Beijing's Influence on the Media:
Reflections of a Beijing Correspondent
Jasper Becker, former Beijing Bureau Chief of the South China Morning Post, was the Foundationís guest speaker on 26 June 2002. This is a summary of his remarks.
Since being sacked, he had found himself in rather an interesting position, said Mr Becker. It reminded him of the British comedian Spike Milligan. Milligan had written a book, "Adolf Hitler, My Part in his Downfall". Now, said Mr Becker, it was time for him to write his book, "Hong Kong, My Part in its Downfall". From being a distant observer, he had found himself caught up in great historical changes taking place in Hong Kong; now he was writing his own footnote to those changes.
It was difficult, said Mr Becker, for him to interpret the actions of the management at the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and those of the officials offering them advice. Like many large companies, the SCMP had its share of chaotic incidents. But when he looked back on the course of the last couple of years, it was plain to him that there was more going on than just the normal corporate chaos, turf battles and personality clashes that one would find anywhere.
When he went to work for the SCMP in Beijing, he had been accredited to the Information Department of the Foreign Ministry. They had been most helpful. Contrary to many people's perception, the Foreign Ministry was trying to move in the direction of adopting international standards of practice. It was the reverse of the direction in Hong Kong. The Foreign Ministry had helped them expand. He had never been reprimanded for tips in his articles, said Mr Becker, or for saying things about Li Peng. The Ministry had not given them a problem at all. He had the sense that the ministry actually wanted to help Hong Kong retain its position as an exchange mart for gossip and discussion of Mainland politics.
There was no such thing as absolute press freedom. Owners everywhere exerted control over their organs. But when he had joined the Post there had been a number of key managers committed to quality journalism. When rows had occurred, the editors had backed them up. They had been ready to sacrifice a few pawns to keep the ball in the field.
The Chinese understand the value of a free press, having been deprived of it. In Hong Kong that realisation is not there.
He had been free to roam around China, said Mr Becker. So he had been able to dig up new stories rather than following the agenda of the agencies. He had earned a reputation as a doubter of China's economic miracle. Whenever you looked into the great claims made by the officials you found something different. And the more realistic picture he had been able to draw thanks to the freedom he had enjoyed helped people, not only in Hong Kong, but in China too. People actually welcomed you, as a conduit for their grievances. The Chinese understood the value of a free press, having been deprived of it. In Hong Kong that realisation was not there. If Hong Kong ever had a free press, he would be marginalised, said Mr Becker.
During the booming pre-handover period, management within the SCMP had had big dreams. They dreamt of becoming the New York Times of Asia, not just being a paper for South China but developing a regional presence. However all this changed when the son of Robert Kuok took over some two years ago. He started putting his own management in, changing the journalistic makeup. He was one of those people who believed it their mission to present a positive view of China, to make people believe that everything was going well there. Did this have some connection to the Kuok's business interests in China? Mr Becker did not know. However, he recognised the very strong nationalism of overseas Chinese, how these people felt a very strong desire to be part of what was going on in China. So they wanted to be sympathetic to the Chinese leaders, to support whatever they were doing.
But this was a misunderstanding of what the people in China themselves were like. His experience of writing "Hungry Ghosts", on the famine of the early 1960s caused by the Great Leap Forward, was a case in point, said Mr Becker. He had thought "Hungry Ghosts" would cause problems, although since much of the material had been from published sources he thought this would be containable. His management at the Post thought that he would be branded an enemy of China, a liability rather than an asset. But far from it. His book was not translated in Hong Kong, or in Taiwan for that matter; it had been translated for sale in the Mainland. And more recent publications had topped even his figure for the number of deaths from starvation, putting it at 40 million rather than 30. A lot of people in China were ashamed of the Great Leap Forward and the sufferings episodes like that had caused. They wanted change. This mentality was not understood by people like the Kuoks.
Another problem was that many of the current senior management of the Post were British or Australian expats who rarely if ever went to China and had no feeling for it. They even went on holiday to Thailand or Australia rather than to China. So it was hard for them to understand the changing attitudes among the Chinese. This created tensions. He had assumed, said Mr Becker, that because these people lived in what was geographical part of China they would understand it better. But it was not so.
The Post was a microcosm of what was happening throughout Hong Kong institutions. In China, people were pulling in different directions. This meant that there was a lot more wiggle room than the authorities in Hong Kong imagined. Mainland officials came down to Hong Kong to see how the public housing programme worked, to see how a market economy worked, what the rule of law meant. They could have come down to see how a democratic society worked too, said Mr Becker, if the Hong Kong authorities had handled things differently. Admittedly this probably could not have been done in colonial times, but under ethnic Chinese rulers it could have been acceptable. He recalled hearing Zhu Rongji describing Hong Kong as an experiment in democracy. This was a clue to the potential.
