Newspaper Sale Rattles Hong Kong

IN a sale expected to reverberate through Hong Kong's free press and Asia's media market, a Malaysian Chinese businessman close to Beijing has bought a one-third interest in an influential colony newspaper.

Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. said that part of its 50 percent stake in the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's major English-language newspaper, had been sold to billionaire Robert Kuok Hock Nien. Mr. Kuok bought the 34.9 percent interest for US$349 million.

The sale is part of Asia's shifting media landscape: Tightly controlled media and traditional newspaper markets are yielding to world TV.

In July, Mr. Murdoch bought a 64 percent stake in Star TV, the region's largest satellite broadcaster and a hugely profitable venture started by Hutchison Wampoa Ltd. and the family of Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing.

That $525 million acquisition gave Murdoch a global scope to his existing broadcast operations in the United States and Britain and could trigger a fierce battle for Asia's television viewers, particularly in the giant markets of China and India.

The major rivals are Star and a consortium including CNN and three other western companies and led by Television Broadcasts (TVB), the largest Hong Kong broadcaster and producer of Chinese-language programs.

But Kuok, who has extensive interests in hotels and Coca-Cola bottling in Asia, also owns one-third of TVB. Since Murdoch will retain a 15.1 percent interest in the South China Morning Post, the alliance with Kuok could give Star TV access to Chinese-language programming.

Murdoch's broadening empire and the influence of a businessman sympathetic to Beijing over the South China Morning Post has stirred controversy in Hong Kong.

Murdoch, a political conservative who has often called for the downfall of communist regimes, worries Beijing. With the spread of satellite TV, Chinese officials and other autocratic Asian regimes have watched their control slipping.

Kuok has close ties to China's ruling Communists and was named to a 100-member committee to advise Beijing on Hong Kong affairs last summer. His influence is expected to blunt the Post's free-wheeling style and moderate the paper's critical coverage of China, analysts say.

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