Hong Kong handover: Big Brother keeps an eye on the media underlings

The South China Morning Post, which has been a loyal supporter of the Hong Kong government for most of its history, is to have the founding editor of the Chinese government's mouthpiece, China Daily, installed in an office next door to the editor's. Officially, Feng Xi Liang, 75, will act as a consultant.

The appointment of Mr Feng, which has yet to be announced, has caused considerable disquiet among the newspaper's staff, who fear that it heralds greater Chinese political influence over the paper.

A staff member said: "No one's happy about this. We're waiting to see what happens, but we fear the worst."

Asked what influence Mr Feng would have over the content of the paper, Jonathan Fenby, the Post's editor and a former Observer editor, would only say: "I am the editor of the paper". He added: "We'll go on as we have been going and you can judge that from what's in the paper."

It is understood Mr Fenby was not consulted about Mr Feng's appointment, but he refused to comment on this issue. The Post is owned by the tycoon Robert Kuok, who bought control from Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. Mr Kuok is an adviser to the Chinese government and regarded as well connected to China's leaders.

Mr Feng is well known in Chinese journalistic circles. He has lived in Hong Kong for some years, where he served as an editorial adviser to the defunct English-language Window magazine, which was known for its avid support of the Chinese government.

All editors of China's major state-run publications are Communist Party members and report to the party's propaganda department. It is unlikely Mr Feng is an exception, particularly as the China Daily was created to be the government's chosen means of communication with the outside world.

The South China Morning Post maintains that it is pursuing an independent line in covering Hong Kong and China news but this view is not shared by many observers. The Post's pro-British stance has been long abandoned and the paper shows marked caution in reporting and commenting on events likely to anger the Chinese government. A management directive on the eve of last year's anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre instructed editorial staff to ensure the word "massacre" did not appear in the paper the following day.

In 1995 the Post scrapped the Lily Wong cartoon series, which was famous for its criticism of China. The strip is now appearing in the Independent.

Sir Percy Cradock, former British ambassador to China, and an outspoken critic of Hong Kong's Governor, Chris Patten, was taken on to the Post's board of directors last year. Sir Percy has declined a Foreign Office invitation to be present at the Hong Kong handover ceremonies. He may be awaiting an invitation from the new rulers.

Emily Lau, a pro-democracy legislator and former journalist, said last night that she was not surprised about Mr Feng's appointment. She said: "They have the best of both worlds, Sir Percy and Feng Xi Liang ... I think now I'll call it the New China Post".

The Post, which has a higher international profile than most Hong Kong newspapers, is not alone in having political appointees join its staff. The Sing Tao group, which publishes the rival English-language Hongkong Standard, has the former press secretary to Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's authoritarian Senior Minister, as a special adviser to its owner.

The influential Ming Pao paper has an increasing number of mainland Chinese journalists writing its editorials. They have joined a mini-influx of formerly China-based journalists who are employed by practically all local newspapers.

Most of the Hong Kong media, particularly the electronic media, have become keen supporters of the new order. The local television news increasingly resembles the output of China's Central Television station. Sensitive subjects are avoided and prominent critics of the Chinese government appear far less often than they used to. Pressure on the media from China is mainly exerted through proprietors.

Tung Chee-hwa, who will head the first post-colonial government, also appears to like to work through proprietors.

This week he convened a meeting of the heads of Chinese-language newspaper companies. He reportedly told them he intended to keep in touch on a regular basis.