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Will Hong Kong's venerable South China Morning Post stay independent?

The English-language broadsheet has been sold for $226 million to Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant. The newspaper is renowned for its hard-hitting reporting on China. 

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    The front page of South China Morning Post is flipped by the wind as a vendor sits at her news stand in Hong Kong, Friday, Dec. 11, 2015.
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In the old days when Hong Kong was a British colony, the South China Morning Post spoke for the territory’s political and business elite. Beijing would frequently respond by excoriating the venerable English-language daily as a “running dog of the British empire.”

Now, as Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba takes over the paper, readers and staff fear that its future will be as a lapdog of the Communist regime on the mainland.

But the new owners must delicately tread between guarding the paper’s reputation for independence – key to its commercial prospects – and respecting Beijing’s political dictates, say media analysts.

“If they try to be really competitive in news coverage it will create problems for them with the [Chinese government],” says David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. “There are no easy solutions for Alibaba.”

Since China took back Hong Kong in 1997, the former colony has enjoyed a privileged status, offering freedoms unknown on the mainland. From this vantage point, the SCMP has reported on sensitive domestic topics that no mainland Chinese newspaper would dare touch.

Covert pressure

The paper has long been known as a beacon of free expression, though critics have said for years that its light had flickered under covert pressure from Beijing. Now it has become the property of a flagship Chinese company whose success – like that of any big Chinese firm - depends on official benevolence.

So doubts about the paper’s independence have surfaced again.

Alibaba founder Jack Ma, a former English teacher who is now among China's richest tycoons, scoffed at those doubts Wednesday, telling the Wall Street Journal that “in our hands it [the SCMP] should get even more respect and attention and not be persecuted. Trust us.”

Alibaba executives say the $226 million deal to buy the paper from its Malaysian owner, announced Dec. 11, was driven only by commercial motives and fits the corporation’s international strategy. Last year Alibaba listed its shares on the New York Stock Exchange, raising $25 billion in what was the world's largest ever IPO. 

Gong Wenxiang, a journalism professor at Peking University, is skeptical of the company's claims. “This must be political,” he says firmly. “It’s a new maneuver” by the government “to try to strengthen China’s voice in the international sphere.”

The Chinese government, via Alibaba’s ownership of the SCMP, is also keen “to create a more powerful presence in public opinion” in Hong Kong, where mistrust of Beijing exploded into weeks of anti-government demonstrations last year, Prof. Gong suggests.

Alibaba’s executive vice chairman, Joseph Tsai, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post that “we will let the editors decide the editorial policy and direction of coverage for any story.”  But he also presented his vision of the new SCMP as an alternative to western media, which he said were biased in covering China.

“Western mainstream news organizations cover China…through the lens that China is a communist state…and that taints their view of coverage,” Mr. Tsai said. “We see things differently.”

49 journalists in Chinese jails

That does not mean that the paper will be a catspaw for Beijing, cautions Mr. Bandurski. “It’s not so simple as saying they are aligned with the leadership,” he says, “and the Communist party does not trust the commercial media” that it has allowed to grow on the mainland.

On Tuesday the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists released figures showing that China imprisons the most journalists of any nation, some 49 of 199 cases as of Dec. 1, including a number of business and finance journalists. (Egypt was No. 2.) 

Bandurski fears that because of Mr. Ma’s close ties with Chinese government leaders and his need to safeguard his business interests on the mainland, “news coverage will become a political calculation.”

How far such calculations might influence coverage nobody knows. “Ma is not so stupid as to turn the paper into another China Daily,” says Prof. Gong, referring to the dull and timid English-language daily in Beijing. “That would be a complete failure.”

Gong sees Alibaba’s purchase of the SCMP as part of a new, more sophisticated and subtle government communications strategy. He hails it as an improvement over “old style Maoist propaganda.” But he expects that even if the SCMP is given a long leash, “I don’t think Mr. Ma can make decisions on his own” about the political stance of his new paper.

“It’s too political,” he says. “And any businessman in China knows that if you are too political you are close to failure. The propaganda authorities will have some kind of control.”

That will pose tricky problems for the new proprietors, says one former editor. Mr. Tsai said Alibaba would end the paywall around SCMP content on the web, so “they clearly want more readers,” the former editor points out. “But it will be a challenge to keep the readership…if the flavor of the paper changes. Once people realize it is no longer the paper it was, they will lose interest.”

One possible model, speculates Francis Moriarty, a veteran Hong Kong journalist and organizer of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club Human Rights Press Award, could be CCTV-USA. That programming, overseen by China's state-run broadcaster, is an effort to look and sound like a US TV news channel while toeing – and pushing – the Chinese government line.

“It could be a slick, well run organization producing eminently readable product,” says Mr. Moriarty, who has written for the Monitor. “But Ma will have to walk a very interesting tightrope.”

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