The sudden closing last week of the Chinese-language edition of the South China Morning Post (SCMP) took many by surprise, including SCMP employees themselves, who were reportedly unaware the move was in the making. Questions remain as to what exactly was behind the decision and if the website is another victim of Beijing’s media controls. Whether the reason for the closure that was given – to better “integrate resources” at the paper – is true or not, the decision is another blow in the ever-diminishing Chinese-language media landscape.

The paper has long been an authority on regional issues. Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding its alleged self-censorship under the editorship of former China Daily reporter Wang Xiangwei (王向偉), or the December 2015 sale to Alibaba owner Jack Ma (馬雲), one of China’s richest men, the paper is a trusted publication with quality reporters closely following the day-to-day grind of Hong Kong politics and society, and Beijing's influence in Hong Kong.

Not only does the website’s closing mean that stories will now go unreported for Chinese-language readers, but just as importantly, years of reportage have now disappeared. The move closely follows a spate of crackdowns on China’s most popular Internet news media sites. While it is always a sad day for journalism to see a publication or news program of any kind stop running, in the China context, where there a few alternative options, the loss of the SCMP Chinese edition leaves a bigger hole.

As University of Sussex journalism lecturer Sally Xiaojin Chen told The News Lens International, there are of course various ways by which Chinese news readers can circumvent online censorship to access information, “including the most popular means of using VPN services to access news reported by overseas-based Chinese language websites, or even English media.”

Chen notes that some Chinese access overseas websites and feed the information back into China via social media discussions.

“These methods are becoming increasingly popular among Chinese Internet users who are not satisfied with information provided by the Internet in China and have become more sophisticated and comfortable in using tactics for attaining alternative information,” Chen says.

However, the existence of alternative news sources and the ability of Chinese to access it "do not necessarily speak to the majority of the Chinese news-reading population, as alternative news in this circumstance does not widely exist in their daily news feeds,” she says.

“Ordinary Chinese citizens have been granted a huge amount of information in regards to online shopping, entertaining, and celebrity news, and may not pursue alternative information, unless they are particularly interested in finding out more about a particular serious news issue,” Chen says. “After all, the accessible information which is arguably more relevant to many Chinese people’s lives may be more than enough for most Chinese people.”

The recent news media crackdowns in China – which include closer state monitoring of online news portals and banning the use of social media sources for news stories – will therefore have a “significant impact on Chinese people’s news reading,” Chen says.

“There is much less chance for Chinese people to be exposed to more truthful information about sensitive events, if they are not that way inclined,” she says.

As the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), a Berlin-based think tank, noted in March, China’s news media controls have been this year extended to cover the broader information and communications technology sector.

China’s Internet regulator earlier this year clarified how it was “integrating online news into the existing propaganda apparatus” by formalizing rules covering news in “Internet sites, application software, fo­­rums, blogs, microblogs, instant messaging tools and search engines, as well as other applications having news, public opinion or social mobilization function,” MERICS visiting fellow Daniela Stockmann said.

Stockmann also noted that starting from this March foreign-financed enterprises were no longer allowed to publish a broad range of “creative works” online.

“This is part of Beijing’s strategy to tighten control over Internet media,” she said.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole