Toronto Life, August 2008
The local Chinese daily Sing Tao, owned by media giant Torstar, is pumping out Communist propaganda. Who let the censors into the newsroom?
On the evening of April 12, Wilson Chan, the managing editor of Sing Tao Daily, and his editorial team gathered in their stark, fluorescent-lit office at Adelaide and Parliament to put together the next day’s newspaper. Reporters worked in one area, translators in another. On the building’s ground floor, an enormous printing press spat out the reams of local reporting, Hong Kong pop culture and news from China that make Sing Tao the number one Chinese newspaper in Toronto.
Since 1998, when Torstar purchased a majority share in the paper, Sing Tao editors have been allowed to translate and reprint their choice of Star stories—a significant advantage for a 13-person news department engaged in fierce competition with three other Chinese dailies. That evening, the editors selected a piece by Star reporter Nicholas Keung about Chinese Canadians’ response to recent protests in Tibet, a topic that was dominating the news. Headlined “Chinese Canadians conflicted on Tibet,” the story painted a nuanced picture of the local reaction to the Olympic torch protests. According to Keung, Chinese Torontonians were proud of their homeland and angry at the West’s attacks on China, but they were also critical of the Chinese government and its human rights record. The article quoted Gloria Fung, a Chinese Canadian political observer, and Cindy Gu, publisher of a free anti–Communist government newspaper called The Epoch Times, both of whom accused the Chinese government of trying to equate patriotism with party loyalty, of using nationalism as a tool to stay in power.
When Sing Tao arrived on the streets the next morning, Keung’s article ran on the front page. The byline said “Special from the Toronto Star,” but Keung’s article and the Sing Tao translation were two very different pieces. In Sing Tao’s version, Gu’s and Fung’s comments had been removed, as had a section that described Taiwan’s resistance to the mainland. Some of the quotes had been altered to mirror the Chinese government’s official line on the protests. In one, the word “Tibetans” had been replaced with “Tibetan separatists”; in another, the words “so-called” were placed in front of “human rights abuses.” The translated story began with two new paragraphs accusing the West of one-sided reporting and offering this summary of the situation: “Most immigrants from mainland China stand on the side of the Chinese government and support the suppression of the rampant Tibet independent forces before the Beijing Summer Olympics.” The headline had been changed as well: “West uses Tibet issue to attack China, inspiring patriotism among overseas Chinese.”
The article set off a ripple of protest among Chinese media watchers. Ten Chinese Canadians sent a joint letter to the Star expressing concern over Sing Tao’s translation, which they said had introduced a “propagandist and demagogic slant into the reportage.” An article in the April 17 issue of The Epoch Times accused Sing Tao of parroting the Communist line on Tibet. Torstar executives tried to distance themselves from the translation. When Sing Tao’s president and two editors from the Star met with the letter writers, they explained that Torstar wasn’t responsible for its sister publication’s editorial decisions.
From the Star’s perspective, the Keung translation was an unfortunate blip in an otherwise smooth and profitable relationship. In many ways, the Torstar–Sing Tao partnership is a model for 21st-century publishing in Toronto, a blueprint for other newspapers looking to break into the immigrant media market. Mainstream newspaper circulation is declining, but the ethnic press is booming, doubling its combined circulation in the past five years.
In April, Sun Media got into the game, announcing it had signed an agreement allowing it to buy 50 per cent of the three-year-old Today Daily News, a Sing Tao competitor. But while the benefits of these partnerships are obvious—increased advertising dollars, better brand recognition and access to a growing group of future English-language newspaper readers—there is a cost, and it’s readers who end up paying the price.
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Since the first small papers began appearing in Toronto grocery stores and restaurants a century ago, the Chinese press has been a vital part of Chinese Canadian life. From the expatriates of my grandmother’s generation to the mainlanders setting up homes at the edges of the GTA today, Chinese Canadians have long depended on the local press to provide an instant community, a voice for their interests, and a kind of bridge between worlds—a connection to the motherland as well as an entryway into their adopted home.
The Chinese press has always reflected the political upheaval happening overseas. In the 1910s, the Guomindang, China’s Nationalist Party, began setting up papers across Canada with the dual goals of creating sympathetic readers and raising funds. In the ’20s, Guomindang-backed papers clashed with political rivals in newspaper wars that spilled off the page and into the streets, leading to legal battles, violence, and even the assassination of a Vancouver editor.
