New Chinese language Web site won’t make any waves, reports Asia Sentinel

William Zheng Wei, a former Singapore Press Holdings business editor, has been named the chief editor of the South China Morning Post’s new Chinese-language Web site. His mandate? Don’t carry anything controversial.

Zheng’s appointment was announced Monday in an internal company release by Robin Hu, the 55-year-old chief executive officer of the SCMP Group, himself a former Singapore Press Holdings executive. Hu replaced Kuok Hui Kwong last July after serving for six years as regional director in China for the Singapore Economic Development Board, a government agency, and as a senior vice president for an Internet startup.

Screengrab of South China Morning Post's new Chinese-language Web site.

The softly-softly approach to the territory’s news may not go far in a city whose 7.5 million residents are growing increasingly impatient with a government that is regarded as being too willing to align itself with official Beijing to the detriment of Hong Kong itself.

The determination to remain rosy — apparently because the Web site is in Chinese – seems ill advised given the 13 Chinese-language newspapers of different political hues and stripes in Hong Kong. There are five pro-Beijing leftist papers; one semi-neutral one, Ming Pao; and three basically pro-democracy ones including Apple Daily, whose owner, Jimmy Lai, uses a successful formula of lurid crime stories and political coverage that savages the government at any opportunity.

In a company town hall meeting with employees earlier this year, Hu said the revamped Chinese language website would avoid coverage of Hong Kong’s increasingly rancorous political scene and instead play the role of booster for the city’s attractions as a travel and business center.

If anything, Hu’s remarks resemble the Singaporean approach to news, where media outlets are de facto cheerleaders for government policies. Indeed, concerns have been growing inside the paper for more than a year and a half over what might be termed its “Singaporization,” a reference to the Straits Times of Singapore and its family of other newspapers, which are notorious for rarely criticizing the Singapore government.

The 110-year-old South China Morning Post was bought by Malaysian sugar and hotel tycoon Robert Kuok Hock Nien from Rupert Murdoch in 1993, reportedly as a favor to the Chinese government to keep it in safe hands as the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the mainland was approaching. It has been through a revolving door of editors in recent years apparently in search of a formula that checks declining print circulation and finds a safe way to cover the mainland. Independent-minded foreign and local editors have lost out in a variety of struggles inside the paper.

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