SHANGHAI -- News on Friday that Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group has agreed to buy the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's leading English-language newspaper, has sent a shiver of anxiety through the former British colony. Tension over China's growing influence in the city -- which reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, but was supposed to maintain its distinct way of life for 50 years -- is already high following last year's Occupy Central protests when demonstrators rallied against what they saw as China's attempts to undermine a promise of free elections for the city's leader.
Press freedom is another concern: While Hong Kong’s media is still significantly more open than China’s own, many newspapers in the region are thought to have shifted gradually to a more pro-China -- or at least less critical -- line.
The South China Morning Post, established in 1903, has not been immune from criticism. Its current Malaysian owners, the Kuoks, have been seen as not wanting to offend China too much, and mainland-born Editor-in-Chief Wang Xiangwei, who is due to leave at the end of this year, has sometimes been accused of toning down coverage on sensitive issues. However, the paper has continued to report on many aspects of China that could not be covered by mainland Chinese media, and it was praised for its rolling coverage of the Occupy Central protests last year. So the arrival of mainland owners has set off alarm bells in some quarters.
"It's very worrying... They would have a very strong impetus to censor bad news,"one veteran Hong Kong journalist who previously worked for the paper (but did not want to be named as it could affect her current position) told International Business Times.
No Traditional Company
The New York-listed Alibaba is no traditional Chinese government-owned company. It has pioneered a new business model in China, based on empowering individuals through the internet, and Ma is a cosmopolitan figure, a former English teacher at home on either side of the Pacific. Still, like any entrepreneur in China, he has had to cultivate a good relationship with the country's leadership. Ma recently accompanied Chinese President Xi Jinping on visits to the U.S. and Britain.
Joe Tsai, the Taiwan-born, Yale-educated executive vice chairman of Alibaba Group, sought to emphasize how cosmopolitan the company is, telling the South China Morning Post's readers in a statement Friday that though Alibaba may be from China, “we are in the process of transforming ourselves from a company whose core business is very much based in China to an international company, bringing our culture, our people, and the way we operate up to international standards.”
Tsai also stressed Alibaba would “let the editors decide the editorial policy and direction of coverage for any story,” and would provide “reporting that is objective, balanced and fair” to keep the trust of readers. “If we don’t have that trust, we cannot build up our readership," he said.
And he spoke of using Alibaba’s expertise in mobile internet to expand the paper’s role as a prime source of information about China for readers around the world, pledging to hire more journalists, and, significantly, to remove the paywall from the paper's website, saying that as an internet company, Alibaba believes content should be free and paid for by advertising.
Nevertheless Tsai appeared to echo the Chinese government’s criticisms of international media coverage of China as being too negative. “When it comes to covering China, a country of such size and importance, the world needs more than a single narrative. The coverage about China should be balanced and fair," he said, adding mainstream Western media covered China “through a very particular lens. … A lot of journalists working with these Western media organizations may not agree with the system of governance in China and that taints their view of coverage. We see things differently, we believe things should be presented as they are.”
Tsai also said “objective and balanced” reports on China would “help people around the world to better understand the country, and in turn the business of Alibaba.” In an interview with the New York Times he went further, saying negative views of the country in international media had affected his company’s share price.
Effects On Coverage
Such comments have added to concern among media professionals in Hong Kong. Willy Lam, a former China editor of the South China Morning Post, who left the paper in 2000 following a dispute with outgoing owner Robert Kuok, said Alibaba would have to tread a fine line in its ownership. On the one hand, he suggested, it would not want to alienate the newspaper’s readers in Hong Kong or around the world. “If they make it purely a propaganda vehicle they would lose credibility -- and advertising revenue,” he said.
At the same time, Lam, author of a recent book on President Xi's leadership, said the dominant position of Alibaba’s e-commerce sites, Taobao and Tmall, in the Chinese market showed that “Alibaba and Jack Ma are very close to the party and leadership. They’ve been given semi-monopolistic status in e-commerce because the government trusts them, so they would have no reason to allow content highly critical of the Chinese government” since this might affect their domestic business, he said.
There are also worries about how the Post’s coverage of Hong Kong’s own political scene could be affected -- with the leadership of pro-Beijing Chief Executive C.Y. Leung already seen as keen to mute criticism following last year’s protests, Lam noted.
“The concerns goes beyond China coverage,” he said. “The Chinese government has a policy on Hong Kong: to squeeze Hong Kong, to boost its political control — and to encourage mainland control of the Hong Kong media.” He noted that Hong Kong’s major terrestrial TV station, TVB, which is now partly controlled by a company linked to Shanghai’s official broadcaster, the Shanghai Media Group, was “severely criticized” for some of its coverage of the Occupy Central protests, particularly for removing footage of the beating of a protester by police from its new bulletins.
As an English language paper, the Post is not read by the majority of Hong Kong’s ordinary citizens, Lam said. And he argued that the paper had to some extent already toned down its critical coverage of Leung. However, he said any further erosion of the paper’s independence would be worrying for the local politicians, academics and intellectuals who were among its readers.
The former Post journalist said that under its previous owners the paper effectively had been “Chinese by proxy,” so if it became overtly Chinese that might not necessarily make so much difference. She also acknowledged Alibaba would bring new ideas in terms of technology and business model to a “rather moribund” institution, which has been hard hit in recent years by the loss of some of the advertising that once made it one of the most profitable papers in the world under Rupert Murdoch, who owned it from 1987 to 1993.
Nevertheless, she said the paper had provided "good live reporting" of the Occupy Central protests last year — and expressed concern that this might not be possible in future.
“The Post is an august paper with a long history,” she added. “It’s hard to know what will happen in the future — but it won’t become more liberal, that's for sure,” she said.
Like many Hong Kong journalists, she also said she was anxious about the general state of Hong Kong’s media. She said some newspapers, such as Ming Pao, traditionally read by many intellectuals, continued to publish some good stories even though its new editors were considered more sympathetic to Beijing. She said the paper’s trade union had kept a close eye on coverage, making it hard for its reporting to become too overtly pro-China. Hong Kong’s government-funded radio station RTHK is also still seen as relatively independent. However, observers said many other newspapers took a pro-Beijing line during last year's protests, criticizing the demonstrators for hurting the economy.
Alibaba’s Ma has previously said he is not interested in getting involved in politics. Yet he clearly requires at least the acceptance of the Chinese government to operate his businesses in a nation with a highly controlled internet sphere. (Only this week Chinese internet czar Lu Wei said foreigners who were critical of China were not welcome in the country’s internet space.)
Duncan Clark, founder of information technology consultancy BDA China, who has worked with Alibaba for many years and is author of the forthcoming book "Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built," told International Business Times that Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland was “a high wire act,” and consequently “the sensitivities will dominate the headlines, and keeping critics of increasing Chinese influence at bay will be a challenge for Alibaba. But it’s one they’ve obviously decided to take on,” he said. “From a business point of view there’s certainly a positive for the South China Morning Post in having capital and technology behind the paper. A revitalized South China Morning Post business is eminently achievable, and this will bring it far greater resources than it had before,” he added.
Yet with a significant exodus of journalists from the Post over the past year, the paper may have to work even harder to produce the type of content that will attract readers who still expect it to provide critical and challenging coverage of both Hong Kong and China.