The modern era of the Chinese newspaper war has been much less bloody and far more profitable. It began in 1978, when Hong Kong newspaper magnate Sally Aw started publishing a Toronto version of Sing Tao. Aw is the kind of newspaper tycoon that inspires made-for-TV movies, an Asian Conrad Black. In 1954, she inherited two Hong Kong papers from her adoptive father, Aw Boon Haw—the flamboyant entrepreneur who made his fortune selling Tiger Balm—and single-handedly expanded them into a global empire with a reach that executives liked to brag was second only to the International Herald Tribune’s.
When Sing Tao began printing in Toronto, there were less than 300,000 Chinese people spread across Canada. (Today there are 1.2 million.) Competition came in 1993, when Ming Pao, another respected Hong Kong–based publication, opened a Toronto office. Ming Pao put out a quality product with full-colour pictures and heaps of Hong Kong news, sparking a newspaper war—poaching talent, cutting cover prices, adding free magazine inserts—that continues to this day.
In the run-up to Hong Kong’s reunification in 1997, the Chinese government began quietly courting the region’s newspaper owners to ensure the press was sympathetic to China. It was a variation on the premise that supports much of modern China’s success: when your carrot is access to a market of a billion people, you usually don’t even need the stick. Though Sing Tao was traditionally aligned with Taiwan and often critical of Chinese Communist Party policies, Sally Aw was wooed intensely. Her father was an anti-Communist who had sided against the CCP in the Chinese civil war, but his reputation was posthumously rehabilitated and he was declared a patriot. Aw family land that had been confiscated was returned, and in 1992, in a scene few could have imagined just a few years earlier, the Sing Tao owner was greeted in Beijing by the Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Shortly afterward, Sing Tao’s coverage lurched jarringly toward a pro-government position. In 1998, the government decided not to prosecute Aw in a circulation fraud case because, according to the Secretary for Justice, it was not “in the public interest.”
That same year, Aw sold the majority of her Canadian holdings to the Toronto Star for $20 million, and in 1999, facing bankruptcy after a series of poor business moves, she sold the rest of Sing Tao Holdings. Today the parent company is owned by Charles Ho, a tobacco magnate and a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a position held by only the most loyal Communist Party members.
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Like most editors in Toronto’s Chinese newspaper industry, Wilson Chan has spent time at a number of publications, skipping between Sing Tao, Ming Pao and Today Daily, before rejoining Sing Tao a year ago. A middle-aged man with a small frame and an ingratiating, even sheepish smile, Chan seems a little worn out from his 30 years in the business. When we met in his office, a sparsely decorated room with stacks of old newspapers by the door, Chan had just finished his “global meeting”—the daily conference call between Sing Tao editors around the world in which they discuss the news of the day and decide what to run on tomorrow’s front page.
When I ask Chan how his paper covers sensitive subjects like Tibet, he tells me that Sing Tao is objective. “We are impartial. We just print the story if there is a story. We try to balance. This is basic journalism.”
In fact, the Chinese papers seem to be intentionally scrubbed of the traditional forums for comment or opinion: they don’t print local editorials, rarely publish commentary, and, though they’re frequently courted by Canadian politicians, never make political endorsements. The days of openly ideological newspapers battling it out in the editorial pages are long gone. Editors from Sing Tao, Ming Pao and Today Daily all agree that, despite differences in packaging, each shares a similar apolitical attitude. “I think as far as the editorial policy is concerned, I don’t see much difference between us and our competitors,” Chan says.
In 2001, Sing Tao began reprinting articles from Xinhua, the official press agency of the Communist government, or what Reporters Without Borders calls “the world’s biggest propaganda agency.” According to Michel Juneau-Katsuya, who was CSIS’s Chief of Asia Pacific from 1995 to 2000, the Chinese government attempts to influence Chinese Canadian newspapers by putting pressure on vulnerable writers and editors. “The editors will regularly have visits from the consular office or the embassy or will have to go back to China for one reason or another. It is ‘guided.’ The pressure is extremely important. If you don’t write what you’re supposed to, you’re out of there.”
One veteran Chinese Canadian editor tells me writers are in a difficult situation. “Most editors and reporters are afraid to criticize China,” he says, and explains that occasionally journalists are pressured by the Chinese consulate, usually indirectly, through local community members who give journalists pointed “advice” about their work.
The Chinese government’s influence on local papers is not lost on readers. Tam Goosen, an immigrant, school trustee and active community member, has been reading the newspapers for years. She says she’s seen them lose their objectivity over the past decade, but thought a partnership with a mainstream paper would help. “When I saw that The Star had purchased Sing Tao, I had high hopes. The Star is a progressive newspaper, so I thought they would have a good influence.” Since then, though, she says she’s watched the paper lose its voice, translate more and more Star articles and become less and less objective. “As someone who’s been in Toronto for a long time, I really feel sad,” Goosen says. “The Star should be concerned. This is supposed to be their paper.”
