Alibaba and the forty censors

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Alibaba’s purchase of the SCMP has raised fears of censorship and bias – and claims of continued editorial independence.


History is in the making at the South China Morning Post as the 112-year-old newspaper was landed in the hands of a mainland Chinese entrepreneur, Jack Ma of Alibaba. It marks the end of an era when the English daily played an unique role in the city, mostly during British colonial rule. Now,a new epoch begins, shrouded in uncertainty about the publications’ role and direction.

The business and political influence of the once-prestigious newspaper has been in decline in recent years. Accordingly, news of Jack Ma’s talks to takeover the SCMP puzzled investors and political observers when it hit the headlines weeks ago. Then came the deal on Friday.

Done deal

On Friday, the SCMP said they are to be acquired by Alibaba, and followed with an announcement on Monday the e-commerce giant has agreed to pay HK$2.06 billion for the SCMP and all other media assets owned by SCMP Group.

In a letter to readers on Friday, Joseph Tsai, executive vice chairman of the Alibaba Group, sought to argue the business case for buying the SCMP. He wrote: [Some may ask] “Why is Alibaba buying into traditional media, considered by some a sunset industry? The simple answer is that we don’t see it that way.”

The vision

SCMP is a unique property. It’s the only English-language paper in Hong Kong that everybody will read… We see this as a great opportunity to create a unique product… it is for everybody who cares to know more about China and to understand it.”

“We see a compelling business case… we see the perfect opportunity to marry our technology with the deep heritage of the SCMP to create a vision of news for the digital age,” said Tsai.

Upbeat and promising it sounds, the business case has yet to convert doubters and cynics. Analysts have drawn comparison of Alibaba’s purchase of SCMP shares at a price of HK$2.06 billion with Amazon’s buying of the Washington Post at an amount of HK$1.95 billion in 2013. Both have a history of more than a century. The daily circulation of SCMP is about 100,000, about one-fifth of the Washington Post’s.

True, the SCMP is still in reasonable financial shape, although its profit margin has thinned sharply since the late 1990s. Its share price has stayed at a low point since it was listed in 1990.

the perfect opportunity to marry our technology with the deep heritage of the SCMP” – Joseph Tsai, Executive Vice Chairman, Alibaba Group

Judging from Tsai’s letter to readers, it is clear the mainland e-commerce giant is setting its sights on the potential non-business role of the SCMP, that is, helping to tell the story of a rising China and to boost the nation’s influence in the world.

Bias begone

He made no bones about China’s dismay with Western bias in reporting on China. He believes the world needs more than a single narrative when covering a country of China’s size and importance. “China is a rising economy and it is the second-largest economy in the world. People should learn more about China, [but] the coverage about China should be balanced and fair.

“Today when I see mainstream Western news organisations cover China, they cover it through a very particular lens… 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.”

no denying China has [lifted] tens of million of people out of poverty and put entrepreneurs like Jack Ma in the global league of the rich and the powerful

Although Alibaba has no official affiliations, Tsai’s claims of Western media bias in their coverage about China are in line with the long-held view among the ruling Chinese Communist Party towards media outside the country.

The conspiratorial school thought prevalent among conservatives in the Chinese officialdom, shared in some quarters of the populace, is that hostile elements outside the country never want to see a powerful China. They are therefore bent on hindering China’s rise and bad-mouthing its development.

More moderate thinking in the country is that China is too big and complex for people outside to get a full, balanced and true picture of the state of the 1.3 billion-populated nation. Bias and misconception therefore may simply stem from lack of understanding. And with English media being predominated by Western media, China’s right to have their voices heard, or the so-called (話語權), has been significantly curtailed.

With the power of internet becoming increasingly important in swinging public opinion on both the domestic and external fronts, China finds it imperative to redouble its efforts to boost their presence in the world’s media landscape in a drive to bolster soft power. State-owned media outlets, including China Central Television and China Daily, have been given a bigger budget to extend their reach to international audiences. The results have not been successful.

To dream a China dream

Aiming to regain the lost reputation of the once-powerful Middle Kingdom, the “China dream” President Xi Jinping has alluded to after taking power in 2011 has caused jitters among neighbours and Western powers. Aside from fears about the rise of a military hegemony, Western media reports about China have been dominated by a host of negative developments. Epidemic corruption, opaque politics, deadly smog, a deteriorating environment, a degraded public morality, dubious business ethics and practices, a vigorous crackdown on dissent, lack of rule of law and independent judiciary are all part of the critical narrative.

There is no denying China has undergone changes in the past decade, lifting tens of million of people out of poverty and putting entrepreneurs, including Jack Ma, in the global league of the rich and the powerful. Given these unambiguous successes, the story of China’s rise is full of contradictions and complex feelings.

End of an era

some believe it will become the Hong Kong version of China Daily

For most its past 112 years, the SCMP had been an important social institution in the British colony, representing the vested interests of the political and business elites. It championed the values and systems, culture and ethos of the British Hong Kong regime that has made the city tick. That unique role has diminished since the end of British rule and the beginning of a new era from the stroke of midnight on July 1, 1997.

Its new owner is seen by some as too friendly to the power-that-be in Zhongnanhai. Seen through the prism of conspiracy, some believe it will become the Hong Kong version of China Daily with the mission of making China look good, however bad it does. This is simply because China under the Communist rule still has a long way to go when it comes to the tolerance of a free, independent press.

Amid a morass of doubts and fears about China, Joseph Tsai’s pledge to upholding editorial independence of SCMP is taken with a hefty grain of salt. The challenge for Jack Ma is to prove doubters wrong by giving the SCMP a truly independent voice on Greater China.


Chris Yeung, in addition to the bio below, worked with the SCMP between 1984 and 2009. His last post was Editor at Large.