December 7, 2023
SINGAPORE – Hong Kong journalists have expressed anxiety over recent news reports alleging that two reporters from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) had abruptly dropped out of contact while reporting in China, with many believing they had been detained by the authorities.
Hong Kong-based journalist Minnie Chan, who writes about Chinese military and security issues at the English-language newspaper, became uncontactable after a work trip to Beijing more than a month ago, according to reports by news agencies.
Her whereabouts remain unknown.
Multiple people familiar with the issue corroborated this with The Straits Times on condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the matter.
Ms Chan would be the second SCMP journalist in two years to have suddenly fallen out of contact while in China, according to those familiar with the matter.
The other reporter, who covered Chinese diplomacy and defence at the newspaper, was unreachable for months in 2022.
She has since returned home and remains employed in the newsroom, according to those familiar with the matter. But no reports have been published under her byline for more than half a year.
In a media statement on Dec 1, SCMP said Ms Chan had “taken personal leave”.
“Her family has informed us that she is in Beijing but needs time to handle a private matter. Her family has told us she is safe but has requested that we respect her privacy,” the statement said.
“The safety of our journalists in the course of their professional work is of the utmost importance to the South China Morning Post… We will continue to communicate with Minnie’s family and provide all the necessary support they need.”
Hong Kong Journalists’ Association chairman Ronson Chan said he was “shocked” when he first heard about Ms Chan’s situation.
“But I know that SCMP and the related reporter hope to keep the matter low-profile, and it seems this is the best resolution to the problem… I pray for them,” he told ST.
“Journalists in mainland China and Hong Kong know that if we want to report the news independently, we have to face some risks… It’s not easy to do so in today’s China,” Mr Chan added.
News of the two incidents has worried those in the SCMP newsroom as well as other Hong Kong-based journalists covering mainland China, including those who sometimes travel to the mainland.
“Reporters have been talking among themselves about the matter, even though management has not sent anything official to address it,” one SCMP reporter, who asked to remain anonymous, told ST.
There has been no internal correspondence to newsroom staff so far on the matter, but the paper’s top editors held a meeting on Dec 5 with journalists from at least one section in its Hong Kong office, the reporter said.
A source familiar with the issue told ST that SCMP and Ms Chan’s family would have been trying to keep the matter low-key for fear of jeopardising the reporter’s safety.
The work that the newsroom’s leaders and others may currently be undertaking to help Ms Chan would not necessarily be visible or conveyed to the public, the person added.
“As a local reporter, I feel helpless,” said a Hong Kong journalist at one of the city’s major Chinese-language news outlets. The person, who covers local as well as mainland-related news, requested anonymity, given the sensitive nature of the issue.
“Such fears about being spirited away due to our reporting have been an ongoing concern among Hong Kong journalists for years. Not just because of the recent talk of Ms Chan’s disappearance, but that has certainly intensified our anxieties.”
Ms Chan, who is married with two children, travelled to Beijing at the end of October to cover the three-day Xiangshan international defence forum for SCMP.
The forum ended on Oct 31, but she did not return to Hong Kong and her friends and co-workers told ST they have not been able to contact her.
Professor Chong Ja Ian, a US-China relations expert from the National University of Singapore whom Ms Chan has previously interviewed, said he always found her writing to be “informative and even-handed”.
He added that “she writes on topics that could be construed to veer into areas of national security for Beijing (which is) a large and grey area”.
“If Ms Chan has been detained for doing her work, it underscores how vague and arbitrary Beijing’s approaches to control can be. These actions are likely to further chill efforts to report and do research on the PRC,” Prof Chong said, using the official abbreviation for China.
As at press time, SCMP had yet to respond to ST’s queries about the other reporter’s case.
A Hong Kong government spokesman told ST that the city’s authorities have not received any request for assistance with regard to the recent media reports.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said he was “not aware” of the matter when asked about it at a regular press briefing on Dec 1.
In the light of the recent news, some international news agencies have in meetings reminded their staff operating in mainland China and Hong Kong to mitigate their operating risks, such as keeping their whereabouts known to their team members or their family contacts updated in their company’s database.
Prior to the matter, at least one agency had already asked its journalists who live in or travel regularly to the mainland to adopt the use of burner phones. Those whom ST spoke to declined to name their companies as they had not been authorised to speak to the press on the issue.
Former ST reporter Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong resident who covered the mainland from the city, was taken into custody in Shenzhen in April 2005 while trying to obtain transcripts of interviews with the late ousted Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang.
Mr Ching was held under house arrest in Beijing without access to a lawyer or his family until a formal arrest order was issued in August 2005. He was subsequently handed a five-year jail term on espionage charges.