On April 22, Wang Xiangwei, the new editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, informed me that my contract with the newspaper would not be renewed when it expired on May 21. I can’t say I was surprised.
Sitting in a hotel restaurant in Hong Kong on a hot April day, Wang stared down at the table as the conversation began, seemingly unwilling to make eye contact. After a few minutes of chit chat, I asked him directly about my contract. He fidgeted and said he would not be able to renew it due to budget problems.
To me, it was clear that this was a political decision. For seven months, he had basically blocked me from writing any China stories for the newspaper. During that period, I only had two stories in the China pages of the newspaper – one on panda bears and one on compensation for AIDS victims. Some two dozen other story suggestions went unanswered by the China Desk—in one case a story was approved, but the editor told me Wang had overruled him. A half-dozen e-mails to Wang pleading to write more for the newspaper went unanswered.
It certainly was not about money. Following my departure, Wang hired a spate of new young reporters, many apparently from the mainland. And if there were budget problems, why was I chosen to be let go? Obviously, there were newer people at the newspaper than myself. I had been on contract for two years and wrote my first article for the newspaper in 1990, some 22 years ago. And I’d won 10 awards for my reporting for the newspaper, more than any other staff reporter.
When I offered to freelance and said I didn’t care about the word rate, he hummed and hawed. When I asked if the newspaper could at least allow me to keep my journalist accreditation with the South China Morning Post so I could continue to contribute articles to the newspaper, he muttered something about having to think about it. Despite several e-mails asking about this, he never agreed to do this. And there was no cost in sponsoring me.
When the news came last year that Wang had been appointed the editor-in-chief, I was quite surprised. For one, despite talk of him being a veteran journalist, he had little actual practical experience doing real journalism—far less than a lot of his staff. Wang had worked for the China Daily, done a masters degree in journalism and had gone off to London on a training programme, where he worked briefly for the BBC. As far as I know, he never “pounded the sidewalks”, as we American journalists say of a reporter who has spent years roaming around doing interviews.
There are now no foreign reporters working for the ‘South China Morning Post’ in China—a first in a long while.
He’d shown weakness in news judgment on many occasions, but more important, he’d long had a reputation as being a censor of the news, which may be what endeared him to Mr Robert Kuok, the Malaysian tycoon who owns the newspaper, and his son and daughter, who took turns running the newspaper.
Talk to anyone on the China reporting team at the South China Morning Post and they’ll tell you a story about how Wang has cut their stories, or asked them to do an uninteresting story that was favourable to China.
Last November, I travelled to the US on holiday and decided to take a train to meet Geng He, the wife of rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who had snuck past Chinese security guarding their Beijing home with a young son and daughter, making it all the way to Thailand and eventually political asylum in the US.
During a three-hour interview in a highway Burger King, Ms Geng gave me unreported details about the harrowing escape through Southeast Asian jungles, much of it in the middle of the night. She cried as she talked about her husband’s treatment by brutal security people, and she smiled when she recalled her husband’s dedication as a lawyer. Tears fell as she described the difficulties the family was facing in the US. Both children had been seriously affected by the treatment of their father here in China, which included serious torture and forced disappearances for lengthy periods. An editor expressed interest in the story, but got back to me later in the day to tell me that Wang had spiked it. No reason was given.
When I was the second foreign reporter to see Gao during his brief respite from being disappeared, Editor-in-chief Reg Chua and Deputy Editor David Lague had a bitter argument with Wang, who was not keen to run the story. They wanted it on the front page, but Wang wanted it buried inside. They compromised by putting the story inside and cutting it slightly. Gao Zhisheng was obviously on Wang’s list of people not to be reported about.
When the government began its nasty crackdown against rights lawyers and other dissidents last year, which saw people have black hoods thrown over their heads before being stuffed into a car, and then being taken to hidden location, where most endured horrible torture. I saw an unprecedented pattern of intimidation and pain that clearly marked a new and frightening trend and so I suggested a story to the China Desk (David Lague, the deputy editor, was on holiday at the time). The story was immediately rejected by a China Desk editor, who said the newspaper had reported on tortured lawyers already. I wrote a short note saying this was a new and different trend, but I knew it would go unanswered.
Next … self-censorship