Strange interview raises fears about Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong’s paper of record

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Originally published by Shanghaiist on July 28, 2016

The South China Morning Post is stuck between a rock and a hard place as critics have begun to question the (once) venerable newspaper’s peculiar interview with a young activist who had been detained by Chinese authorities for over a year.

The activist in question, 24-year-old lawyer Zhao Wei, also known by her online moniker Kaolai, was a legal assistant to the prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Li Heping, perhaps best known for defending Chen Guangcheng. Chinese Human Rights Defenders  says that Zhao was forcibly seized by authorities from her residence in July of last year as part of a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, with more than 700 arrested and thrown into jail, including her boss.

Zhao Wei herself was accused of the crime of “subversion of state power” and detained in Tianjin. However, following rumors in May of this year that she had been sexually assaulted in prison, Zhao was to be released “on bail pending investigation.” In early July, the Tianjin police declared that Zhao had met the conditions for her bail by “admitting” to her “crimes.”

Three days after that announcement, she was interviewed over the phone by SCMP for an article titled “Young Chinese legal activist ‘regrets’ civil rights activism” that was published on July 11th, critics commented that the whole piece sounded more like your usual forced public confession than an actual interview:

Speaking to the South China Morning Post on the phone on Sunday, Zhao said she wrote the statements on her (Weibo) accounts.”I have come to realize that I have taken the wrong path. I repent for what I did. I’m now a brand new person,” she said.

She said she wanted to speak to the media because she “realised she had made mistakes” and she “truly wanted to repent.”

She said she was back at her home in Henan province and was staying with her parents.

The Post could not verify Zhao’s location or whether she was under surveillance during the interview. Zhao declined requests for a face-to-face interview.

China Media Project’s David Bandurski claimed that the interview diverged from asking questions that are “human and probing,” i.e. whether or now she is “able to meet a lawyer” or if she is “currently being held against (her) will.” Instead, the article merely aids in justifying the “official narrative” that Zhao is really sorry for her actions, making her “online repentance” authentic, justifying the crackdown against activists and lawyers.

The Guardian has also questioned the authenticity of the article. Zhao’s lawyer, Yan Huafeng, told reporter Tom Phillips that she was perplexed as to how the SCMP reporter — who was unnamed in the article — managed to contact Zhao in the first place. Zhao’s husband, You Mingle, stated that his wife “does not have a mobile phone or a computer with her” and that they have been unable to contact her. So it’s even more surprising that the SCMP was able to do so considering that “she would not have the contact number for (them).” Perhaps the most eerie part of all this is SCMP’s unfounded claim that Zhao was back at her family’s home. When her husband made the journey to Henan, he found “the two story building deserted,” with a neighbor saying that the family had not been there “for a while.”

“The editors” of the SCMP have responded to questions being raised over the interview by The Guardian and other critics, writing in an emailed statement that they were “tempted to conclude” that it was all an effort “to paint the South China Morning Post in a negative light.”

“Like the Guardian and other principled news organisations, the South China Morning Post treats the protection of confidential sources as sacrosanct. We therefore fail to understand why the Guardian is attempting to impugn our professionalism for maintaining a policy on sources that the Guardian follows as well,” the email added.

SCMP has been under fire for the past few years amid allegations of self censorship. In the recent past, media watchdog groups have raised concerns following the dismissals of a number of editorial staff members that were known for their critical views on China. Fears only escalated when Alibaba purchased Hong Kong’s paper of record last November. Despite reassurances from Jack Ma himself to “trust” that his company “also wants media independence and fairness,” Executive Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai’s criticism of Western media bias against China, Ma’s own ties to Beijing leadership, and the disastrous legacy of Wang Xiangwei as Editor in Chief have all stoked fears that the once prestigious paper “has lost its way.”

Still, despite its new owners and apparent inside connections in mainland China, the paper’s online presence in mainland China remains non-existent after internet censors shut down its microblogging accounts on Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo, as well as its WeChat page on March 8th of this year. With more interviews like the one with Zhao Wei, the paper’s presence outside of mainland China may be in peril as well.

By Arnie Yung

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