More censorship, or something, at the SCMP

For well over a decade, the Chinese authorities have increasingly mishandled Hong Kong. They have appointed idiot leaders in the city, enabled its rampant cronyism, swamped the place with Mainlanders, and undermined values and institutions like police neutrality and freedom of the press. It is hardly surprising that people have become hyper-sensitive to possible threats from Beijing.

For example, a plan to station Mainland immigration staff at the Hong Kong end of a new cross-border rail line – a common arrangement around the world – is guaranteed to cause controversy and alarm about Chinese security forces operating in the city. The closure of a university’s post-graduate ‘Creative Writing’ programme prompts panicky claims about a plot ‘plainly intended to limit free expression’.

It is inevitable that a decision by the South China Morning Post to ditch four veteran columnists will be seen as censorship.

Asia Sentinel – founded by one of the four – calls it a putsch carried out on express orders of Beijing’s Liaison Office. The Liaison Office has undoubtedly been interfering far more in Hong Kong in the last couple of years. And the SCMP ’s pro-establishment bias has been getting increasingly obvious and even clumsy. So perhaps there’s overwhelming circumstantial evidence. Asia Sentinel also mentions a familiar list of departures from the SCMP over the years, usually cited as proof of politically inspired gagging. (Though it’s a bit of a stretch, and an insult, to suggest that the loss of unfunny humorist Nury Vittachi is on a par with the axing of Willy Lam.)

On the other hand, we have to wonder what these four departures will achieve for the glorious motherland. Did the Communist cadres at the Liaison Office lie awake at night fretting about the dangerous and subversive rabble-rousing of Frank Ching’s columns? Does the Chinese Communist Party feel more secure knowing that Stephen Vines’ complaints about the challenges faced by small business and the dumbness of bureaucracy will no longer appear? The two worth reading were Kevin Rafferty, an ex-FT Asia hand SCMP-columnPBmore likely to be scathing about US policy than anything else, and Philip Bowring, a truly incisive and meticulous critic of Hong Kong government policy. Bowring’s wife is a prominent pro-democracy politician, but then Ching’s is a member of the Executive Council.

All four are 60+, if not 60++. It’s probable that as old-school hacks all expect to be paid – which isn’t the case with many SCMP op-ed columnists. The same goes for another recent departure from the paper, Howard Winn a month or so back; he has been replaced by such stuff as an astonishingly lame ‘Market Talk’ compilation of stock-related Tweets. The word is that reporters recently leaving are not being replaced.

(I know of a fifth SCMP columnist who has also been dropped. That individual doesn’t fit the profile of the above four, but the word came at the same time; the reason given was ‘redesign’. There may be others.)

So what’s happening? Search me. The newspaper industry in general struggles to keep its head above water, and the SCMP needs to put any resources it can spare into the on-line product. So it would not be surprising for them to trim costs desperately. But beyond a point this surely becomes counter-productive: Bowring’s commentary was one of the few reasons to buy the paper on a Sunday.

One of life’s greatest little amusements in Hong Kong is watching for the SCMP’s weekly gratuitous and egregious pre-emptive shoe-shine – typically an absurdly obsequious report on China’s visionary leadership. For all its faults, the paper does plenty of straight reporting, so such items stick out. This material is clearly not aimed at influencing readers, who can only heave at such ludicrous and unsubtle pap. It is obviously intended for consumption elsewhere: either the editors put this stuff in to impress the owners, the Kuok family, or the Kuoks put it in to show Mainland officials. Perhaps the Kuoks hope to impress the Liaison Office by being able to say, ‘look we got rid of these pesky foreign columnists and their lack of positive energy’.

The peskiest smart-ass foreign writer in the SCMP is Jake van der Kamp, and he survives.

Whatever is happening, we can be reasonably sure it won’t benefit the Kuoks. The old man bought the SCMP when it was one of the most profitable papers on the planet, and the share price has since shriveled. More to the point, owning a newspaper as a way to pay tribute to the emperor is a massive headache. You are petrified that by doing its job properly it will cause offense, but you are left with a bigger and bigger reader-shedding dud if you make it so bland that a Frank Ching column is too edgy. And at the end of the day, the Communist Party will kick you in the teeth anyway, because no-one’s usefulness lasts forever.

