RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Our next story focuses on freedom of the press in a nominally democratic place. Earlier this month, Hong Kong's newspaper of record, the South China Morning Post, abruptly shut down its Chinese-language website.
This came after mainland-Chinese tech tycoon Jack Ma purchased the newspaper, promising, quote, "more correct news coverage about China." NPR's Rob Schmitz brings us this story about a newspaper that, like its city, a Chinese territory, is increasingly under pressure from Beijing.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The train to Central is arriving.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The train to Hong Kong Central Station is arriving. But few among the hundreds of passengers waiting aboard bother to look up from their phones. They're reading headlines from more than a dozen local news sites that make Hong Kongers some of the most voracious news junkies on the planet. It's hard to believe that just miles away in China, news is controlled by the state.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please mind the gap.
SCHMITZ: But the gap between the two is narrowing.
WANG FENG: Some stories were, for example, killed at the editorial meetings.
SCHMITZ: Wang Feng is the former digital editor of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's largest English-language daily. And here's why he's the former digital editor.
FENG: Other stories were downplayed, shortened and moved to less important pages or locations. Headlines changed - certain quotes taken out - stuff like that.
SCHMITZ: Censorship, a constant issue for newspapers in China, was historically not a big concern at the South China Morning Post. But in 2012, the paper hired its first Chinese-born editor-in-chief, Wang Xiangwei. Wang hired several young mainland journalists, including digital editor Wang Feng. Wang Feng says stories were either censored or spiked by his new editor-in-chief every week, often through an email to him.
FENG: Saying, you probably need to change that headline. And, obviously, we asked why. Well, because I told you so. Other times, he would just say, that one's too negative. The interviewee called. He didn't like it.
SCHMITZ: Wang Xiangwei did not respond to an interview request from NPR. He left his position a month before Chinese businessman Jack Ma bought the South China Morning Post last December. Ma's message to readers - trust me.
JACK MA: The more I know about the outside understanding of China, the more I feel that that's - most of things are not correct.
SCHMITZ: The billionaire founder of Alibaba told his new employees he wanted them to cover China more deeply, more broadly and more correctly. The more China-friendly tone wasn't just confined to the paper.
DAVID BANDURSKI: I think South China Morning Post is - it's a reflection. You can think of it as a reflection of what Hong Kong is.
SCHMITZ: David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, says Hong Kong used to see itself as a guiding light to its northern neighbor.
BANDURSKI: And the idea was that ideas in Hong Kong and the free space in Hong Kong could inspire China. I think we're seeing the door is open now. And the - really, the traffic is coming the other direction.
SCHMITZ: In July, the South China Morning Post ran what it called an exclusive interview with detained Chinese legal activist Zhao Wei. She told the Post she regretted her activism. The article, which lacked a byline, was odd. Her own husband hadn't been able to contact her in prison.
Yuen Chan, lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and former South China Morning Post journalist, says it was the first time the paper was used as a tool by Beijing to publish a confession, which is usually how China's government uses its own media. And it shocked readers.
YUEN CHAN: They don't really expect to see the English-language media also being manipulated. And I think that that really jolted them.
SCHMITZ: The South China Morning Post declined an interview request, saying, quote, "editorial autonomy is one of the core values of the South China Morning Post. There is no change to this value." Yuen Chan says the newspaper hasn't changed very much from its earliest days as the paper of record for the British colonialists.
CHAN: Personally, I don't feel that it's such a huge shock to find that the South China Morning Post is now pro-establishment.
SCHMITZ: That's because, Chan says, the establishment in Hong Kong is changing.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Hong Kong.
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