Some people are released by history, others are caught on its horns. Wang Xiangwei, the controversial editor in chief of the South China Morning Post as of two months ago, is among the latter. A Tian An Men liberal who has built a career in journalism outside China, he has been unable to shake the impression that he is little more than a company stooge and undercover agent for the Chinese Communist Party. In Hong Kong, where he has worked since 1994, he is one of a growing community of mainland professionals and expats who, like many of their non-Chinese counterparts, live in the city but not of it.
Wang gave a talk at the FCC yesterday that, among other things, underlined this social and political gulf. Part of this was due to an honest attempt on Wang’s [art to preempt the attacks against him that he said had been going on for more than a decade. These started when he was appointed the SCMP’s China editor in 2000, after the abrupt resignation/dismissal of gadfly and China critic Willy Lam, a popular columnist who now works for CNN, and continued after he was appointed editor in chief this past February. He framed his talk around what it means to be a mainlander in charge of Hong Kong’s foremost English-language newspaper (officially, the title of the talk was something like, “charting a brighter future” for the SCMP).
This ought to have been fascinating, but unfortunately came across as pablum, partly because Wang is an awkward speaker, partly because of the material he used. First, he laid out a brief bio, including a reference to a longer piece published in the SCMP in 2009 (see below), almost as though he was describing someone else, data bites without emotional resonance. This was followed by a defense of his membership in the China People’s Political Consultative Committee (CCPCC) of Jilin Province, which he said had solely to do with his love of family and desire to give something back to his home province, and emphasizing its status as a non-Party advisory organization (some in the audience laughed). Finally he talked about his commitment to freedom of the press and “balanced” journalism.
Questions, predictably, were aimed at getting underneath this fairly bland persona at the Communist cadre lurking beneath. So, what did he think of using Xinhua as a source for the SCMP (Answer: It’s the principal information source on the Chinese government, and he looks at it every day to “read between the lines” of what really may be happening in China). What does he think of Leung Chun-ying (CE-elect of Hong Kong) and his denial of Communist Party membership (He said Leung’s performance was more important than whether he was a Party member or not). Is Wang himself a Party member (no)? What will he do to push the envelope of press freedom in Hong Kong (Some confusion over the question, since Hong Kong already guarantees press freedom. Answer was he would keep doing more of the same).
In his defense, Wang offered as an example of a sensitive story the paper’s coverage of the Li Peng Diary episode. The SCMP was among the first to publish leaked pages, and Xiangwei went through the entire diary himself. Li Peng, the “butcher” of Tian An Men, was apparently behind the release of the book to New Century Press in Hong Kong. New Century is run by Bao Pu, son of Zhao Ziyang’s personal secretary, and has published a number of controversial titles. The SCMP followed the story to the end, when Bao Pu decided to pull the title under pressure from those who claimed he lacked access to the copyright.
Wang’s presentation was defensive, argumentative, and wooden in its lack of emotional insight, but we learned a great deal about just how hard his life has been. When Wang came under attack in 2000 he was portrayed as someone parachuted into the SCMP from the People’s Daily (the China Daily being considered not governmental enough), and that only one reporter among the many he knew ever called to check details with him. By that time he’d already been in Hong Kong for seven years, first with Yazhou Zhoukan and then the Eastern Express, during its brief term of existence from 1994 to 1996, followed by the SCMP. He also talked about the huge difference between working for a Chinese government publication, China Daily, from 1989-1992, and reporting on China from the outside. On the inside, he has all sorts of things that he knew but couldn’t write. On the outside, he and others are hamstrung by the non-transparency of the system. His description of reading between the lines of Xinhua was little different from the generations of China specialists who have stirred the tea leaves of the People’s Daily, Xinhua, and other government sources looking for grains of information.
Among other factoids, Wang graduated from the journalism school of the China Academy of Social Sciences (most famous alumnus: Bo Xilai) which was shut down when most of its students took to the streets in the 1989 Tian An Men demonstrations, including Xiangwei. Also that he was assigned to the China Daily, which covered part of his tuition. Upon entering the CASS school, he was offered a choice between China Daily and Xinhua and he chose China Daily. His fellowship to the journalism program of Cardiff University was paid for by Thomson, which also funded the China Daily. After graduating, he worked briefly with the BBC Chinese service then was intrigued by accounts of Hong Kong and has been here ever since. He failed to mention, but I surmise, that like many other students on the square in 1989, he had fears about his personal safety should he have returned to China, while Hong Kong was relatively safe and had harbored many of the dissenting students when they fled.
