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A Hong Kong Newspaper Softens Its Voice Like Many Others in Colony, Ming Pao Hews Closer to Beijing¹s Line

Like Many Others in Colony, Ming Pao Hews Closer to Beijing's Line

For years, this city's most influential newspaper was a thorn in the Chinese government's side. Ming Pao broke news about crackdowns on dissidents, offered up juicy accounts of China's political power struggles, and earned the official label "hostile" for its detailed coverage of democracy protests in 1989.

So, now that China is preparing to take over Hong Kong, what is Ming Pao doing? Retreating. Staff opinion columns, once fiery, now often support China's line. Political news about China comes from official sources. When China was promoting shipping tycoon Tung Chee-Hwa to lead Hong Kong after July, Ming Pao devoted a full page to him for five days, with headlines like "Tung Impresses One Most by His Character."

Beijing has long put pressure on Hong Kong's media. But the truth is, the free press here is changing of its own free will. "I want Hong Kong and Chinese interests to reach a balance. We have to find that balance," declares Kao Hsin-chiang, Ming Pao's editorial director.

Ming Pao's new attitude reflects a deepening mood of conciliation within the Hong Kong establishment, a sense of inevitability that seems likely to make the handover smoother than many outsiders expect. To preserve Hong Kong as a top financial and business center, China promises to preserve the territory's autonomy‹its economic, legal and political systems‹for 50 years. That promise has cost Beijing little so far. It counts on its mushrooming network of friends to get what it wants: a friendlier press, a more cooperative legislature, a bigger role for Chinese state companies.

Far from standing up to or challenging China, Hong Kong has turned hypersensitive to China's hopes and fears. When a group of local legislators pushed to investigate Hong Kong's underground Communist Party, a majority of their colleagues objected, citing China's assurances that party activities in Hong Kong don't amount to much. The political elite acceded to Beijing's decision to dismantle the existing Legislative Council and replace it with a new body. Holdouts weren't invited to join China's hand-picked provisional legislature.

The business community also trembles at China's touch. A stock analyst working for a brokerage firm called CEF Securities lost his job after he publicly criticized management of China Eastern Airlines, a listed mainland carrier. Textbook publishers scramble to rewrite history books, vowing to wipe out alleged British bias in the classroom. Hong Kong's press has helped to chart the pro-China course. Many of Hong Kong's 15-odd major dailies have family proprietors who didn't hesitate to air strong views in the past. These days, with the exception of Apple Daily, an upstart tabloid with a distinctly skeptical publisher named Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, the major papers are careful to avoid making enemies with China.

Jimmy Lai is one of the reasons: Hong Kong securities underwriters, wary of a possible backlash from China, have so far declined to back the listing of a company he runs, Next Media Group. Even the venerable South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading English-language daily, has doffed its hat to Hong Kong's new master. The Post recently hired a founder of the mainland's China Daily newspaper as an editorial "consultant" and gave him an office right next to the paper's top editor.

Ming Pao, launched in 1959, won the loyalty of Hong Kong's intellectuals and middle-class Cantonese, many of them refugees from the mainland, with its tough China reporting. Louis Cha, the paper's founding editor, was an anticommunist journalist who doubled as a popular novelist. His martial-arts epics, excerpted daily by Ming Pao, featured heroes who mastered traditional arts such as calligraphy and kung fu and fought against "outside" influences.

Western military and diplomatic analysts came to rely on Ming Pao's China scoops. In 1977, when virtually no unauthorized news leaked from China, Ming Pao disclosed Deng Xiaoping's battle against the Gang of Four, and his subsequent victory. In 1984, Ming Pao detailed Mr. Deng's decision to scale back China's huge army in hopes of creating a more modern force.

Dissidents regularly topped the news. Consider headlines Ming Pao trumpeted in just one month, December 1988: Wang Xizhi Put in Solitary Confinement; Writer Wang Ruowang Barred From Visit to U.S.; Li Zhengtian Urges More Rights for Workers; Fang Lizhi Launches Appeal for Political Reform.

