With more than 20% of the world’s population, it would not be surprising that China has over a fifth of its disaster, outrage and tragedy. And, oh boy, does it deliver. There is only so much you can read about municipal street patrols killing hawkers, blind activists escaping house arrest, despotic provincial warlords’ wives murdering foreign fixers and physically disabled dissidents mysteriously committing suicide.
For many of us in and out of Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post is as dependable a source as any for one-stop, day-to-day coverage of the mayhem. The supposed suicide of Li Wangyang was a case in point; the paper’s full-length reports on the case were almost certainly exhaustive enough to lead many readers to skip bits halfway through and still not have time for the latest tainted milk and poisoned lake stories. (For relief from the non-stop horror I recommend a weekend in Zhongshan, Guangzhou or someplace where life seems blissfully normal, everyone is happy and nobody seems to get tortured. They don’t even have anyone carrying mountain-size bundles of plastic bottles on bicycles. It’s a big country.)
Such is the torrent of pandemonium coming out of the Mainland that many of us wouldn’t notice an occasional delay in the reportage. Indeed, all print media content is late in this day and age; the SCMP presumably publishes all its international coverage for the benefit of readers who are not on the Internet – I’ve already read it online the day before. But apparently Asia’s century-old ‘newspaper of record’ was tardy in covering the Li case, and deliberately. Thus we have this year’s ‘self-censorship at the SCMP’ flurry, here, here and here, and in much of the other local press, happy to pick on their rival and its sort-of Communist-linked editor (Wang Xiangwei, ex-BBC and current member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress talking shop).
When the story first broke, the SCMP had a big report written, which was then spiked in favour of a tiny snippet before normal service resumed the following day. Looks like a pretty clear case, until you stop to ask: why the Li story? Why not the Bo Xilai story – a vivid example of the inevitable rottenness of a one-party system – or Chen Guangcheng, a story of even greater injustice than Li’s? And what purpose would be served by ‘nibbing’ the story, other than making the editor look stupid? (As if that striped shirt/spotted tie combination weren’t bad enough.) A thousand other outlets ran with it and told the world.
I guess it is theoretically possible that the SCMP’s proprietors, Malaysia’s tycoon Kuok family, alarmed at the incessant flow of Chinese cruelties in their organ’s pages, told Wang to spike the next one, and – mindful that the life expectancy of an SCMP editor is around 18 months – he complied. And it’s theoretically possible that Party Central sent him a 24-hour gagging order on this specific tale of nastiness. But it looks just as likely that the guy goofed up, possibly unaware that rival newspapers were going to make a big splash on this particular human-rights atrocity du jour. Which is unforgivable but not evil. (The snappy email to a complaining staff member suggests a humiliating loss of face has occured.)
Self-censorship at the SCMP seems to come around every few years in a smoke-but-no-fire sort of way. Apart from the departure of China editor Willy Lam for tycoon/Beijing-related lèse-majesté, most allegedly sinister disappearances of SCMP journalists seem to have been only tangentially political. The two other most-cited examples, long ago, were of a clichéd cartoonist and unfunny humourist and were, if anything, overdue.
One example of self-censorship in the Big Lychee that I know of was at Time Out HK earlier this year, and that backfired, with a bowdlerized print run apparently being withdrawn and pulped – and the upheavals over that are barely over. Other examples in the past concern negative coverage of tycoon Li Ka-shing’s businesses, which also happen to be mega-advertisers in the local press. Otherwise, any hint of it provokes instant, loud, local and international alarm. In an age with a million instant, uncensor-able information channels, the only reason a Hong Kong newspaper proprietor would seriously censor his economically precarious plaything is by way of a masochistic display of loyalty to Beijing. It no doubt happens, and Beijing is no doubt as unimpressed as ever. By definition we can’t say whether anything earth-shattering was ever covered up from the planet by a Hong Kong publication, but it seems unlikely.
Talk about futile. Want to self-censor? Fine – we stop buying and reading.