Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is indeed buying Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. The announcement on Friday had that unmistakable, carefully crafted tone of PR wordsmiths, with key messages and phrases repeated in the paper’s own report, a ‘letter to readers from the new owners’ and a painstakingly-scripted-to-sound-spontaneous Q&A.
As a business item it rates only a few paragraphs. The real story is how the Chinese Communist regime is extending its control over Hong Kong institutions and increasing its global capacity to counter the hostile, Anglo-dominated international media. A parallel theme in this case is how a connected and loyal but ostensibly private-sector company will serve as the tool for doing this while maintaining its pretentions or ambitions to be a hip-and-trendy tech business heading for global success.
A quick look at how it came to this. The existing owner, aging Malaysian-Chinese magnate Robert Kuok, obviously wanted out; as an investment SCMP was a failure, and as a way of shoe-shining Beijing it was a headache. The new-style of Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping apparently has less time for Hong Kong’s monopolistic tycoons, and perhaps for their puke-inducing obsequiousness (recall SCMP’s depraved groveling counting word-frequency in Xi’s ‘book’). It could be that Beijing’s local agents have calculated that the SCMP could be more of an asset to the motherland if it had a smarter and more-sophisticated approach to spreading ‘positive energy’.
So Beijing will have pushed Alibaba founder and boss Jack Ma into buying the paper, in order to ensure trustworthy and, ideally, more-effective proprietorship of Hong Kong’s (and Asia’s) leading English-language daily. Alibaba has known links with China’s princelings and with Beijing’s internal security apparatus. It could not otherwise exist. Mainland private-sector businesses survive on sufferance and are no less in the service of the party-state than universities, churches, charities, unions or the civil service and military. Lest we forget, the SCMP itself has reported the disappearance/death of businessmen Guo Guangchang and Xu Xiang, presumably for incurring the wrath of Xi.
We are invited to see these two as China’s Warren Buffet and George Soros respectively. Ma no doubt yearns to be China’s Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Chinese companies and businessmen have an image problem, as does the country itself. We can be fairly certain that Ma wants to be accepted worldwide as cool (and Beijing would like him and the whole country to be as well), partly because it is important for commercial expansion overseas, and partly because – well, he’s human.
The two key PR messages of the Alibaba SCMP-acquisition PR are: 1) that the world needs an alternative sort of ‘fair and objective’ coverage of China; and 2) that the SCMP will scrap its paywall. Hardcore cynics among us will see these as two sides of the same coin – the SCMP will have to be free to view because readers won’t pay for propaganda.
However, it is interesting that Alibaba’s vice-chairman Joseph Tsai stresses this theme of the need for a ‘plurality of views’ on China rather than Western media’s ‘particular lens’. Obviously this has set off alarm bells in Hong Kong, and it could partly be expectations-management. The thing is – he could have omitted any mention of it and just stuck with the blather about editorial independence. That would be more appropriate, if you were surreptitiously plotting to convert the SCMP into some creepy BRICs/UNESCO/New World Information Order vehicle. Tsai’s openness suggests that the Alibaba people genuinely believe that the world is hungry for an alternative to the CNN/BBC/etc echo-chamber. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, trying to make the best of being pushed into an unwanted deal. Maybe they hope Beijing will appreciate the sort of ‘soft power’ a reasonably respected SCMP could project (think Al-Jazeera rather than Global Times).
Anyone expecting a major plunge in the quality of the SCMP must consider where it currently stands. It has never, pre- or post-1997, been critical of authority. Its op-ed and commentary have lately become so insipid they might as well not be there. Its core local reporting is mostly solid, with occasional lapses into clunky and fawning promotion of the CY Leung administration as if to meet a quota.
In theory, the SCMP could be a better read while still improving China’s image overseas. Jack Ma has a lot to lose one way or other if it doesn’t work out that way. This will be intriguing to watch.