As it laid the groundwork to take back Hong Kong in the late 1980s, China courted many one-time opponents, including Mr. Cha. And Ming Pao's line softened some as Mr. Deng's reforms deepened. But the newspaper's coverage of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 put it on a collision course with mainland authorities.

The newspaper carried blanket coverage of the unrest, complete with daily banner headlines and sprawling photo essays. Faxed copies filled bulletin boards in China's provincial capitals, providing mainlanders with their only direct accounts. The newspaper was the first to report the Politburo's secret vote to oust reformist party leader Zhao Ziyang. It chronicled dissent within rival military units over the use of force against demonstrators. A group of Ming Pao reporters wrote a top-selling book glorifying the student movement.
All that made Ming Pao a prime target of mainland bureaucrats, who operate in Hong Kong under the guise of the Xinhua news agency. Xinhua's four-tier ranking system for newspapers helps determine which reporters get visas for the mainland, invitations to parties, even passes for news conferences. Ming Pao got the lowest ranking, "hostile," after China accused it of helping instigate sympathy protests in Hong Kong during the Tiananmen Square period. The paper was slapped with a rare Chinese libel suit after a minor mistake in an article about Shanghai.

But by far the most decisive move was the 1994 arrest of Xi Yang, a Ming Pao reporter. From Beijing, Mr. Xi wrote a story on China's plans to sell gold. Beijing imprisoned him for revealing "state financial secrets." Reporters started referring to China trips as "entering the minefield."

Positioning Ming Pao for the return to Chinese rule became a leading concern of Tiong Hiew King, a Malaysian-Chinese timber and publishing magnate who bought the paper in 1995. On one hand, Chinese rule put the promise of the world's largest market on Ming Pao's doorstep. On the other hand, the Chinese government would control newspapers' rights to print, distribute and enter joint ventures on the mainland. Only the friendliest would have any prospect of realizing business ambitions there.

Mr. Tiong also purchased Ming Pao, at least in part, because of his patriotic instincts. "He told me he wanted to make contributions to the Chinese people," says Mr. Kao, the Taiwanese editor Mr. Tiong tapped to head Ming Pao's editorial operations.

No stranger to operating under restrictive conditions, Mr. Kao had conflicts with Taiwan's once-authoritarian Kuomintang government. His neck-length hair, sideburns and enthusiasm for all-black suits make him look like an aging rock star, but his passion is a free press‹and its limits. He can quote from memory from the likes of Isaiah Berlin, Walter Lippman, John Milton and Thomas Jefferson. Their books, which Mr. Kao has personalized with voluminous annotation, line the black-lacquer shelves of his otherwise spartan office. But he is no firebrand. His theme is how to balance Ming Pao's independent voice with heightened public responsibility. "Keep digging for freedom forever and you'll find yourself in a deep hole," Mr. Kao says, paraphrasing Mr. Berlin.
Mr. Kao set out to modernize Ming Pao, inside and out. Today, the newspaper's offices, in a workaday warehouse district, house Hong Kong's most sophisticated Chinese-language publishing system. After an April makeover, Ming Pao began using oversize color photos and ample "white space" to create a friendlier feel. Mr. Kao aims to appeal to young readers, "not just gray-haired intellectuals."

Like most mainland Chinese, Messrs. Kao and Tiong don't speak Cantonese, Hong Kong's native language, and Ming Pao's newsroom culture has gradually changed. The newspaper's China desk editor hails from the China News Service, one of two official mainland news agencies. A senior staff opinion writer comes from Shanghai, where he worked in a government propaganda department. Hard-toned Mandarin and even a little Shanghai dialect now break up the high-pitched Cantonese newsroom buzz. Parochialism is on the out. "In Taiwan or the mainland, we look at news with the grand vision of a nation in mind," says Mr. Kao, puffing on a Dunhill cigarette during a late-night editing session. "Hong Kong is just a city‹you can swim around it‹and local issues used to be the first priority."

The old Ming Pao was too opinionated and tended to "pronounce its views" on sensitive issues, Mr. Kao says. "Hong Kong needs to understand China better, to sympathize more and judge less."

