HONG KONG • On a recent afternoon, the staff of South China Morning Post (SCMP), a 114-year-old newspaper, gathered around roast suckling pig in their lavish new headquarters in Hong Kong to celebrate a remarkable turnaround.
Readership has been surging. The paper has launched new digital products and added dozens of journalists. After more than a decade of decline and editorial chaos, the newsroom now buzzes, with table tennis and a pub serving craft beer.
The revival began with SCMP's acquisition two years ago by the Alibaba Group, the Chinese technology and retail giant. But if Alibaba is breathing new life into the paper, it has also given it a new mission: improving China's image overseas and combating what it sees as anti-Chinese bias in the foreign media.
Alibaba has taken Hong Kong's English-language paper of record and put it on the leading edge of China's efforts to project soft power abroad. Every day, it churns out dozens of articles about China, with many seeking to present a more positive view of the country. Critics say it is moving away from independent journalism and pioneering a new form of propaganda.
Alibaba, which has been open from the start about its ambitions for SCMP, envisions a day when it is the dominant news group globally, riding the momentum of China's rise as a superpower.
But journalists worry that Alibaba, which has become one of the most highly valued firms in the world in part by maintaining good ties with the Chinese government, is abandoning the paper's history of tough reporting to please Beijing.
"By explicitly stating its aim is to tell a positive story of China and running questionable stories, management undermines the attributes that make SCMP useful in the first place," said journalist and senior lecturer Yuen Chan at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
As businesses and governments worldwide look for ways to skirt the traditional news media, SCMP has become a test case for how a new owner can co-opt an established brand to promote certain viewpoints. Alibaba say it wants to present a "fair and balanced" alternative to foreign media.
SCMP's chief executive Gary Liu said the newspaper could offer a more nuanced portrait of China than Western news outlets, with a staff of 350 journalists in Asia, including about 40 on the mainland.
"We are not here, certainly, to promote the views and wishes of Beijing," said Mr Liu, who was previously chief executive of Digg, a news aggregation site in New York.
But a culture of self-censorship predates Alibaba's purchase of the paper, said Mr Wang Feng, its online editor from 2012 to 2015. He said top editors rewrote, played down or withheld critical stories for fear of offending influential Chinese officials or business people.
That timidity has persisted under Alibaba, said more than a dozen journalists who described how the paper shies away from investigative reporting on Communist Party leaders and contentious subjects like human rights.
Last year, SCMP retracted a business column that suggested an investor in Hong Kong had ties to a trusted adviser to Chinese President Xi Jinping and had used his connections to amass wealth. The editors said the column made "insinuations beyond the facts".
Its author Shirley Yam, a well-respected financial commentator, resigned. In a statement, Ms Yam defended her column, saying that editors had vetted the piece extensively before its publication.
In February, SCMP journalists said, China's Public Security Ministry pushed the paper's top editors to send a reporter to interview Mr Gui Minhai, a political critic and Swedish citizen snatched by Chinese police from a train. Mr Gui was then quoted as saying he had broken Chinese law and did not want help from the outside world.
SCMP "risks being a vehicle in Beijing's overall propaganda machinery", said Dr Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a former journalist of the paper.
Mr Chow Chung Yan, who oversees coverage of China and Hong Kong, denied SCMP yields to pressure from Beijing. "We are independent and free," he said.
Editor-in-chief Tammy Tam, a former Hong Kong television broadcaster, declined to be interviewed. "We believe in reporting freely, fearlessly and in accordance with the highest editorial standards," she said in a statement.