Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fear and loathing in Hong Kong: Purging and expanding Ming Pao

Forty-eight-year-old Qu Jialin is an established Hong Kong columnist. He is also a loyal reader of the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao. One of Qu’s favorite Ming Pao columns was “Weekly Journal of An Yu.” An Yu is the pen name of Jiang Guoyuan. Jiang until recently, was one of the newspaper’s editors. He began writing the column under this pen name in 2004, focusing primarily on international affairs. Qu said he admires Jiang’s dedication and ability to keep reading and writing amidst a busy schedule.

Jiang has served Ming Pao for 18 years and is a deeply respected figure in Hong Kong’s news industry. His sudden layoff on April 20th,  saddened many people.

Feng Chengzhang, Ming Pao’s former chief editor, was shocked and wrote that “firing a capable writer for financial reasons is not convincing at all.” Jiang hasn’t responded to his firing in public. But the incident has triggered much surprise and discussion in Hong Kong’s news industry.

Before and after the layoff

On the night of April 20th, Ming Pao’s editors had dedicated themselves to the next day’s report on the Panama Papers — a set of 11.5 million leaked documents detailing attorney-client information for more than 214,000 offshore companies associated with the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.  

At midnight, Ming Pao’s chief editor, Zhong Tianxiang, informed Jiang of his termination. Jiang said goodbye to each of his colleagues. His final words were: “nice job on the Panama Papers!”

Jiang Guoyuan has been in and out of Ming Pao three times, assuming various posts for a total of 18 years service. He joined Ming Pao for the third time in 2004, serving as managers for multiple departments such as the department of international affairs and Hong Kong affairs. Before his layoff, he served as executive editor, managing daily news editing.

Every day at 3 pm, Jiang would hold a meeting with the managers of multiple departments regarding the day’s editorials. At 6 pm, Jiang would meet with the news department managers to decide the next day’s headlines. At 11 pm, he would hold another meeting to follow up on news progress.

However, insiders say Jiang faced trouble on the job after Zhong Tianxiang became editor in chief of Ming Pao one and a half years ago. On April 2015, the opinion pages of Ming Pao changed hands from Jiang to another senior staff member. In addition, Sunday Ming Pao, which was launched by Jiang, was also removed from Jiang’s area of responsibility. These actions were regarded as moves to gradually cut Jiang’s authority.        

On the day Jiang was fired, chief editor Zhong met with Ming Pao staff. Facing insistent questioning, Zhong alleged that Ming Pao had reached its “survival line” (where business performance was concerned) and had to resort to layoffs. One threshold for deciding who would be laid off was given as pay level. Jiang and Zhong are among the two most well-paid people at the paper. When asked “why it is not you,” based on how much people were paid, Zhong said the decision was up to higher ups.

Ming Pao’s staff then asked the CEO of Ming Pao Group, Zhang Qiuchang, for confirmation of what Zhong had said. Zhang responded that the newspaper’s profit had plummeted. But he also said the list of those to be laid off had been decided by chief managers. In other words, Jiang’s firing was decided by Zhong.

The chair of the workers union at Ming Pao Workers Association, Zeng Jinwen, called the layoff decision illegitimate. She said the budget tightening was an excuse for exacting revenge at a convenient time.

Ming Pao reporting vs. editorials

According to Qu, who works as an adjunct professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong, Ming Pao is “schizophrenic” in terms of what it publishes. He says this is apparent in the conflict between its news reporting and editorial page.

For example, during the Umbrella Movement which began on Sept. 28, 2014, many protesters occupied central areas of the city such as Admiralty and Mong Kok. Ming Pao’s editorial pages made negative comments about the movement. It highlighted the violence and potential threat to social order that the protest represented. Meanwhile, the paper’s daily coverage kept reporting news about the movement as its headline for 75 consecutive days. The coverage included supportive voices from ordinary people in Hong Kong. The reports were more objective (than the editorial page) and some stories also highlighted that the participants respected public order.

Qu further notes that Ming Pao’s news coverage is well documented. It serves as the “fourth power” to check and balance acts by the government.

However, Qu says the content of the paper’s editorial page was different. He says it often doesn’t take positions and sometimes talks about the obvious — as though it fears offending anyone. The editorials at Ming Pao were produced by an editor named He Wenhan. But since Zhong took the helm at Ming Pao, he says the chief editor has taken to checking the editorials before they are published. Sometimes, Zhong  is also said to edit the editorials himself.

