SINCE late last year, Vancouver, British Columbia - Canada's favored destination for Hong Kong emigrants - has been the focus of a press war between two Chinese newspapers. At stake is the publishers' access to millions of potential readers in mainland China, as well as readers here.
Far-sighted Hong Kong businessmen began making peace with communist China years ago. They built shrines to the dead in ancestral villages, donated schools in their parents' hometowns, and generally made efforts to establish goodwill in the run-up to Hong Kong's return to Chinese control in 1997.
Now some Hong Kong companies, including newspaper publishers, have begun an aggressive acquisition of overseas business networks. The aim is to increase their competitive advantage in talks with Chinese authorities. The greater the international market presence, analysts say, the more attractive their joint-venture proposals will be.
Sing Tao, one of Hong Kong's largest newspapers, has already proven the benefits of having a worldwide network of papers, including one here. In June, Sing Tao will launch the first-ever joint-venture daily newspaper in mainland China. Its partner in this venture, the Chinese government, is still negotiating the newspaper's content.
Initial circulation of the Shenzheng Economic Times is set at a modest 30,000. But talks on other joint-venture projects with the Chinese government are under way. Sing Tao's success at winning agreement from Beijing is considered a breakthrough.
``The most important thing was the strength of Sing Tao in overseas connections,'' says Ung Gim Sei, head of Sing Tao's China projects at the company's Hong Kong headquarters. ``Sing Tao is everywhere in the world where there are Chinese. It provides a network to reach Chinese everywhere.''
Now one of Sing Tao's biggest competitors in Hong Kong, Ming Pao, is following suit, spending millions of dollars in a bid to match Sing Tao's strength abroad.
The start-up of a Vancouver edition of Ming Pao, one of Hong Kong's oldest and most respected dailies, was reported by the English-language press as yet another indication of how Asian this west coast city has become.
Several hundred of the city's most prominent Chinese and Hong Kong businessmen mingled over Asian delicacies at a lavish reception to launch the paper, Vancouver's third Chinese language daily. (The other Chinese language daily is the Taiwan-based World Journal, which has a small circulation here.) Characteristic of Vancouver's less-than-integrated business community, there was only a handful of Caucasions present - not counting the waiters.
The launch of a new paper during an economic recession reinforced the commonly held belief that future market growth lies in the local Asian community.
But Hong Kong-based entrepreneurs and Vancouver's Asian business community are well aware that a race for international market share - rather than Vancouver market share - has begun.
Ming Pao and Sing Tao sources admit that the money to be made in Vancouver and throughout North America is ``peanuts'' by Hong Kong standards. Circulation for the well-produced dailies is no more than 45,000 combined. Instead, the investments are thought of as ``parachuting'' on a very large scale.
``Parachuters'' are Hong Kong businessmen who acquire Canadian citizenship and then return to Hong Kong to continue business in the more lucrative market there.
FOR example, Ming Pao's Vancouver edition, which has an almost wholly Hong Kong-born staff, represents a foreign investment aimed at winning big rewards closer to home.
``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.
``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.''