By Pete Sweeney
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - A Hong Kong journalist has quit in a controversy over disputed remarks that Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, is reported to have made in support of Beijing's violent crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989.
The controversy comes ahead of the anticipated listing of Alibaba, expected to value the firm at $60-$100 billion, which in turn has put a critical spotlight on Ma, the wider Chinese Internet industry and its approach to freedom of speech.
Ma denies he made such an assertion siding with the government and the journalist, too, has said her report for the South China Morning Post this month was changed in editing, and she has apologized to Ma. The daily, though, is standing behind the story.
In undisputed comments in the same report, Ma described the Chinese government as "terrific" and downplayed the significance of Internet censorship. But his disputed comments on the Tiananmen crackdown, a symbol for human rights campaigners of Beijing's intolerance of free speech, drew the biggest reaction.
The interview, published on July 13, has caused public criticism of Ma in the Hong Kong and foreign press, with some Chinese netizens calling for a boycott of Alibaba's e-commerce websites, including Alibaba.com and Taobao.com.
However, journalist Liu Yi, in a statement written in Chinese on her Facebook account, said the published version of the interview with Ma was not the same as her original submission, and that she later took the initiative to edit the online version herself to "set the record straight".
"Ma never intended to make any comments about politics," her statement said. "I solemnly apologize to Mr. Ma Yun (Jack Ma's Chinese name) and resign from the South China Morning Post."
Liu did not respond to a request for further comment made through her Facebook account.
The Post said in a statement on its web site dated Saturday that the reporter had accessed its system and replaced the editor-approved article with an altered version in which Ma's reference to Tiananmen was removed without authorization.
Its statement said that the editor-approved version was restored and that Liu Yi had been suspended, but she chose to resign on July 19 before an investigation had been completed.
Wang Xiangwei, editor-in-chief of the Post, did not respond immediately to requests for additional comment on Sunday or for a copy of the newspaper's recording of the interview.
The newspaper's statement said it stood behind the original published article, in which Ma appeared to endorse Deng Xiaoping, then China's paramount leader, in using violent force to crush the 1989 protests. In the article, Ma said:
"As CEO of a company, whether it be regarding the Alibaba incident (a 2011 incident involving fraud) or the spin-off of Alipay, it is like Deng Xiaoping on June 4th. As the country's most senior decision-maker, he had to be stable and he had to make cruel decisions. It was not the perfect decision, but it was the best decision, and it was the best decision at that time."
Florence Shih, of Alibaba Group's international corporate affairs department, said in an email to Reuters that the Post's version omitted a phrase that made it clear Ma was not referring to the Tiananmen crackdown but rather to his decision to ask for the resignation of Alibaba.com CEO David Wei in 2011 after a rise in fraudulent transactions at the firm's website.
Wei, now chairman of Vision Knight Capital in Shanghai, did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent to the company's email address or to his personal LinkedIn account.
A recording of the interview provided to Reuters by Alibaba appears to show that the Post's version of the quote did in fact omit a brief clause from Ma's original statement, although the conversation was difficult to hear clearly in the recording as Ma and the reporter were speaking at the same time.
"Just like I said last time, it was not the perfect decision but it was the best decision, and it was the best decision at that time," Ma can be heard to say.
Shih argued that the inclusion of "Just as I said last time" showed Ma was referring to his previous decision to demand Wei's resignation after it was found some Alibaba sales staff had been colluding with professional criminals to defraud buyers -- not Deng's decision to send the military in to quash protesters.
"This is at best rookie journalism and at worst is malicious," Shih wrote.
The Post did not respond immediately to requests for comment or for a copy of its own recorded version of the interview.
(Editing by Mark Bendeich)