Alibaba, China’s biggest ecommerce company, announced on 14 December 2015 that it would buy the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Hong Kong’s premier English-language paper, for US$266 million.
Tse Tsan-tai 谢缵泰 and Alfred Cunningham founded the SCMP in 1903. Companies controlled by Rupert Murdoch bought a majority stake in it in 1987, and then sold a controlling interest to Malaysian Chinese tycoon Robert Kuok 郭鹤年 in 1993. Despite its reputation as one of Asia’s most authoritative periodicals, the paper today has a relatively small subscription base of around 100,000 print and digital subscribers, and falling profit margins. Penetration into the mainland Chinese market would be at the price of the paper’s editorial independence and often critical coverage of the Chinese government. Already, there have been conflicts between the news staff and Kuok, who is seen as sympathetic to the Chinese government. The internal dynamics at the paper have been tumultuous in recent years, leading to a turnover rate of ten chief editors in eleven years since 2000.
News of Alibaba’s acquisition of SCMP marked a tightening of Beijing’s grip around the prestigious publication. In a statement and Q&A published in the newspaper, Joseph Tsai, executive vice chairman of Alibaba vowed that SCMP would remain ‘objective, accurate and fair’. He said that the acquisition aimed to combine Alibaba’s digital expertise with the 112-year-old newspaper’s journalistic excellence to create a global media entity offering ‘comprehensive and insightful news and analysis of the big stories in Hong Kong and China’. But he also remarked:
Our perspective is this: China is important, China is a rising economy. It is the second-largest economy in the world. People should learn more about China. 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. It is through the lens that China is a communist state and everything kind of follows from that. 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.
Or at least as they are through the equally particular lens of China’s own media.