If you cared to listen, you may have heard a collective sigh of defeat from all those who treasure a free media in Hong Kong over the recent news that the fate of the city’s English-language paper of record, the South China Morning Post, now rests in the hands of China’s tech whiz and Alibaba chief Jack Ma.
In case you were wondering what Ma’s plans are for the storied, 112-year-old daily, Alibaba’s executive vice chairman, Joseph Tsai (who occupies some of the most expensive office space on the planet in Causeway Bay) made things perfectly clear in an interview published in the SCMP last week.
“Today, when I see mainstream Western news organisations cover China,” Tsai told a reporter, “they cover it through a very particular lens . . . A lot of journalists working with these Western media organisations may not agree with the system of governance in China and that taints their view of coverage. We see things differently, we believe things should be presented as they are. Present facts, tell the truth, and that is the principle that we are going to operate on.”
But facts, truth and principle are often a matter of interpretation and dispute—especially when it comes to relations between China and the West. Criticism of the Chinese government in Western news outlets tends to focus on the illegitimacy of one-party rule, rampant corruption, widespread human rights violations and a woeful lack of free expression.
The counternarrative—already told and retold, among other places, through countless stories in the SCMP long before the Alibaba purchase—is that the same government unfairly reviled in the West as an authoritarian beast has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the last three decades while transforming the country from an economic backwater into the world’s second-largest economy and restoring its rightful place as a power to be reckoned with on the global stage.
Both of these narratives are compelling. The key to the ongoing China story, of course, is striking the proper balance.
Tsai’s remarks signal that Alibaba aims to combine the company’s immense presence in the cyber world with the SCMP’s reputation for journalistic excellence to promulgate a more positive image of China. As Tsai stated in another interview—this one with the New York Times—“What’s good for China is also good for Alibaba.”
Here, Tsai was echoing the words of former General Motors chairman Charles Erwin Wilson, who was once quoted as pronouncing a similar relationship between his company and the United States.
The allusion is apt, as the US also suffers greatly from corporate influence of the media. The mention of just one name should suffice to underscore the point: Rupert Murdoch, who owns the right-wing Fox News Channel, far and away the most biased major news source in the US. Murdoch, let’s remember, also once owned the SCMP before selling it in 1993 to Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok’s Kerry Group, which has now handed it over to Ma in exchange for a cool HK$2 billion.
As Kuok maintains extensive business ties on the mainland—and Murdoch at the time of his purchase of the SCMP was endeavouring to do the same—it would be wrong to think that the editorial independence of Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper is just now coming under threat. That independence was lost long ago.
After all, this is the paper that anointed President Xi Jinping—who, even by the appalling standards of the Chinese government, has been breaking records for human rights violations and the jailing of dissidents—as one of its two “leaders of the year” in 2014. (Pope Francis was the paper’s other choice, making for odd bedfellows on its editorial page, although SCMP writers found a tenuous link in the “courage” displayed by the two great men.)
Hopefully, under the Alibaba flag, the SCMP will continue to be a mostly accurate and reliable source of news—of the news, that is, it deigns to report. But count on the paper’s news bias, already well skewed to the new China narrative so loved by Tsai, to become even more pronounced.
The colonial British government was once the arbiter of opinion in Hong Kong: now, it’s Beijing. No one should be even remotely surprised by that 18 years after the handover.
But the British—in the guilt that accompanied their inglorious exit after more than 150 years of rank exploitation—also left the city with a legacy of free speech and the rule of law to which they themselves frequently failed to adhere. That mandate continues at least until the handover agreement lapses in 2048.
Today, the people of this city can recognise British hypocrisy at the same time that they celebrate British ideals, which are clearly articulated in the mini-constitution, or Basic Law, adopted by Hong Kong at the handover. Belated offerings are better than none at all.
Let’s make sure Hong Kong, despite formidable challenges from the north, truly remains a Special Administrative Region of China—special in its support of free speech, human rights and democracy.
That is what’s guaranteed in the Basic Law, but certainly not what is promised by the deal made to turn the SCMP over to Alibaba. Or by any mainstream media outlet currently operating in Hong Kong—where, in a crunch, business interests (like those of Alibaba and the Kuok family) can easily prevail over ideals of democratic governance and freedom of expression.
On another battlefront, the editorial independence of Radio Television Hong Kong, which is modelled on the BBC, has been under threat since the handover gong sounded at midnight, July 1, 1997. Dedicated journalists at the beleaguered public-service broadcaster fight bravely on, but theirs, too, may be a losing battle in the end.
So welcome to a brave new world—to the HKFP or to any of the myriad other like-minded independent websites around the world. Here there are no tycoon sponsors, so wages are thin,, but voices are true and unfettered thinking still reigns.
Indeed, what’s good for Hong Kong is good for HKFP.