCP’s United Front’s desire to “tell a new story” for China. Demands by Xi et al that Hong Kongese and other overseas Chinese are loyal to China. And, of course, the new Orwellian Sesame Credit program of the Chinese government, pioneered by Chinese companies, including Alibaba.

Back to the SMCPs cloud and money, or lack thereof. The purchase of and hosting of the SCMP by Alibaba means a couple of significant things. Despite what the EiC says, monetary control is editorial control. The SCMP is specifically controlled by Alibaba who is unapologetically influenced by and works tightly with the Communist Party and government in China to develop, ironically, systems to monitor the conversations and movements of Chinese citizens (which Hong Kong citizens are specifically considered to be). Chinese newspapers in Australia have been affected by China’s content control though they are not owned by Chinese companies (and are significantly further away than is Hong Kong). To think that this won’t be, at some point, a significant issue, is (imo) naive. While the EiC stated that as of yet, they have never been told what to write or not to write, there is a line that they will not cross and the paper is willing to commit it’s financial future to those that define that line, i.e. Ant Financial (Alibaba) and the CCP.

Within the context of the government’s desire to control media and rewrite history, that the SCMP archives is hosted in China, where it is also banned, should be a huge red-flag in the face of independence (pun intended).

Third, the new EiC said that he and the BOD have want want to “tell a different Chinese story.” This is almost a direct quote from Xi Jinping’s United Front plans; and un-ironically, Xi’s words were directly targeted at the CCP’s guiding of the media’s presentation of China and China-related issues outside of China. The perception of China outside of China is the specifically identified audience of the SCMP. What does it mean that the paper wants to tell a better Chinese story? According to Xi, they want to present the PRC specifically in a light that is not (as) negative and that is not (as) critical. In other words, a presentation that is not (as) deeply investigative, but is more positive of the CCP’s version of Chinese history, politics, and other social issues. Saying that the SCMP wants to tell a different Chinese story than what they were previously telling highlights the CCP’s desire to challenge any independent coverage of China outside of China. Further, the fact that new ownership, directly or indirectly, has made a break from the prior China story that was told in the SCMP strongly suggests that we will explicitly not be getting the same quality/style paper—there’s a New China Story in town, and it’s being authored by Xi and the CCP.

Let’s be honest, any agenda that is set by one’s own object of investigation is a conflict of interest. That the CCP is that subject and has its own explicit agenda for Chinese media outside of China means that the EiC is either not willing to publicly recognize the obvious conflict or worse—he believes it really doesn’t exist. It is folly to think that the SCMP can have Alibaba paying for the production of content, hosting all archives, presenting the same position as the CCP, agree to undefined content limitations, and still claim to be independent.

Finally, the EiC says that he’s committed to serving the paper’s Hong Kong base and the interests of Hong Kong. But what happens when that base and those interests are in direct conflict with the idea of telling a “better” China story (i.e. the PRC is not infringing on Hong Kong’s independence or violating in anyway the 1997 agreement)? Yes, they have indeed covered protests in the past, but next time there are demonstrations, and the PRC weighs in (either with words or bodies) how critical or inquisitive or exposing can the SCMP be? That the EiC doesn’t know what will happen if this occurs highlights both the conflict of interest as well as the questionable independence of the paper in the face of a conflict with China.

And this is the biggest concern I have: the EiC says that the BOD of the SCMP has not even prepared for a future “existential conflict” (when somebody from Alibaba, or higher up, calls and says that “xyz is over the line”). How can the SCMP be independent and truly have integrity but not have prepared for that specific call? If there is a chance that that call could come—don’t they have to already have an answer ready? When the SCMP is supposed to be defending, or at least being loyal to its Hong Kong base, a base that is regularly in direct conflict with the Chinese mainland, the absence of even a discussion of what position the paper will take shows a lack of commitment to both integrity and to Hong Kong.

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