The history of the chief job at the SCMP consists of many, many British, a few Australians, Americans, and four Asians including Wang. I would tend to write off the attacks on Wang as simple racism but of course they are more nuanced than that. One of the Asians, an Indian, Tom Abraham, was seen as a family friend of the Kuoks, the owners, who had no business running a newspaper. The second, C.K. Lau, a Hong Konger, was viewed in the Hong Kong journalism community as a yes-man with long experience but no real ability to stand up to the Kuoks. Reg Chua, a long-time Dow Jones manager, was viewed as a martyr to press freedom when the Kuoks imported a couple of advisors from Malaysia and Singapore who got in his way, leading to his resignation.
Except for Wang, none of the Asians were portrayed in the light of an agenda, let alone a long-term agenda leading to the subversion of Hong Kong rights and freedoms. Nor were any of the non-Asians seriously challenged as being plants of the CIA, MI5, or whatever, and in the context of the Cold War, that might even have been seen as an advantage, in terms of access to intelligence and participation in the South China version of the Great Game. So why the exception for him? In Hong Kong, particularly with the horrendous Bo Xilai scandal swirling overhead, with all its many levels of non-transparency, disinformation, and suggestiveness, perhaps it’s impossible to imagine that a mainlander in a position of influence is more or less what he says he is — a product of the 1980s reform era and a generation that started out in self-exile after 1989.
At the lunch, a woman sitting next to me harrumphed continuously, describing Wang to the Russian reporter sitting opposite as a “how do you say it, apparatchik”. It didn’t help things that he praised Hui Kuok, the 30-something executive director of the SCMP and Robert’s daughter from a second marriage. Hui Kuok’s chief journalistic passions are travel and fashion. The Kuoks are viewed by some as Party lackeys (not necessarily members) and nouveau riche billionaires who have imposed a regime of rigid self-censorship on the Post. To me, Wang’s tenure, however long it lasts, sets up a fascinating series of historical parallels and question marks. As an outsider, is he less likely to fall victim to the easy corruptions of Hong Kong? As an “insider” (to the mainland) will he run the paper the way generations of British editors ran it, as a government mouthpiece? To what extent if any does he have a vision of the SCMP as an instrument of widening press freedom in China? Or is “balance” a code word for propaganda?
In my two years at the SCMP, there were nine editors counting four executive editors, possibly a record in the annals of global media. Perhaps the most interesting question of all is how long Xiangwei will last.
Xiangwei’s 2009 article:
China’s 60 years of changeReflections on China’s 60 years of change A day of celebration and reflection as people mark six momentous decades
Deputy editor Wang Xiangwei reflects on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic
1 October 2009
South China Morning Post
(c) 2009 South China Morning Post Publishers Limited, Hong Kong. All rights reserved.
As I was growing up in the northeastern industrial city of Jilin , my family’s most prized possession was a Butterfly sewing machine. We had to buy everything with coupons, and Spring Festival was the only time of the year when we could afford to have a feast of pork and fish.
Today, as the People’s Republic marks its 60th birthday, China has undergone tremendous change from the backward country of my childhood. Over the past four decades, millions of Chinese like me have witnessed one of the most profound events in modern history – the rise of China. Its impact on Chinese people and the world at large will resonate for many years ahead.
I was born in 1965 – one year before the Cultural Revolution plunged the nation into one of its darkest periods in modern history.
Yet 44 years later, the nation is immersed in the most elaborate and probably most expensive one-day celebration by the Communist Party to laud China’s economic rise and look towards scaling new heights. It is a good opportunity for every Chinese to reflect upon the changes brought by this momentous period of history to their own lives – good or bad, sweet or bitter.
Like many mainlanders my age, my memories are of a happy, playful and inquisitive childhood. I was largely oblivious to the tumultuous changes – the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution, the death of Lin Biao in 1971, the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the third comeback of Deng Xiaoping shortly afterwards.
My first hint of those troubled times came from catching an occasional glimpse of my mother weeping. She later told me her father had been badly beaten for being “a well-to-do middle-class peasant” before 1949.
