No doubt one of the reasons the South China Morning Post all but ignored the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s report on press freedom in Hong Kong is that the paper’s own increasingly pro-Beijing bias came in for criticism. The report particularly mentioned the paper’s shift away from serious critical analysis in its op-ed pages. Other observers have noticed a similar pattern in editorials. The paper’s omission of the HKJA’s report and its downplaying of China’s roundup of lawyers show the same bias in actual news coverage – at which point a newspaper ceases to have any use to readers. (The business section, interestingly, remains relatively immune to this propagandizing trend.)
As the Asia Sentinel piece indicates, the smothering of the SCMP is most conspicuous in its China coverage. To media-watchers overseas it must seem strange for a publisher to take his paper’s key claim to international stature and deliberately trash it. But in Hong Kong it is unsurprising to see tycoons displaying loyalty to the Communist Party through ritual self-mutilation.
The decline of the SCMP’s opinion pieces is a bit less depressing, as commentary is abundant elsewhere. Indeed, it can be amusing to monitor these columns to see how heavy-handed and shameless editors must be in delivering ideological correctness. Some of this content is so demented that it must be self-parody – like this thing about the immense joys of watching dragon-boat races and imagining all the extra tourists they could attract. Mostly, though, the op-ed page seems to be carefully calibrated to achieve an ideal balance between insipidness and shoe-shining.
Thus there should always be a ‘hard-hitting’ piece on how something must be done about something everyone knows to be evil, like climate change or the ivory trade. Preferably, it should involve BRICS because they’re emerging and so highlight the decline of the West. Today’s is about exploitation of surrogate mothers in India, which should be regulated (root causes like poverty being unsolvable). Occasionally something vaguely entertaining slips through, like today’s sociology PhD mini-thesis on how ‘third culture kids’ is just a euphemism for ‘expat brats’ and (due to sociology PhD requirements) evil Western colonialism is to blame. If we wanted to be ultra-sensitive about bias, we could point out that both these items reflect badly on benighted, non-Chinese peoples.
In their attempts to seem incisive while remaining politically correct, columns can also be inadvertently funny. The SCMP’s political editor today poses an intriguing question: why do Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing political groups lack independence of thought? Obviously, the question answers itself – as a front for the Communist Party, the DAB is required to lack independence of thought. (Duh.) The writer contrasts the loyalists’ zombie-ness and obedience to dictators with the pro-democrats’ amateurish but ultimately moral, decent and publicly popular devotion to freedom (though not using these exact words). He concludes that it comes down to differences in political talent.
Then there’s the daily glorification of the motherland, preferably by an adoring barbarian. Tom Plate – mentioned here before – blasts Western media for their callous lack of empathy to China as the country endures its stock-market crash.
What has struck me about mainstream Western reporting on this subject, if anything, is actually the lack of gloating. But Plate finds it overwhelming and offensive. In true wumao fashion, he devotes much of the article to how the West is ‘just as bad’, having endured many financial crises itself – which is true but irrelevant. His real error here is to portray Western criticism of China’s policymaking as heartlessness towards the Chinese people. This is pure mendacity. I haven’t read a single word mocking the grannies and cab-drivers who lost savings in Beijing’s bubble-making accident/scam. No more than anyone mocks the lawyers who have been arrested, or the Tibetan monk who just died in prison, or any other victims of the Communist Party. The ‘lack of empathy’ is towards a Leninist dictatorship that has shown itself not only to be cruel but incompetent. It is a boot-licking article truly worthy of the SCMP’s op-ed page these days.
On a separate and brighter note – a pat on the head to Hong Kong Democratic Party. With little more to be said on political reform right now, they got off their backsides, found something wrong and made a fuss. Specifically, they discovered lead in the water at a public housing estate. The story has everything from an uncaring government, to a shady-sounding Mainland construction company linked with the husband of a pro-Beijing lawmaker, and for good measure, Legionnaires’ disease. See how easy it is to have officials and their supporters on the run!