To end on a bright note, these four guys are not being censored in the actual sense of the word (which excitable people should look up in case they really need it one day). Willy Lam and Jasper Becker are writing as well as they ever did to appreciative audiences. Philip Bowring writes for other outlets, like Asia Sentinel. And if the SCMP is destined to banish what remains of its readable content, the launch of HK Free Press looks perfectly timed.

(I’m still trying to get my head around how much more amazing Shakespeare would have been if he had done a City U Creative Writing degree.)


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20 Responses to More censorship, or something, at the SCMP

  1. PD says:

    You’re a bit tough on Vines, who writes lucidly and critically. Even Frank Ching had his moments, although possessing an unfortunate TV manner and a perspective that viewed Taiwan mainly though its relationship with the communist bandits. Certainly all four are several leagues above the “competition”.

    And you grossly underplay the nationalities of the four, as if you were reluctant to see any whiff of ethnic cleansing at work.

    Didn’t Jasper disappear for a couple of years? Or was he disappeared? In any case, his days must surely be severely numbered. Even the tendency to put him on the front page of the Business section is presumably not any recognition of merit but a devious ruse to highlight his dangerous free thinking.

  2. Red Dragon says:

    This is all very mysterious, but quite frankly, the SCMP is such a pile of crap that it doesn’t really matter, apart, I guess, to those directly involved, whom it employs and whom it sacks. I stopped buying the rag years ago, and since then have only occasionally glanced at the copy delivered to my workplace, usually in order to read Steve Vines or Philip Bowring. Rafferty I have never read, and Frank Ching is too bland for words.

    As you rightly point out, the only previous dismissal to be met with unalloyed and almost universal rejoicing was that of the world’s least funny man, the lame, corny and self-important Nury. While I sincerely hope to go on reading the output of Vines and Bowring, I trust that I’ll never be confronted by a Vitachi “column” as long as I live.

  3. Stephen says:

    There are a few typical Hong Kong ‘gweilo’ hobbies which I’ve never been able to get my head around and refrain.

    1. Wasting money flying Cathay Pacific and jerking off over Marco Polo status;
    2. Patronizing any Allen Semen bar / restaurant, usually in LKF, and thus putting money in that buffoon’s pocket;
    3. Getting ripped off by HSBC and standing in their huge ATM queues; and
    4. Buying, reading and thus pontificating over the (always) pro-establishment and (increasingly) pro-CCP SCMP, now known widely as The PCMP (Pro).

    This (excellent) blog as well as Bowring’s and Grundy’s supplemented by a little humour in Coconuts will keep you reasonably abreast of what’s going on. Try them ?

  4. PCC says:

    Stephen Vines continues to write well on local politics for Next Magazine. That had to be a contributing factor to his dismissal, or at least added some gleeful satisfaction to his ousting.

  5. Joe Blow says:

    There is nothing mysterious about the termination of The Four Saints. All print newspapers on this planet are suffering and within a few years they will all migrate to an online format, or simply fold. Pun intended.

    Last Sunday I saw a copy of the PCMP in my gym: it looked like 8 pages. I almost felt pity but then I saw Vagina’s deflated face and I thought: serves you right, suckers.

    A little bird tells me that Nury is going to do something ‘funny’ on HKFP. So all is not lost.

  6. gweiloeye says:

    I miss Tom Holland. I miss Lai See. Replaced by market tweets done by the interns or a internet bot obviously. I think Jake has been told ‘Say whatever you like but must be about business n finance’ N DON’T MENTION THE WAR.

    I hope the HK Free Press works because English readers need it badly.

    My take on why these guys are getting arsed fron scmp. can’t say or i will be branded racist. oh the irony.

  7. NIMBY says: is an interesting news url, because much of what they post is translated from the Chinese Economic Journal; it’s an instruction to see what they believe Hong Kong’s majority will pay to read.

