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.
Buffet is a method for serving food.
In the ‘puke-inducing obsequiousness’ the Standard gives the SCMP a run for its money this morning. The front page is a fawning piece on Kenneth FOK, 36 year grandson of Henry FOK. The FOKs are trying to encourage relaxing the rules on yacht rides to Nansha, which officials worry lead to smuggling. So business as usual then.
test test test and another test
Intriguing, indeed. I question your statement that Ma is…well…human. Question is, does he have his get-out-of-China card (a la Jacky “the true patriot” Chan, Gong Li, Jet Li, etc.) in a safe somewhere?
That SCMP website has truly become a home roost for the most vile and brainless trolls ever. I’m pretty sure most are even home grown (HK) as well. I used to question their ability to pay for the subscription so that they could comment (numbers skyrocketed about the time last year’s “Occupy” was set to start) but gathered SCMP gave them free to a list of patriotic front approved lackeys.
I look forward to Pierce Lam’s new weekly column “Democrazy Daze and How English is the Lesser, Inferior Language” (all in English, of course).
Regardless…it will truly be interesting to see how things materialise.
BTW, Mr. Ma portrays himself as China’s Jeff Bezos, not Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg.
You are very kind and understanding to this sad twisted old Peking propaganda rag. I haven’t bought one for ten years. Didn’t you used to write for that NTSCMP?
@”Alibaba has known links with China’s princelings”
You mean Jack Ma has direct phone line to Qincheng prison.. ?
South China Global Times has a nice ring to it…
When does the “fair and balanced coverage” thingy starts, exactly ? Does anyone know ?
It goes without saying they’ll be keeping the two-headed Lo-Chugani waaargarbhl monster. I wonder if Jake Van Der Kamp will finally jump ship. They couldn’t fire him because he’s the only columnist people would pay to read, but now that they’re scrapping the paywall he ought to walk out of there.
Harry is the only reason that I buy SCUMP / the read in disbelief the ‘letters’ sent by Beiling with Western names. Jake vd Kamp sure and China briefs – to realise the true barbaric soiciety that exists just over the boarder. The rest is for the exclusive use of KatKin’s whoopsie tray.
@Cass: So true. Jake and Steve Vines and all other decent human beings should now make a statement and terminate their involvement with the CCP rag. Leave it to Alex Lo, Tammy Tam, Chugani, Vagina Ip and other no-hopers.
Scmp is the Lada of newspapers, who cares who owns it, nobody will drive it.
Anna Wu could investigate the SCMP and Standard for cornering the market in waste paper creation, but she’s too busy investigating her own near stranglehold on first in the post for Kwangos. She’s set a record for establishing and promptly rendering fang-less and useless every vehicle both the Brits and Gits have set up to bring false democracy to this town.
If Beijing has turned to some of the most brutal international mercenaries to defend its interests in Africa, then this is just another face of it’s power extension internationally. Among the mercs is Frontier Services Group, a Hong Kong–based firm with close ties to China’s biggest state-owned conglomerate as well as Ali Baba & Ten Cents (FYI, FSI’s chairman is Erik Prince, the founder and former CEO of the US security firm Blackwater). This thing with the SCMP is just another side of it all this power movement, after all who pays Frontier Services invoices, certainly not Beijing directly. For example, who will suppress / damp down / spin coverage of future merc led massacres? The SCMP isnt the only one, just a publicly known one.