Can an Alibaba ‘Morning Post’ Aid China’s Image Overseas?

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba is buying the Hong Kong media group of the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading independent English-language newspaper in the former British colony where freedom of the press has resisted control by the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Will Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, who has strong ties to mainland business interests and to the ruling party, support “objective, balanced and fair” coverage of China—and of his own business? Might the newspaper, as Alibaba’s executive vice chairman said it will, indeed broaden the world’s view of China? —The Editors


On December 11, Chinese Internet behemoth Alibaba announced that it had reached an agreement to acquire Hong Kong’s flagship English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post (SCMP). The announcement came as no surprise, as the ailing paper was already known to have entered talks with Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma’s online empire. But the impending acquisition has raised fears about increasing mainland Chinese influence over the semi-autonomous port city and its strong traditions of rule of law and a free press—anxieties only heightened by Alibaba Group Executive Vice Chairman Joseph Tsai’s December 11 letter to SCMP readers.

Observers inside and outside Hong Kong are watching the development with concern, worrying that when push comes to shove, in an SCMP owned by a company whose commercial success is due in part to its close relationship with ruling Communist Party authorities, stories that reflect poorly on China’s leaders or political system will get the ax. Hong Kong’s journalists have increasingly felt the strength of Beijing’s influence; legislator and former journalist Claudia Mo told the New York-based nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists for a February 2014 report that self-censorship was a “plague” in Hong Kong. Its “media organizations are mostly owned by tycoons with business interests in China,” she said. “They don’t want to lose advertising revenue from Chinese companies and they don’t want to anger the central government.” The SCMP had represented a bit of an exception, but that could now be set to change. In a December 11 statement posted to its Facebook account, the Hong Kong Journalists Association expressed concern that the acquisition would “further compromise press freedom in Hong Kong,” citing a media interview with Tsai in which he stated that he hoped the paper would pursue “a more objective angle.”

For close watchers of China, the term “objective” is a bit of a dog whistle, signaling what the mainland’s ruling Communist Party wants, rather than what the cornerstone ethics of journalistic independence actually demand. Veteran China journalists have witnessed first-hand the term’s appropriation by China media gatekeepers. Journalist Paul Mooney covered China for 28 years, reporting on human rights and other topics Chinese authorities deem sensitive. In an April 2013 interview with Chinese visa officials, Mooney told Business Insider, an official said to him, “If we give you the visa, we hope you’ll be more objective in your reporting.” Mooney called the demand an “obvious threat.” Then in November 2013, Chinese authorities denied him the visa with little explanation, ending his career as a China-based reporter.

Tsai repeatedly invoked the concept of objectivity in his December 11 “Letter to Readers” included in Alibaba’s emailed press release. SCMP is “uniquely positioned to report on China with objectivity, depth and insight,” wrote Tsai. Later in the letter, he repeated that “in reporting the news, the SCMP will be objective, accurate and fair.” A media executive’s commitment to objectivity, of course, is laudable, except that the totality of his letter suggested something closer to Beijing’s line. —This post is excerpted from a Tea Leaf Nation article on Foreign Policy to which Isaac Stone Fish contributed reporting.

Overseas is a big place, and China’s soft-power ambitions can fill a large globe.

While fears for the South China Morning Post and for Hong Kong’s future of free press and free expression are very real—and I have written and talked about them myself—those fears are greatest among the people China cares the least about influencing. The regular writers and readers of The New York Times or of ChinaFile, or the China experts in the U.S. and U.K. universities, who regularly despair at the state of the Chinese polity never had their views changed by the South China Morning Post and never will.

There’s a big world outside, however, and China’s soft power not only has room to grow but it has already found fertile ground.

To be very transparent, I consult for the news agency arm of China Central Television (CCTV), which has ambitions to have its footage used by broadcasters overseas. For some broadcasters in Africa, in Latin America, in southeast Asia, in central and eastern Europe, CCTV has no more (and no less) stigma than Reuters television or Associated Press TV. The price is right, the quality is acceptable (and sometimes high) and the overt politics can be edited around.

Similarly, Xinhua may have a huge electronic screen in Times Square in New York, but I don’t think it has any illusions that the Upper West Side cocktail party set will be quoting articles verbatim. It’s perfectly happy that it has a large online presence and is picked up by many newspapers around the world.

In a media environment where very few consumers of news are loyal to one brand or discerning about the bylines they read, the South China Morning Post, powered by Alibaba’s Internet skills and emboldened by a torn-down paywall, will see its articles picked up by search services, promulgated on social media, and integrated into the fabric of conversation globally.

The question really is to what extent the reporting thus made widely available actually does present an alternative view of China, and a more positive one at that.

Anything too overt will condemn the paper to the space occupied—quite successfully—by the officially-backed China Daily newspaper. That’s available in print editions worldwide and online, but always has the words or ethos of “officially-backed” connected to its name, undercutting its credibility.

The South China Morning Post, in a privately-owned capacity, where the new masters have explicitly blessed the editors with the power to edit—albeit with a world view different from the mainstream Western media—will have a subtler ability to shape coverage and attitudes.

That may be anathema to many in New York, London, Washington, the intellectual salons of Hong Kong itself, and newsrooms around the world where journalists love to sit in commiseration with their colleagues. But to ordinary readers surfing the web and coming across a South China Morning Post story on their twitter feed, their Google search, or their Facebook timeline in Lagos, Mexico City, Bangkok, Vancouver, or Dubai, that will probably be just fine—and very influential.

As Joseph Tsai, Alibaba’s group director, sought to allay fears that editorial independence at the SCMP might be compromised by a closer alignment with Party-state interests in China, his remarks were actually a red flag. He spoke of the need for “objective, balanced and fair” coverage, but then proceeded to explain these core concepts through the frame of prejudicial Western coverage of China, a rationalization that underpins much of the Chinese Communist Party’s strategic thinking on news and information control both domestically and globally. “Today when I see mainstream Western news organizations cover China, they cover it through a very particular lens,” said Tsai. “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 organizations may not agree with the system of governance in China and that taints their view of coverage.”

According to this understanding of the role of the media, there is a kind of macro-objectivity that ultimately overrules the middling objectivity of the professional journalist or editor. The question is not whether this or that story is balanced, but how these stories balance against the perceived trend of “negative” coverage by western media. From this perspective, “negative” news is unwelcome. As Tsai said ruefully in the same interview: “We feel that as a company we have been subject to a lot of negative coverage, not by SCMP but by a lot of other organizations.” Notice that Tsai does not say that we — meaning Alibaba—have been the subject of a lot of inaccurate coverage.

As far as quality journalism goes, we should always beware the bringer of positive news. Why? Because positive news has very little value as news. This is unfortunately a lesson China’s leadership has never learned. As it represses its domestic news media, the Chinese Communist Party continues to act on the belief that the international influence of its ideas, of its version of the facts, is simply a matter of transmission. It has invested heavily in its the expansion of state-run media around the world — of China Daily, Xinhua, and China Central Television — with very little return. Some estimate it has already spent billions of dollars to polish up its international image, but it ranked dead last on a recent soft power index of 30 countries.

China’s overseas news outlets cannot become credible and influential media because in the end they can only, where the great big story of China is concerned, mirror a single agenda. And no one is willing to invest their time or money simply to indulge the self-aggrandizement of the Chinese state. Whatever the plans for the South China Morning Post under Alibaba, the newspaper cannot become a net positive for China on the ledger of soft power by mirroring its public diplomacy ambitions. That experiment has already soundly failed.