South China Morning Post confuses jailed activist for China’s leader

Posted: April 14th, 2010 | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Bilingual readers of the South China Morning Post might have raised an eyebrow or two at its front page story yesterday. The English language newspaper splashed on the presence of China President Hu Jintao at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, which begins tomorrow. Chinese officials confirmed their participation only a week before the event but securing their visit was seen as crucial by the US. Relations between the two countries have been cold in recent months so the visit was an opportunity for the White House to both re-engage the Chinese leadership and present a multilateral front against the Iranian nuclear programme. The story clearly merited its front page placement.

All well and good then – except the SCMP mistakenly referred to Hu Jintao as a well-known Chinese dissident. In this picture (click it for a zoom in), the Chinese characters next to Hu’s name on the first line are 胡佳. This is the Chinese name for Hu Jia, an award-winning pro-democracy activist currently serving a three-and-a-half jail sentence.

Hu Jia’s Wikipedia entry states:

Hu Jia is an activist and dissident in the People’s Republic of China. His work has focused on the Chinese democracy movement, Chinese environmentalist movement, and HIV/AIDS in the People’s Republic of China.

The paper took the unusual step of recalling that day’s copies and blacked out Hu Jia in copies sold in Beijing. It issued a terse front page correction the next day, saying:

“The South China Morning Post sincerely apologizes for the Chinese name translation error for President Hu Jintao in yesterday’s newspaper.”

A spokesperson later blamed foreign staff for the mistake, stating that copy was read by a proof-reader who did not understand Chinese.

Hong Kong and international media immediately highlighted the SCMP’s gaffe. But I doubt there will be any reaction from the mainland government. It is unlikely the mistake was intentional – unless the paper’s editorial staff were railing against their owner’s perceived pro-Beijing stance. And any comment about standards slipping might also be premature. After all, this is a paper won eight of 16 categories at the 2009 Society of Publishers in Asia Awards for local newspapers, including investigative journalism, newspaper design and best journalist.