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'I Realized My Position Was On the Rocks'
Columnist Willy Wo-Lap Lam tells why he resigned from Hong Kong's South China Morning Post

November 7, 2000
Web posted at 8:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 8:30 a.m. EDT

As the China editor for the South China Morning Post, Willy Wo-Lap Lam was arguably the most prominent China-watcher in Hong Kong. Renowned for his scintillating, behind-the scenes political coverage, Lam was told last week that he was being stripped of his duties as China editor, but he could remain an associate editor and could continue writing his column. Lam spoke to TIME Asia's Isabella Ng after his formal resignation from the paper. Edited excerpts:

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TIME: Your resignation from the newspaper came as a surprise to many. Can you tell us what exactly has been going on?
I've been with the newspaper for 12 years, covering China for the past 10 years. The editor [Robert Keatley] mentioned to me very vaguely about two weeks ago that they were considering reorganizing the China desk. He said it was not urgent and that it would not take place soon. So I went on a trip to cover [Chinese Premier] Zhu Rongji's visit to Japan, and when I returned, nothing more was mentioned. Then last Thursday Keatley told me that a decision had been made: Wang Xiangwei had been appointed China editor and that I was being relieved of my responsibility in the new operation. It was presented to me as fait accompli, not something for discussion. He told me that at 5 p.m., and said he would immediately put out a memo to staff. It took me a lot of effort to persuade him to postpone making the announcement because it would have been highly embarrassing. I told him I needed time to tell my staff there would be a change. I was quite shocked.

TIME: Do you think it's related to articles that you have written? You have delved into sensitive political issues in China, and your article about Beijing's lobbying efforts to secure a second term for Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's Chief Executive, caused a big stir. Even Robert Kuok, the Post's owner, showed his rage when he wrote a "Letter to the Editor," that was published, critical of that article.
I had been given an indication by the editor that he wanted to "depoliticize" our coverage of China, that is, not to devote so much space on political matters, internal party politics, etc. Instead he wanted to devote more space to things like social trends, lifestyle, and so forth. Having been a senior editor for so long, my impression is that the paper is trying to steer away from more sensitive political matters. I fear that there are senior people in the newspaper, as well in management, who, under the pretext of administrative or management restructuring, are trying to change the character and the operation of China news coverage.

TIME: Did the editor tell you this before or after your controversial article on Tung Chee-hwa?
I think this happened before my story, but after it appeared he mentioned more frequently the need to "diversify China coverage" -- which I interpreted as an attempt to depoliticize China coverage.

TIME: What was your initial response when Keatley told you this?
I insisted on not changing the focus. My columns are all about the life of the Chinese Communist Party and political maneuverings -- it's what I'm famous for.

TIME: Do you think the treatment you received at the Post is in line with what the Chinese government favors?
I don't see any direct correlation between the two. But I think Jiang Zemin's recent outburst was not just directed at a bunch of reporters in Beijing; it was a good summing up of Beijing's opinion of the Hong Kong media. After the episode of Kuok complaining about my story, on a few occasions Keatley brought up negative reactions to my columns. For example, I recently wrote a column about Beijing's reaction to the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia. After it was published, Keatley basically told me that many people were mad about the column.

TIME: Did anything happen afterwards?
After that Milosevic story, Keatley said he wanted to screen my columns before they reached the editing stage. This is very unusual; the editor-in-chief does not pre-screen articles except for very sensitive articles. I strongly protested because it had never happened to me before and he did it to nobody but me. I had written the column for 10 years, and had worked with about five editors, and this had never happened before. It was an intimidating tactic.

TIME: Do you know your replacement Wang Xiangwei?
He is a mainlander who worked for China Daily for a while and went to England to study for two years. He then came to Hong Kong and has been with the South China Morning Post for the past three to four years. He has mostly written China business stories and more recently has been working on the online edition.

TIME: Were you surprised when you learnt that he would be taking over?
I was surprised because he's not senior enough for the post. I don't want to comment on the political implication.

TIME: Is press freedom in Hong Kong in danger?
The level of freedom in Hong Kong depends very much on the political climate in Beijing. In the past year or two, the political atmosphere has been very tight. China's leaders are very anxious to maintain a tight grip on the domestic media, as well as the Hong Kong media. They are trying to exert more influence on Hong Kong, including intimidation, as evidenced by Jiang outburst. I am not overly pessimistic about this because in a few years, a new generation of leaders will take over, and its members may relax a bit.

TIME: But people are worried now. Can they be optimistic? As the leaders are young and new, they may want more control?
We have seen a gradual deterioration of press freedom in Hong Kong. But it's not a sudden drop. It's been a long and gradual process. That's why people in Hong Kong have hardly noticed. So, as I said, until the political tension is relaxed, this gradual decline will likely continue. Still, one shouldn't be too alarmed, as Hong Kong's print media is still neutral and not afraid of standing up to Beijing. The situation is not that bad, but is of concern.

TIME: What are you going to do now?
I am hoping to continue working as a journalist. As soon as I saw Kuok's letter, I realized my position was getting untenable. So I started looking for work elsewhere.

TIME: Do you have a message for Robert Keatley?
I hope he continues to maintain the independence of the newsroom from management, and continues to maintain the neutrality of the paper, particularly when it comes to stories about China. Any effort to try to rein China coverage will be a disservice to the readers.

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