  8. Cassowary says:

    Word has it they’re axing guest columnists too, mostly NGOs that periodically contribute earnest columns about topics like poverty and biodiversity. They aren’t paid, so it can’t be about saving money. They must have decided to turn over the entire opinion page to the Lo-Chugani verbal diarrhoea generator, plus whatever middle-aged businessmen they can scrounge up to yell at the kids to get off their lawns, if they had lawns, which they don’t because they long ago paved their lawns to charge rent, because money is obviously better than lawns, and anybody who tells you different is a good-for-nothing tree-hugging trash youth.

  9. Probably says:

    With the advent of this interweb thing printed news is a sunset industry anyway. The time to really start worrying would be if any website where the aforementioned might wish to share their opinions (and that includes this one) is denied access to Hong Mong residents.

  10. Brob says:

    Will they eliminate Shirley Yam too? Her columns are worth reading usually.

  11. Chinese Netizen says:

    God I hope they dump Tammy Tam and the one running her education “business” because she got all the Chinese ticket punches required of someone with a more-than-likely domineering (or dominatrix) mother…

  12. Scotty Dotty says:

    Well said Red Dragon: “Quite frankly, the SCMP is such a pile of crap that it doesn’t really matter.”

    And quite frankly these aint the Tolpuddle Martyrs either.

    Sensible adult rags with proper tough content ditched Hong Kong in the 1990s, several years before the handover. (At least Hemmers has held out. Thank you!) So if these Hong Kong writers were up to much they would have flourished in better places like London and New York – places demanding real brains and facing real competition. Name a one that has done that?

    The dreary Nury which Hemmers mentions in passing underlines the point. Has there ever been in the history of the written word one so untalented receiving such attention? But for the Empire Nury would have been a copy editor in Basingstoke playing the race card whenever he could. We all know, hand-on-heart, that these ditched writers operate in that same kind of lucky-yet-pathetic space.

  13. anon says:

    “…For all its faults, the paper does plenty of straight reporting…” (True)
    1. So your faint praise of SCMP comes a bit late? Why?
    2. But SCMP’s unprofitability is surely unsurprising; I thought print media was now unprofitable globally.

  14. Reader says:

    The evergreen Nury is coming in for more flak than seems decent. (Do we have a Doctor George in the house?)

    In his defence, while conceding ‘lame’, ‘corny’ and ‘unfunny’, I have to say that the man in the flesh is personable, even engaging, and not at all pretentious. Who would have thought?

  15. Cassowary says:

    The SCMP may have been mediocre all along, but now it’s going to be mediocre, specious and offensive. It’s not like they’re ever going get rid of Regina’s grotesque brain-addled scribblings on grounds of quality, are they?

  16. Monkey Reborn says:

    The Kuok family, unsatisfied with the rampant clearing and burning of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests (and destruction of hundreds of years of unique ecological development), to make way for palm plantations, turned their unwelcome attention to HKG on CCP command …

    PCMP = self-censored intellectual pollution of a particularly malevolent and disgusting nature…

    May you lose all of your wealth and influence and live out your days in a subdivided apartment in Causeway Bay, with mainland neighbours who mock you for your spinelessness and lack of integrity (the worst curse I can come up with at this late hour).

  17. Monkey Reborn says:

    As one who grew up on the SCMP, back when it was the best English language newspaper in Asia, today’s egregious and deliberate destruction of the paper is unforgivable…

    At least Robert Kuok and extended vermin have helped us to realise that human-amoebic slime genetic hybridisation is possible, even if extremely damaging to our global environment (and our gene pool).

    “When I am King you will be first against the wall”…

  18. Maybe the Apple Daily should start an English edition? I’ve always thought there’s an untapped market here for an English-language publication that combines blood-and-guts sensationalism with a critical view of the establishment.

  19. PCC says:

    @Outside Influence

    Apple Daily bankrolled Stephen Vines’ weekly, Spike Magazine, about 10 years ago. It hemorrhaged money until its closure after about a year. Lesson learned and not to be repeated.

  20. NIMBY says:

    Anyone know what happened to Stuart Wolfendale? His blog long time, no change.

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