Two prominent pro-Beijing newspapers in the former British colony of Hong Kong are to merge, pooling editorial and technical resources, the papers said on Tuesday.
The Wen Wei Po and the Ta Kung Pao will continue to publish their own newspapers in Hong Kong, but from pooled editorial and technical resources, the papers said.
Current Ta Kung Pao chairman Jiang Zaizhong will lead the newly formed Hong Kong Ta Kung Wen Wei Media Group, amid dwindling circulation figures and falling revenue in the traditional media sector.
Both newspapers are administered by propaganda officials at Beijing's central government liaison office in Hong Kong.
A journalist at the Ta Kung Pao said Jiang is a veteran journalist who came from a leadership role at China's state-run Xinhua news agency.
"He gained his experience at the Xinhua bureau in Inner Mongolia, after which he was promoted to leadership roles within the agency," the journalist said.
"He was posted to Hong Kong in 2008, but he has never really taken off his Communist Party hat."
Veteran Hong Kong-based journalist and former deputy Wen Wei Po editor Ching Cheong said both papers have faced heavy financial losses in recent years, but that political factors across the internal border in mainland China could also have played a part in the decision.
"The Ta Kung Pao was previously a big supporter of [jailed former] Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai and his Chongqing model, and it could have something to do with that," Ching said.
"The paper had been supportive of the singing of revolutionary songs, and of bringing a troupe to perform them in Hong Kong."
"Perhaps their political misjudgement annoyed the authorities, and they decided to make a single news organization out of these two newspapers. I think this is very likely," Ching said.
A source close to the papers said they have close relationships with several official propaganda-related departments in Beijing.
"There are a lot of channels [to Beijing]," the source said. "They are supervised by the State Information Office, the central propaganda ministry, and they have sent people from Xinhua news agency to run the show, and also from [party mouthpiece] the People's Daily."
"Most of them are out of Xinhua, though, like bureau chief Wang Shucheng."
Proxies for Beijing
The two papers were long regarded as proxy mouthpieces for Beijing, and were sought after by politically savvy readers because they often carried the first indicators of policy changes at the top of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, in particular its views on developments in Hong Kong.
Both papers were roundly critical of the last colonial governor Chris Patten, who tried to implement late-stage and partial democratic reforms, only to be be denounced as "a whore," and "guilty for 1,000 years" in the pro-Beijing media.
Grace Leung, journalism lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the papers are now being urged to step up their influence on public opinion and level of credibility among the Hong Kong news-hungry public, as they lose their colonial-era position as the conveyor of Beijing's thoughts to the rest of the world.
"Sometimes [their commentary] seems to be at a bit of a loss, and they don't seem to know what line to take when something big happens [across the border] in China," Leung said.
"They should be able to make quicker decisions now about their response to the news, because they have [the liaison office] to direct them without needing to go through Beijing," she said.
The move comes amid a changing media landscape in Hong Kong, and amid growing concern that Beijing is extending its influence into the city, which was promised a "high degree of autonomy" under the terms of the 1997 handover to China.
Commentators say Chinese corporate entities have been slowly taking over Hong Kong media outlets and publishing companies since 1997, while local journalists have pointed to a growing number of violent attacks on prominent journalists in the city.
Many say Beijing is now engaged in a "rectification" campaign aimed at bringing the Hong Kong media to heel, and destroying the city's once-vibrant independent publishing sector.
On Tuesday, Wang Hanfei, the former editor of the Hong Kong-based journal China Special Report, announced he would sue the authorities in the central province of Hunan for alleged beating, torture, and illegal detention following his release last October from a three-year jail term.
"I will lodge a formal complaint or lawsuit, for damages against my person and against China Special Report, Wang told reporters on Tuesday.
"I don't really care if it has much hope of succeeding. This is the only channel of free speech ... left open to us," he said.
The United States on Tuesday called on China to clarify the status of five missing booksellers from Hong Kong's Causeway Bay Books store, two of whom are said to be voluntarily "helping mainland police with their enquiries."
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told a regular news briefing the U.S. was "deeply concerned" about their disappearances, which appear to undermine promises that Hong Kong will maintain a separate jurisdiction under the "one country, two systems" pledge.
"These cases … raise serious questions about China’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy under the one country, two systems framework, as well as its respect for the protection of universal human rights and fundamental freedoms," Kirby told a news briefing.
"We urge China to clarify the current status of all five individuals and the circumstances surrounding their disappearances and to allow them to return to their homes," he said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the actions of the Chinese police were entirely above board, but gave no specific details about any of the detentions.
Hong Kong's autonomy was fully respected, the territory was China's, so no foreign officials have the right to interfere or offer "not really appropriate" comments, Lu told a news briefing in Beijing.
Reported by Hai Nan and Chow Zi-naam for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.