And so it has. Take China coverage. While the total pages devoted to writing about the mainland have increased, much of the space is filled by lurid tales of crime, accidents, fires or the lives of celebrities. Economic and political news often comes directly from official sources, like Xinhua. Taiwan news now appears on pages devoted to China. Ming Pao calls it "Taiwan province," just as mainland papers do.

Editors are risk-averse. One reporter recalls editors objecting to a scoop on the ground that it might anger Beijing. The reporter, who asked not to be named, had an impromptu interview with China's minister of agriculture, in which he discussed China's grain supply. Editors worried that grain supply might be a state secret. Ming Pao printed the article, but only after the reporter confirmed that the minister hadn't revealed classified information, the reporter says.

Such concerns don't prevent Ming Pao from breaking important news from time to time. It was the first to report on Muslim riots in China's northwest Xinjiang province recently. But editors have discouraged stories about Chinese politics, once Ming Pao's forte. "The editors feel more comfortable if we just wait for the official version to come out," says one reporter.

Mainland dissidents receive little or no ink. Ming Pao's China team confirmed last year that Beijing authorities were preparing to try Wang Dan, one of China's best-known political dissidents, on charges of seeking to overthrow the government. Ming Pao printed the report, but in a small item buried deep inside the paper.

Ming Pao tackles Hong Kong news with the same deference to authority. Editors carefully balance any photos of British officials or Hong Kong's opposition Democrats with photos of Xinhua bosses. "Zhou Nan's should be bigger," says one senior staff member, referring to the director of Xinhua's local office.

As China prepared to select Hong Kong's post-handover chief executive, Ming Pao gave extended and uncritical coverage to Mr. Tung, long assumed to be Beijing's favorite. Its Tung series of full-page articles depended heavily on an extended interview with Ng Suen-tak, a retired executive of Mr. Tung's company, Oriental Shipping, and a long-time Tung family friend.

Articles with headlines like "Tung's Family Business Depends on Systematic Management Not Luck" were punctuated by photos of Mr. Tung mingling with prominent Chinese officials. One article described Mr. Tung's short-cropped hairstyle, which it said hasn't changed in 30 years. The hairstyle symbolizes his fidelity to his principles, his country, and his wife, the newspaper said.

Patriotic events get prime treatment. In splashy page-one spreads, Ming Pao cried foul late last summer when Japanese nationalists constructed a lighthouse on the disputed Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, over which both China and Japan claim sovereignty. Before the event had become a major issue, Ming Pao sponsored a boat expedition to the islands to test the resolve of the Japanese navy, and then trumpeted its outrage when Japan turned the boat away. Ming Pao also blasted the U.S. for "masterminding" the island dispute and "committing another historic wrong against China."

The coverage has alienated some of Ming Pao's top reporters and editors. In recent weeks, three top staffers left the paper, citing disgruntlement with editorial changes. All three were members of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which has criticized Chinese pressure on the local media. "I have been in journalism long enough to say that there are very strange things going on at Ming Pao," says one of them, former political editor Lai Pui-Yee. "I did not want to be part of that."

Some Hong Kong media observers also criticize Ming Pao's changes. To Yiu Ming, a journalism professor at Hong Kong's Baptist University, says the paper's pro-China turn has left local intellectuals without a standard-bearer. "Ming Pao distinguished itself from the pack with its critical sense," he says. "That is gone. Nothing has replaced it." But the newspaper's new attitude has paid off on one score, at least. Beijing released Xi Yang from prison in February, nine years before the expiry of his sentence.

Staff gathered in the newsroom to welcome him home. Mr. Xi, still a young man, now has wispy gray hair. As he cut a cake and uncorked champagne, an editor warned him to be careful from now on‹after all, he's only on parole. The next day's front-page editorial thanked China for showing "leniency" in the case and went on: "Hong Kong is to be returned to the motherland in 100-odd days. Xi Yang's release has dispelled misgivings."
Joseph Kahn is a staff reporter for The Asian Wall Street Journal. This article is reprinted with permission from the April 22, 1997, issue of The Asian Wall Street Journal. Copyright (c) 1997, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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