Hoping to rebrand China and totally dominate the Asian online market, Alibaba even further expanded its massive media empire over the weekend with its $266 million acquisition of Hong Kong’s English-language paper of record, the South China Morning Post.
Shattering Singles Day sales records, buying Youku Tudou and being interviewed by the leader of the free world wasn’t quite enough excitement for Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of the Alibaba Group. Analysts believe that Ma hopes to use the SCMP to change China’s negative portrayal in Western media and reshape the global view of China.
Alibaba issued a press release announcing its rational for the game-changing purchase. “The South China Morning Post is unique because it focuses on coverage of China in the English language. This is a proposition that is in high demand by readers around the world who care to understand the world’s second largest economy,” said Joe Tsai, executive vice chairman of Alibaba Group. “Our vision is to expand the SCMP’s readership globally through digital distribution and easier access to content.”
Ma’s acquisition of the SCMP is being viewed with skepticism by many readers and those in the West, considering the special role the paper serves in covering the Middle Kingdom. The SCMP has been known to use its home base safety in Hong Kong to cover forbidden topics including politics and human rights. It also has become Beijing’s chosen destination for leaks to the English-language media.
Still, the struggling SCMP Group Ltd has reported substantial declining profits for the past three years and since 2013 has been suspended from trading in Hong Kong. In the past six months more than 30 staff have left the newspaper including 4 prominent journalists who were axed, and most recently the paper’s editor-in-chief stepped down.
Alibaba tells the NY Times that purchasing the SCMP has nothing to do with the CCP government, and it is company goal to rebrand China. However, Jack Ma and Alibaba’s ties with Beijing are no secret and Ma himself frequently appears with Party leaders and has expressed his support for their actions in the past. He has even been involved in controversy with the newspaper itself. In 2013, a SCMP reporter resigned after quoting Ma as having made remarks in support of Beijing’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Alibaba’s massive media empire currently includes Youku Tudou, Wasu Media, China Vision Media (now Alibaba Pictures), Huayi Brothers, and China Business News. This gives the company control of film, social media and print news in the country and now with a further reach overseas.
The Economist notes the fear that many hold that Ma may try to “shut down” freedom of the press through the SCMP.
If Ma can turn the SCMP into a must-read news source across China and the rest of Asia through gaining reader trust, he could gain a lot of leverage. However he’ll have to overcome the hurdle of an independent and judgmental Hong Kong readership.
News industry analyst Ken Doctor thinks this bias is going to create a Western version of current Chinese media. “Jack Ma is saying we’re going to tell China’s story more positively, and the stories we won’t see is what is critical — stories questioning government policy, inquiring into the powerful, and in Hong Kong examining business.”
At least the paywall is coming crashing down.
By Emily Lam