Jiang Zemin interferes in newspaper operations

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, noted Hong Kong journalist, has been fired by his boss, Malaysian tycoon Kuok Hock-nien, for upsetting China's President Jiang Zemin

By Paul Lin 林保華  / 

Mon, Nov 20, 2000 - Page 9

On June 29, Malaysian tycoon Kuok Hock-nien (郭鶴年), who owns the South China Morning Post (南華早報, SCMP) and invests massively in China, wrote a letter to his own newspaper as a reader. In the letter, Kuok lashed out at Willy Wo-Lap Lam (林和立), the paper's deputy editor and editor of the China desk, for Lam's earlier essay on a meeting hosted by Chinese President Jiang Zemin (江澤民) for 30 Hong Kong tycoons, including Kuok. The meeting was an attempt to rally the tycoons in support of Special Administrative Region (SAR) Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa (董建華). Apart from railing against Lam, Kuo also criticized the SCMP for its tendency toward viewing "patriotism" as a mistake and an evil. Of course, the assertion touched on the newspaper's editorial direction. Later, seven tycoons went on to endorse Kuok's view. Since the boss took action in such a threatening gesture, the editorial direction of SCMP was doomed to change. And someone was expected to "be sacrificed" sooner or later.

On Nov. 3, the Apple Daily (蘋果日報) broke the story of Lam's expected replacement: Robert Keatley, SCMP's editor, told Lam on Nov. 2 that he would soon be replaced by a man surnamed Wang from China as editor of the Chinese edition. Lam was unwilling to comment on the event since he had not received any written documents concerning the replacement. However, due to Lam's international reputation, the event immediately attracted attention from media circles at home and abroad.

Late in the afternoon of Nov. 3, the SCMP management made an internal announcement saying Wang Xiangwei (王向偉), who had previously worked for Beijing's China Daily (中國日報), would replace Lam as China editor on Nov. 20. Lam, who had worked at SCMP for 12 years, called Keatley, who had taken a hike to Guangzhou, and told him he was resigning. Lam also called the management's decision "unreasonable and disturbing" and said it would eventually damage Hong Kong's press freedom. Lam left the SCMP soon afterwards.

In addition to the Asian Wall Street Journal, there used to be two English newspapers in Hong Kong: SCMP and the Hong Kong Standard, which respectively belonged to Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and Sally Aw Sian (胡仙) of the Singtao group. SCMP had been making money, but the Hong Kong Standard had been involved in several lawsuits. Aw finally sold the entire Singtao media group last year and the Hong Kong Standard now has been renamed as the Hong Kong I-mail.

In September, 1999, Kuok Hock-nien bought the SCMP from Rupert Murdoch. As this newspaper had played a leading role in Hong Kong's mainstream public opinion and also has wide international influence, the acquisition was seen as Beijing's move to control the Hong Kong media. As a result, another English newspaper Eastern Express (東方快訊) popped up to fill in the expected media vacuum SCMP's change of direction. But SCMP dared not temper further with its editorial direction, partly due to fears that this might affect circulation and partly because the newspaper itself was under close media scrutiny. Because the SCMP's editorial direction did not change significantly, the Eastern Express failed to snatch a share of its readership and closed shop within a few years as a result.

Before Hong Kong's handover in 1997, the SCMP dismissed Larry Feign (方南理), the cartoonist who did SCMP's "The World of Lily Wong" cartoon column and the "troublemaker" noted for his pithy observations.

Rumor had it that Feign was dismissed because of two of his cartoons, which satirized Li Peng (李鵬) and the sale of organs from executed Chinese prisoners, had offended the Beijing authorities. Feign's dismissal gave rise to wide-spread criticism in the media.

Lam's crime -- offending Jiang Zemin -- is much more serious. That was why the boss had to deal with him in person. Of course, the dealing must not be too blatant. After the "letter to the editor," there had to be a probation period for Lam to repent.

But Lam had not only waged a war of words against his "reader" boss, but also written a series of inside stories and commentaries on the annual meeting of Chinese leaders in Beidaihe (北戴河) this summer and the fifth plenary session of the 15th CPC central committee (十五屆五中全會) this fall. Especially, Lam's comments on Beijing's sensitive personnel issues had been widely circulated in both the local and foreign media. Inevitably, this angered Beijing even further. The immediate cause of Lam's dismissal should be an article published at the end of October about Jiang having suffered major setbacks at the CPC central committee meeting. The article was a major blow to Jiang's authority and therefore had everything to do with his hollering act in front of Hong Kong journalists on Oct. 27. Even before Jiang's railing, Beijing's mouthpieces in Hong Kong had already blamed SCMP for going "out of place." The paper had gone beyond what was tolerable to Beijing.

Even if Beijing did not order Lam's dismissal, the SCMP's Kuok family would have known what to do to appease Jiang. Being a successful entrepreneur, Kuok knows how to smooth over the situation and prevent further repercussions. That was why Lam was not dismissed at once, but was simply "held up in the air" (架空) -- he kept his position as deputy editor-in-chief but his job as editor of the China desk was taken over by Wang Xiangwei, who had been waiting for this job for more than five years. One of the other deputy editors at SCMP said that Wang's takeover had come after a long period of preparation.

Lam's case cannot be viewed as an isolated event. Before this, the barrage of attacks launched by pro-communist political figures against a radio station, Beijing's hefty investment in Hong Kong's media groups, and the SAR government's persistent attempts to control the media circles, all lay bare Beijing's scheme to hold the reins of Hong Kong's media. The Beijing regime also wants to boss around other media groups in Taiwan and elsewhere around the world. In fact, some of them have already caved in to this one-party authoritarian regime and started chanting eulogies to it.

Paul Lin (林保華) is a commentator on Hong Kong affairs. He currently resides in New York.