Like most mainlanders, our family lived an austere but contented life in those days of egalitarian hardship.
My introduction to English came in primary school, with the first obligatory text being an English version of The East is Red, the de facto anthem of the country at the time, lauding Chairman Mao. Going to the cinema was one of the biggest joys for us as children, even though the films were usually reruns of black-and-white Soviet films like Lenin in 1918, revolutionary Peking operas, and the tear-jerking North Korean opera The Flower Girl. Before each film, newsreels of current events such as Mao meeting Richard Nixon were shown. Whenever Mao appeared on screen, everyone in the cinema stood up and burst into thunderous applause.
My first sense of a better life in the often denounced capitalist countries occurred when watching newsreels about Chinese delegations on overseas visits as they tended to open with aerial shots of the United Nations buildings and their surrounding areas in New York or Geneva where gleaming office buildings stood along roads full of cars zooming by and pedestrians dressed in smart suits.
My interest in English deepened when I accidentally switched on the shortwave bandwidths of my grandfather’s old transistor radio and came across the Voice of America and became addicted to its popular English-teaching programme called English 900. I did not realise until much later that listening to the programme posed a potentially serious risk for me and my family because “listening to enemy radio” was considered a serious crime for which we could be jailed. Luckily, I was never caught, although the VOA programmes were later constantly jammed, to my annoyance.
My real understanding of the outside world started in 1982, when I was enrolled into what is now known as the Beijing Foreign Studies University, the most prestigious place to learn foreign languages in China. In the name of learning English, we could get the latest issues of news weeklies including Time, Newsweek and The Economist, and novels such as The Thorn Birds, watch videos including The Godfather and even the latest release of Gandhi, supplied by the US embassy in Beijing.
Outside the campus, tremendous changes were also sweeping across the country as the reform and opening up was in full throttle at the time.
My first taste of Western pop music came in 1985, when Wham! became the first Western pop group to perform in China, in front of more than 15,000 young mainlanders under the stern eyes of attendants who tried to shoo everyone daring to stand up and gyrate with the music.
But the two people who have had a big impact on my life were the two Dengs – the petite Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng Li-chun and the diminutive Deng Xiaoping. (Their surnames are the same in Chinese characters.)
Like millions of young mainlanders, I was mesmerised by Teng’s sweet voice and perfect girl-next-door looks despite the government’s initial attempts to ban her music, which it said was decadent and morally corrupting.
Deng’s policies inspired me to become a journalist aspiring to chronicle the momentous changes happening around the country.
As my generation was growing up, we began to hear more and more stories about official profiteering and corruption among high-ranking officials and their family members. When we mourned the death of Hu Yaobang , the deposed Communist Party chief, a swelling anger at a mixture of corruption and runaway inflation led me to join tens of thousands of Beijing students and residents to demonstrate at Tiananmen Square in those fateful months from April to June of 1989. Following the crackdown, I joined the China Daily, the only English-language newspaper, but focused on writing business stories.
I was again indebted to Deng for changing my life in 1993, when I was in London, running out of money and preparing to return to the mainland after two years of studying and working in Britain.
Deng’s famous tour through the southern provinces in 1992 had unleashed a new round of economic development following the trough caused by the 1989 crackdown. With its soaring property and stock markets and – most important of all – a free and thriving media, Hong Kong sounded like an ideal destination for me and an increasing number of mainlanders who went to study overseas.
After joining the SCMP in 1996 as a China business writer based in Hong Kong, my frequent trips to Beijing and other major cities afforded me a front-row seat to witness and chronicle the changes the mainland has undergone in recent years – new highways, gleaming, modern office buildings,
As elated as I am about those changes, I am equally dismayed about the rampant official corruption, widening income gap, choking pollution, muzzling of the media and clamping down on political dissent – all issues comprehensively reported and commented on by this paper.
On this historic day, there are many more reasons to be hopeful. China’s reforms and opening up are set on an irreversible path, and the internet is shaping people’s lives and government policies, to name just two examples.
The day that China becomes a stronger, more prosperous and democratic country will come sooner rather than later. Just look at the incredible changes the nation and its people have gone through. I am truly grateful for having the chance to write about these changes and those to come.