Yet instead of this, many of Hong Kong's tycoons were terrified of what China would say, and were unnecessarily subservient. Beijing's view was in fact something like this - We have given you the Basic Law as a framework, so get on with it and don't bother us. But Hong Kong officials kept consulting Beijing, asking what they should do. All of these tendencies fed into each other so that people became nervous if anyone wrote something not completely positive about China. They wanted to use the Post to demonstrate their loyalty to China. And so there was constant interference with what was said from day to day. It was not just post mortem examination the following day - "I wonder if we should have said this." It was involvement in operational decisions as they were being made. This was what had happened to Willy Lam. And his own stories started to be softened, the spark taken out of them, until they became completely bland.
The real crisis began for him personally, said Mr Becker, when he was transferred from the Information Department of the Foreign Ministry to the Gang Au Ban, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. This meant that the Post would no longer be a foreign newspaper. Of course it was an anomaly, but it was much better to remain with the Foreign Ministry and enjoy international standards of treatment. The Gang Au Ban did not want foreigners, but wanted ethnic Chinese. It would call up the Chinese editor and tell him not to cover a particular story.
So in the end he was receiving instructions from all over the place, said Mr Becker. And the tension built up. At one point the SCMP managed to get ex-British Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine to appeal to Qian Qiqian to stop the transfer. The Foreign Ministry warned him and his colleague to leave and join a British paper. And Jiang's outburst against the Hong Kong media that summer sealed his fate.
The Post may have made a secret deal to accredit him and his colleague with the Gang Au Ban on the understanding that they would be edged out shortly afterwards with the minimum of fuss. So from late November, he was excluded from contact with the Gang Au Ban, and had to communicate with them through the Hong Kong office of the Post. Then the editor stopped replying to his emails, said Mr Becker. The money was cut off, and things got more and more peculiar. Ironically, at that moment the Foreign Ministry approved his trip to Tibet - they had already set up an office there in Lhasa to make it easier for foreign journalists. It was the management of the Post who tried to stop him from going.
He was at that point doing articles on politics following the departure of Willy Lam, although it was difficult to match his knowledge said Mr Becker. So he thought it had come to the point when he had to clarify the situation with the Post. Perhaps he was just imagining the conspiracy against him - covering so many conspiracies in China might have gone to his head. But it turned out to be very real. The Post offered him the routine it had tried on Lam beforehand. He would leave, be offered a column, and then six months later the column would disappear.
After Jonathan Fenby had left, the Post had hired people who were either not qualified for their job or were not committed, people nearing retirement, people who had never been to East Asia, even people who had had no editorial experience. This was strange when one considered the wealth of journalistic talent in Hong Kong, not to speak of the talent in the Hong Kong Diaspora - people who had worked in this region and were now stationed around the globe. But the management did not call these people. It seemed that the management were adopting the view of those Mainlanders who had thought that the Post was the propaganda arm of the colonial government, and should now perform the same function after the Handover, like the China Daily.
It had happened in fits and starts, incrementally. The Post was losing readership; the paper had become dull; morale was low. Really, it was in a crisis. But to management the priority was to establish what they saw as the correct relationships with Beijing rather than to maintain standards of quality. It was representative of the overall trend in Hong Kong.
A better future in China
What did Mr Becker think of Qian Qiqian's comments the previous day on a slow path to democracy for Hong Kong? Mr Becker did not think that Qian was a figure of independent power. That kind of power rested with Jiang and Li Peng. You would have to wait for generational change. It looked as though Jiang would be unlikely to step down at the forthcoming party congress. He would be looking for a position from which to control things for a further five years. No one retired from a senior leadership position in China anyway. You went out in a coffin.
There were changes within China. People were asking what should be done about the Communist Party. It was up to Hong Kong to stand up for itself. The authorities in Beijing would have been ready to give up a lot more. You only had to look at other Mainland cities to see what a hard bargain they drove with the Central Government. In fact, Beijing found it difficult to control them.
A newspaper did not have to be conservative. And it made commercial sense to be bolder. People wanted to read about the leadership, they wanted to know what was really going on. "Hungry Ghosts" happened because there was no free press in China, no one spoke up and no one knew what was happening. So people in China understood the value of a free press more than people in Hong Kong. It was really Hong Kong's unique advantage, the free flow of information. But Hong Kong's leadership did not understand that. The management was almost asking whether it needed journalists. But you could not have the rule of law and the operation of free markets without an information-based system.
He was optimistic about the press in China, said Mr Becker. There were entrepreneurs there who knew they could make money through the media. At present, newspapers were tightly regulated, and regions had their own local party newspaper. But this would change sooner than people thought. You would have the scope to develop national brands. Technological change, the Internet, helped open up information flow. People were returning to China with experience of overseas media.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation