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Vale, South China Morning Post as Alibaba ushers in media ownership, mainland style

Vale, South China Morning Post as Alibaba ushers in media ownership, mainland style
Published 21 Dec 2015 

The headline writer who declared 'Alibaba bets big on Hong Kong' got it wrong. Paying HK$2 billion (US$250 million) for the South China Morning Post (SCMP) is chump change for Alibaba. Its CFO blithely admitted as much, saying: 'there's very little downside' to the deal. More revealingly, he also said 'What's good for China is good for Alibaba'. The company is unhappy with 'wrong perceptions' overseas about its home market (that damage its share price) and wants a Chinese style of reporting that its executives proclaim would be 'balanced, objective, fair and accurate'. Hands up all who agree with that!

The Chinese establishment, including Alibaba apparently, views Western reporting as biased, negative and 'ideological'. Yet Chinese media outlets (almost all owned by the state) themselves talk about their 'soft power battleground' in deadly earnest. They are taking on the bad-news bears at the New York Times and elsewhere, and their relentless coverage of crowded China, polluted China, repressive China. It is true that many uplifting Chinese stories are overlooked by the cynical, sensationalist global news factories that fill our channels with breaking disasters and doom. Now Alibaba wants to correct benighted foreign 'misconceptions', and, by doing so, help the country and itself.

What we have here is an example of an important feature of Chinese society: state-corporate alignment.

Whether or not such a strategy is deliberate or even voluntary, Alibaba, led by 'politically connected entrepreneurs', in the current lingo, is doing Beijing's advocacy. The current administration promotes 'mixed ownership' and other such tools of alignment even as it prosecutes a careening anti-corruption campaign against business. The rewards to the private sector are clear enough but so are the risks, as became painfully clear earlier this month with the worrying case of Fosun's briefly-disappeared chairman. Just like his Alibaba counterpart, this guy prided himself on his political savvy and patriotism, and his personal distance from power. Nowadays it seems that even owning a champion football team (or a faithful newspaper, say) might not be enough to protect a rich and 'right living' businessman.

A more consequential question is whether Chinese companies like Fosun and Alibaba can establish themselves internationally as multinationals when they clearly identify their goals with those of their country and the authoritarian regime in power. [fold]

Considering the resistance Huawei has encountered abroad, can Alibaba be seen as 'global' when its interests are so parochial? True, Amazon's Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, but (to my knowledge) he didn't buy it in order to improve Chinese impressions of America. To the contrary, the Post remains as fierce as ever. Alibaba is following Amazon into the media business for good commercial reasons, but the SCMP is a nettlesome property. The newspaper is seen as a totem of media independence and integrity. Once Alibaba takes charge, in another example of the mainland's growing influence in the territory, brickbats are sure to come flying.

Then again, this transaction's impact on Hong Kong may be overstated. Few here were surprised when the Alibaba's purchase announcement finally came, because Hong Kong's press has long been subject to pressure from Beijing. In an industry largely dependent on advertising rather than subscriptions, publishers listen to commercial interests who, in turn, are keen to please Beijing. The Chinese government's Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong directly operates three newspapers and possibly controls Sino-United Publishing, another influential owner. Television and other media have gone the same way. A few feisty properties like Apple Daily remain popularly nonconformist, but the media's sense of siege is palpable.

A new chief, taking the helm in January, will continue the SCMP's pro-establishment stance. The paper's masthead spouts editorials substantially identical to the China Daily. A Chinese owner can pledge 'independence' for SCMP in the comfortable knowledge such personnel will be reliably loyal. The result will be a newspaper which is unimaginative (leaving foreign reporters to pursue tricky China stories) and ponderous (incredibly, SCMP took several hours to break the Paris terrorist attacks, presumably awaiting guidance from above). No wonder readership has declined to just 100,000.

Perhaps Alibaba can revive this beloved and once-authoritative icon, though this seems like a forlorn hope. After all, the reason Alibaba is relaxed about owning SCMP is that it is already in safe hands. Many in the international community will lament an opportunity lost, for SCMP has a unique franchise with much goodwill. But it is too late to fret over its loss of independence. Sadly, that ship sailed long ago.

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