Tiananmen Out, Alibaba In: Hong Kong Newspaper Staff Slams Editor’s Top Story Swap

February 2, 2015 Updated: February 3, 2015

In a time of declining press freedoms in Hong Kong, the staff of a local broadsheet has called out their editor’s last-minute command to change the paper’s lead article.

The Ming Pao Staff Association issued a statement Monday on their Facebook page detailing chief editor Chong Tien Siong’s seemingly arbitrary decision to pull the day’s lead story—a report on recently released Canadian embassy memos on the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre—and replace it with an article about Alibaba CEO Jack Ma’s HK$1 billion ($129 million) fund for young Hong Kong entrepreneurs.

Chong, who was supposedly on leave, showed up at the Ming Pao office Sunday and joined the evening’s editorial team meeting. Chong didn’t raise objections when the editorial team agreed to make the Tiananmen story the lead.

But close to 11:00 p.m. local time (10:00 a.m. Eastern standard time), Chong suddenly demanded that the Alibaba story be made the top article, and refused to listen to any appeals from the editorial team.

Chong’s action, said the Association’s statement, reflects a “lack of mutual trust” between the chief editor and the staff, as well as a failure to respect the group consensus.

Conversely, if the former chief editor wanted stories changed because he felt strongly about them, the Association’s statement continued, he would engage the staff through proper discussion and explanation, and then respect the majority view.

Kevin Lau, Chong’s predecessor, was ousted from his job last year because he supposedly failed to toe the Chinese regime’s line while with Ming Pao, a Chinese language newspaper known for its sober reporting and good writing.

A month later, Lau fell victim to a vicious assault, which left him grievously injured. The assailant slashed Lau’s leg and back with a cleaver before fleeing the scene with his partner on a motorbike. Many in Hong Kong suspect that the attackers are linked with the Chinese Communist Party, who is allegedly seeking to control press freedom in the semiautonomous city.

Indeed, because Tiananmen student protests is a politically sensitive issue in China—all references to the June Fourth Incident are censored on the mainland—Ming Pao staff suspect “outside interference” and “hidden agendas” behind Chong’s recent decision to replace the lead.

The Ming Pao Staff Association is also demanding a full explanation from Chong as he said during a meeting last year that he would consider running an article on Tiananmen if it has “news value.”

This incident will certainly test Chong and Ming Pao’s commitment to press freedom. After taking over from Lau, Chong pledged to support press freedom “100 percent” because it is “our core value.”

The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s governing document, guarantees a free press. However, this particular civil liberty has been steadily pegged back since the city’s return to the mainland in 1997.

And 2014 was a watershed year for Hong Kong’s press, the International Federation of Journalists notes, because of increased pressure from Beijing during the nearly three-month long Occupy protests.