Trouble at the South China Morning Post

There’s a great piece in the Guardian today from Tom Phillips on trouble brewing at the Hong Kong publication the South China Morning Post. The SCMP, one of the most respected newspapers in East Asia and certainly the most authoritative English-language broadsheet, has been slowly slipping towards viewpoints and positions more favourable to Beijing, at least according to some of The Guardian’s sources. Phillips’ (and Christy Yao’s) work uses as its hook the case of Zhao Wei, a young Chinese human rights activist seized in 2015 as part of a government crackdown and allegedly recently released, though her husband and lawyer point out they have yet to be able to make contact with her:

“I have come to realise that I have taken the wrong path,” Zhao was quoted as saying in the article. “I repent for what I did. I’m now a brand new person.”
The story did not make clear how the SCMP had managed to make contact with Zhao and activists, media experts and Zhao’s husband and lawyer suspect the interview was set up by mainland authorities and conducted against her will.

The SCMP becoming more inured to Beijing’s rather skewed view of the press’ role in a modern society is concerning in its own right of course, but the importance of the newspaper as a Hong Kong institution also marks it out as representative of broader fears that predate the handover of the former British colony back to Chinese hands in 1997. The flow of mainland Chinese, be they workers, entrepreneurs or political apparatchiks, has caused concern to simmer gently in Hong Kong for years now. Recent developments surrounding Beijing’s fundamental failure to understand democratic systems have left many in no doubt that the reshaping of Hong Kong public life to make Beijing’s leaders feel more comfortable is happening thanks to more factors than gradual, if inevitable, cultural and political shift.

So yes, it is all rather worrying for those of us who value Hong Kong’s independence (figuratively speaking, of course) and the territory’s contributions to East Asia and the world, despite lots of assurances that this is so much fussing over nothing and bad blood. The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 guarantees Hong Kong’s “current social and economic systems”, particularly “[r]ights and freedoms” such as freedom of assembly and, yes, of the press. That guarantee is given only for the first fifty years after the handover. A lot has changed in China since then, and the threat to Hong Kong’s “economic system” is nowhere near as grave as once imagined. The latter however creates ample room for concern, particularly given the persistently disappointing positions taken by Xi Jinping’s government.

Of course one could point out, as many do, that British interest in Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms became somewhat more acute once the handover became a reality. Those who make this point might also make the related point that British interest in Hong Kong democracy was non-existent. And they would be right. Still, we have the Hong Kong we have, and the territory is a wondrous thing. It would be a terrible thing to see that compromised. The SCMP is nowhere near the point of no return but hopefully enough people will take note of the gentle slips and slides towards the precipice.