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If anyone at Torstar should feel ownership of Sing Tao, it’s the vice-president of business ventures, Carol Peddie. She’s been there since day one, when her predecessor and mentor, Andrew Go, advised the Star to buy a stake in the Hong Kong–based paper. Go, the son of a former Sing Tao publisher in the Philippines and a family friend of Sally Aw, had a deep understanding of the business. When he shepherded the deal in 1998, Peddie did the due diligence, and when Go retired four years later, she took the reins as CEO.
As the daughter of English immigrants, Peddie says she understands how important a newspaper can be to new Canadians. She speaks enthusiastically about cracking a complex market with shifting immigration patterns—mainland versus Hong Kong Chinese, Cantonese speakers versus Mandarin speakers. “Once you start drilling down into these different segments, it really is an interesting marketing opportunity,” she says. And a profitable one, too. In 2007, advertising profits for Torstar’s jointly owned Metro newspapers and Sing Tao grew by 22 per cent, while the flagship Toronto Star’s profits fell 3.9 per cent.
When I ask her about Sing Tao Hong Kong’s pro-China position, Peddie seems genuinely surprised. “To my knowledge, I have not seen Sing Tao taking a pro-China stand.” She says the CSIS statements about Chinese government influence are ludicrous. “Never once since I’ve been associated with this company has anyone from Hong Kong ever said to me, ‘You’ve gotta do this, or I want you to do this, or I want you to take this position.’ Absolutely not. There’s no way Torstar would be associated with it if that were the case.” Peddie admits, though, that the fact that she can’t read Chinese makes it difficult for her to monitor exactly what’s happening in the pages of Sing Tao. She also says that, as far as she knows, no one at Torstar actually reads the paper.
About the Nicholas Keung debacle, Peddie says the translation was regrettable but simply the result of one individual’s careless work. “People make mistakes, that’s all there is to it.” She encourages critics to look at the rest of Sing Tao’s coverage of Tibet, which she describes as “very, very fair and very, very balanced.”
She’s wrong. The translation of the Keung article is far from an isolated incident. Throughout March and April, Sing Tao published a number of translated pieces from which facts and comments critical of China had been removed. In their translation of a Canadian Press article from March 20, Sing Tao editors removed numerous paragraphs that detailed the death toll in Tibet, the “harsh response” from Chinese authorities, and comments from Ontario Senator Consiglio di Nino, who said, “The fear is that hundreds, if not thousands, of Tibetans are being rounded up beyond the prying eyes of the world and may face lengthy imprisonment and torture as acts of retribution.”
Half a million chinese canadians live in the GTA. They come from different backgrounds, with diverse experiences, languages and ideas. But even as the community has grown more varied and complex, Chinese Canadian newspapers have become more narrowly pro-China, with none of the dissent, debate and political freedoms you’d expect from publications owned by Canadian media companies.
The latest partnership, between Sun Media and the upstart Today Daily, seems headed down a similar path. Today Daily, which promised to take on its deep- pocketed competitors by concentrating on local news in a way that would appeal to immigrants from mainland China, will now translate stories pulled from Sun Media papers across Canada. Its publisher, Herbert Moon, began his career as an accountant for Sing Tao in 1978. Moon claims his paper is entirely Canadian owned—which should, in theory, free it from the political pressures and obligations felt by its rivals—but, in fact, Today Daily’s shareholders are a closely guarded secret (though Moon admits that Sally Aw contributed to the start-up costs). And like its rivals, the paper relies heavily on news from overseas.
Moon tells me his editors pull articles from a variety of sources and that each piece is carefully labelled. But in a recent issue, 24 stories in the paper’s mainland China section had been picked up from the Beijing-controlled newspaper Wen Wei Po, which has essentially acted as the voice of the Communist government in Hong Kong and Macau for years. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, 20 Wen Wei Po journalists quit en masse, reportedly claiming the government was trying to “brainwash” them into reporting that only 23 people had been killed.
Sun publisher Kin-Man Lee seems unconcerned about Today Daily’s ownership or editorial content. He positions the partnership as strictly business and sees no reason to complicate things. Lee offers a blunt summation of the way mainstream papers view their partners. “What we do know is that the demographics are Chinese, and that is one of the target demos that we’re looking for at the Sun.”