Zhong, 59, came to Hong Kong from Malaysia. He graduated from the master’s program in Chinese from Nanjing University and the doctorate program from Fu Dan University. Zhong worked as a journalist for Malaysia’s Sin Chew Daily from 1980 to 1988. He then moved to the international affairs newsweekly Yazhou Zhoukan as Kuala Lumpur correspondent. From 1995 to 2006, he served as the vice chair of the international news department of Singapore-based Lianhe Zaobao.

From 2006 to 2009, he worked as the chief editor of Nanyang Business Daily, a Malaysian publication that operated under Media Chinese International Limited. In January 2014, Zhong landed at Ming Pao as chief editor. Critics contend his alleged incompetence and personal tendency for interfering with press coverage soon invited criticism.

Top editors shuffled three times

Established on May 20th 1959, Ming Pao had been honored five times since 1997 as the Hong Kong public’s most trusted news source. But since 2012, this well-established publication has changed chief editors three times. When Zhong, who hails from Malaysia, was parachuted into Ming Pao, the appointment raised much suspicion. According to Professor Li Lifeng at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2014 was a politically significant year for city due to the emergence of the Umbrella Movement.

Despite a lack of direct evidence, some say it’s only rational to conclude that such personnel moves amounted to a purging of the paper’s top managers.

Professor Li further commented that as a private news institution, Ming Pao has the freedom to fire its staff. But given its resources and research capability, Li pointed out that Ming Pao is one of Hong Kong’s leading newspapers. Its pages influence not only society, but also the news industry. When a paper like Ming Pao does in-depth reports based on research, he says other media can’t avoid following up on the same topics.

Given all these factors, Li says that it’s possible that a behind-the-scenes purging was carried out at the paper.

A senior staff at Ming Pao also pointed out that Jiang’s layoff is a reaction to a report on the Hong Kong legislature that was published in September. He commented that the newspaper would lose all public trust if more “reforms” at the paper are carried out by those in charge.

What is behind the purge?

In the face of such scrutiny, Ming Pao Group has publicly claimed that Jiang’s layoff was a last resort due to the company’s budget situation. They also said that the paper’s orientation wouldn’t change.

The financial report indicates that the paper’s revenue in Hong Kong and the mainland area has declined in the past three years. Profit also dived 80% between 2014 and 2015. An accountancy source says the disproportionate decline in profit vs. revenue can be best explained by cost increases. However, due to opaqueness on the reasons for the vast cost increase, it is possible that the Ming Pao Group is undergoing a structural change that requires such a dislocation of resources.

Panama Papers connection?   

Ming Pao’s boss, the president of Media Chinese International Limited, Zhang Xiaoqing, is the president of seven private corporations in Hong Kong. Many of them are registered offshore. It is not illegal to have companies registered offshore, but it makes it difficult to track holders. It also raises the question of tax avoidance. 

Meanwhile, just prior to his layoff, the last headlined story that Jiang oversaw pertained to the Panama Papers — which revealed the illicit financial behavior of offshore companies owned by powerful political and business figures worldwide.

In addition of being the president of many offshore companies, Zhang has also expanded his business in mainland China to the tune of 300 million Hong Kong dollars. A recent investment is China-Malaysia Qinzhou Industrial Park in Guangxi Province. It is a joint project by China’s former prime minister, Wen Jiabao, and prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak. After Xi Jinping became China’s president, Zhang Xiaoqing has publicly expressed his approval for Xi, and condemned the Umbrella Movement multiple times.   

On April 24th, the first Sunday after Jiang’s layoff, the Weekly Journal of An Yu had also disappeared from Ming Pao. Jiang’s last column on April 17th was titled “Twenty Years of Long Vacation,” probing the vicissitudes of Japan’s economy through the Japanese drama series, Long Vacation, and juxtaposing it with Hong Kong’s situation. Jiang stated that “the beauty of memory can’t match the cruelty of reality. Hong Kong can’t go back to the days when people exchange DVDs to chase the Long Vacation drama series. The beautiful days are gone, both in terms of society and politics.” 

This article was originally published on April 25, 2016 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.

Translated by Tenei Nakahara for Asia Times


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