Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post has become the latest casualty of China’s tightening grip on the media as internet censors shut down its microblogging accounts on Sina Weibo, Tencent Weibo, as well as its WeChat page on Tuesday.
The broadsheet’s official Sina Weibo page now leads to an error message that reads, “Sorry, there is something wrong with the account you are currently trying to access, and it is temporarily inaccessible.” A similar error message can be seen on what used to be SCMP’s Tencent Weibo page.
Over at SCMP’s official WeChat account, an empty shell is all that remains as all previous posts published on the page have been deleted.
If past history is any indication, the shutdown doesn’t appear temporary, and there is little chance that the accounts will be restored.
All three social media accounts posted updates from the paper’s Chinese-language web property SCMPChinese.com / nanzao.com, now blocked on the mainland.
Launched in April 2013 in a bid to stave off declining circulations, the portal, with its mix of translations from the English-language paper as well as original Chinese-language content, was hailed by the publisher as a major push into the digital space, and into the wider Chinese market.
Long the flagbearer of independent and authoritative reporting on China, South China Morning Post was owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp until Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok’s Kerry Media bought a controlling stake in the paper in 1993.
Once envied as the world’s most profitable newspaper on a per-reader basis, SCMP saw its profit peak in 1997, and was delisted in 2013 when the free float of its shares fell below the required 25%.
Between 2000 and 2012, SCMP weathered 10 changes of editors-in-chief, but none proved as disastrous as the 2012 appointment of Wang Xiangwei, a Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference member, and a former employee of the China Daily.
Wang Xiangwei, SCMP’s editor-in-chief between 2012 and 2015.
Soon after Wang took over the reins of the paper, he removed some of the paper’s finest reporters, including the multiple award-winning journalist Paul Mooney, and replaced them with young hires, many from the mainland.
In June of that year, Wang’s staff accused him of reducing a major breaking story on the suspicious death of a Tiananmen dissident to a brief. He later admitted to the AFP that his decision was a “bad call” but denied accusations that he was a stooge for Beijing or practicing self-censorship.
The $266 million acquisition of the paper’s assets by Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group in December 2015 has continued to stoke fears that the publication’s integrity and independence would continue to be compromised, as Ma’s ties to the governing elite in Beijing are well-known.
Defending the acquisition, Ma said at the time, at the World Internet Conference organized by the Chinese government in Wuzhen:
Trust us. Why do people have to think that if we have it, it will lose its independence? Why not with others? We also read the newspapers. We also want media independence and fairness. What basis is there that with us, there will be no more independence.
Following President Xi Jinping’s recent high-profile visits to state media outlets, and his declarations that all media must be “surnamed Party” so they can give “correct guidance of public opinion” by “singing the main theme, transmitting positive energy,” influential Weibo celebrity and former tycoon Ren Zhiqiang wrote on his personal account that state media should be beholden to the public, not the Party. One week later, China’s top internet watchdog shut down his various social media accounts where he had accumulated more than 37 million followers.
Like Ren, SCMP was a powerful force on Weibo. In March 2015 it was named one of the most influential Hong Kong media sources on Weibo for the second consecutive year in The Star of Weibo awards, organized annually by Sina Weibo. In receiving the award, SCMP Chinese Chief Editor William Zheng had this to say:
The SCMP has adhered to our professionalism and journalistic conduct in a complicated media environment, and through various social media platforms reached out to readers from around the world. The award is not only recognition given by a new media platform of our efforts in transforming from a traditional newsroom into a new media one, but also a testimony to the SCMP’s status as a high-quality news brand recognized by world readers, including the vast Chinese-language market.
Less than one year later, SCMP appears to have lost its over 500,000 followers on Weibo in an instant. With a dwindling pool of English-language readers at home, and its ability to penetrate mainland China now severely limited, the future looks bleak for the Post.