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City's Chinese Papers Fight a Press War

In addition to serving a growing local audience, Hong Kong-based newspapers see Vancouver editions as an opening to China's market

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``This is the primary target, establishing the North American network and then entering into mainland China,'' says one source familiar with Hong Kong business strategies.

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``Most of the papers in Hong Kong want a piece of the market in China,'' says Clement So, executive editor of Ming Pao's Vancouver edition. ``Imagine, the population there is 1.1 billion. There we are talking about publishing a few millions a day.''

Ming Pao has been negotiating with the Chinese government for the joint-venture publication of a Canton newspaper, to be called ``Modern Man Daily.'' But final agreement is believed to be months away. In the meantime, the publisher is undertaking a rapid expansion of its North American operations.

Sing Tao already has six newspaper offices, including Vancouver, British Columbia; Calgary; Toronto; San Francisco; Los Angeles; and New York. Total circulation from the six North American editions is 300,000. Other editions are produced from offices in London; Paris; Rotterdam, Netherlands; Sydney; and Auckland, New Zealand.

Late last year, Ming Pao opened up top-of-the-line, heavily computerized newspaper offices in Vancouver and Toronto. Before this year is out, new offices and regional editions are expected to be launched in Calgary, and San Francisco.

``The high up people in Ming Pao think not only in terms of using this as a springboard or negotiating tactic to talk with the Chinese officials,'' says one Ming Pao source, who asked to remain anonymous. ``They are also thinking long term.''

``They want to establish a worldwide network,'' he adds. ``They want - I don't want to use the word influence - to contribute to the development of China and the Chinese community around the world. They want to link them up.''

``You give them [China] something and they give you something,'' he continues. ``You can get the access to China.''

In light of the newspapers' ongoing talks with the Chinese government about doing business there, the question of Ming Pao and Sing Tao's future editorial independence has become more important.

Sing Tao already publishes its international editions without editorial comment.

Mark Roberti, the New York-based author of the ``The Fall of Hong Kong: The Secret History of China's Triumph and Britain's Betrayal,'' to be published this fall, says, ``The China market is lucrative. There are tremendous amounts of money to be made there.''

Asked about China's interest in newspapers with international outlets, Mr. Roberti says his first concern is about Beijing's possible use of the newspaper networks to suppress or discourage news reports critical of the communist leadership.

``If they [the newspapers] criticize China, that's no benefit to China,'' Roberti says. ``So the assumption must be that there has been some tacit or explicit agreement with these newspapers.''

``If they want to do business in China, they will have to take a more conciliatory approach to their coverage of China,'' he adds.

Sing Tao, even more than Ming Pao, has taken a soft editorial line on issues surrounding the Hong Kong handover to Chinese rule.

``We don't publish editorials,'' says Kenneth Fung, the Vancouver edition's general manager. ``It seems to me, if you put in an editorial, to some degree, you have to take sides - right? So our policy is to just publish the news and let the readers decide.''

``We won't talk about politics,'' Mr. Ung says, referring to Sing Tao's editorial policy for the mainland China edition. ``This is an economics newspaper.''