Two reporters quit the South China Morning Post (SCMP) last year after a senior editor axed their three-month investigation into human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region, according to an editor who resigned shortly after.
During a Foreign Correspondents’ Club talk in Japan on October 13, Peter Langan revealed that he quit his senior editor role at the newspaper’s China desk following multiple conference calls with management in 2021 about the three-part series on birth control policies in the Xinjiang region. The SCMP told HKFP the feature failed to meet its “editorial verification process and publishing standards,” despite them relying on a review of official government data.
“Xinjiang had become the centre of attention… because of lots of reports of the building of internment camps and the targeting of Uyghur people,” Langan said, adding that the topic was of interest owing to “criticism within the newsroom of the so-called Western media and its coverage of Xinjiang.”
“It took a number of months to do the reporting… we eventually produced a three-part series that looked at particularly birth control policies in Xinjiang,” he said.
Langan said that data they examined showed that, after Beijing lifted its one-child policy in 2016, the use of birth control devices and cases of sterilisation fell across China – except in the Muslim-dominated western region. “When I presented this to the executive editor, it was rejected… We had a number of conference calls after that, discussing it – but it was clear that there was just no way they were going to publish this story on Xinjiang, and the criticism it implied of China’s Communist Party,” Langan said.
“So when it became evident – the story being killed – the reporters on the story all resigned, and then I followed a few months later.”
In response to HKFP, the SCMP declined to discuss the resignations, but a spokesperson said: “The South China Morning Post holds to the highest standards of journalistic integrity, and as such, only publishes stories based on clear, credible and verified evidence. The stories in question did not pass our editorial verification process and publishing standards.”
The predominantly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group are among the minorities targeted in what Beijing claims is a campaign to tackle unrest and separatism. The UN says a million Uyghurs have been arbitrarily detained in “political re-education camps,” whilst Human Rights Watch reports that surveillance and repression in Xinjiang has increased dramatically since 2016. Several western countries has imposed sanctions over Beijing’s actions.
The unpublished SCMP reporting – obtained by HKFP – relied on three decades of government birth control data, which included 17 years of national birth control statistics and consultations. Figures from the National Health Commission, birth and population growth statistics from the Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook, as well as county-level documents, were also referenced.
The drafts pointed out when the statistics appeared contradictory, and where experts clashed. They also included a discussion from different perspectives over whether the situation amounted to “genocide” under UN definitions.
In a protracted email back-and-forth between Langan and senior SCMP staff, seen by HKFP, the feature was split into three parts after Langan was told that it was too long. But a more senior editor went on to claim the story neglected the issue of historical birth control policies against Han Chinese – the country’s largest ethnic group – and said that evidence of ethnically specific policies was lacking.
Langan and his team made adjustments and responded, but were told the purpose of the story remained unclear and that it contained inherent bias.
“The stories were challenged in editorial conference calls, which is the normal process,” Langan – now based in Japan – told HKFP last week. “The reporters had spent about three months researching this story and had ready answers to the challenges because they had delved so deeply into the data and the issues. However, as the calls repeated and the same re-packaged questions kept arising it became clear that there was another agenda, because the process became irrational. What that agenda was can only be answered by the SCMP editor that declined to publish.”
Efforts to publish the series ground to a halt following more rewrites. In a final email to executives last August, Langan wrote: “[I]t seems clear to me that this three-part Xinjiang narrative now faces the dreaded newsroom death by a thousand cuts, or an endless litany of objections and nit-picking to ensure that the story isn’t published.”
Langan said his colleagues left after finding new roles elsewhere, and he followed shortly after: “I was effectively sidelined after the Xinjiang series was killed.”
It is not the first time the editorial independence of the SCMP has been questioned. Earlier this month, it failed to report on a high-profile protest against leader Xi Jinping in China – despite international coverage. And it has twice been accused of partaking in “forced confessions” by Chinese dissidents.
The newspaper, which is owned by China’s Alibaba conglomerate, did not respond as to whether it was still free and able to conduct investigative reporting on sensitive issues in the mainland. Langan, however, said that the paper was not the problem: “I bear no ill will to anyone at SCMP and worked with some excellent reporters and editors there who try to align with journalistic mandates while trying to cover the activities of a government in Beijing that treats those mandates with contempt, primarily because it fears them. SCMP is not the problem.”
Public trust in the credibility of Hong Kong’s media has fallen to its lowest level in two decades, according to a survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong published in August.
Weeks later, the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s press freedom index sank to a new low for the third consecutive year, with reporters questioning the media’s effectiveness as a watchdog amid an increasingly challenging environment for the industry.
Meanwhile, this year’s Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index saw the city plunge 68 places to 148th in the world, sandwiching the international business hub between the Philippines and Turkey.
Two newsrooms have been raided, and senior staff arrested, since the onset of the 2020 security law, whilst other outlets have disbanded citing risks. RSF says 13 Hong Kong media workers remain behind bars.
Correction 16:40: An early version of this article incorrectly suggested that Langan quit in 2021, as opposed to 2022, following the departure of two of his team members.
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