Alibaba Group Holding Ltd ’s Jack Ma followed in the footsteps of Jeff Bezos to become the latest tech billionaire to acquire his own newspaper. Late Friday night, Ma bought South China Morning Post for $266 million. The paper is Hong Kong’s most influential English news outlet, and has the reputation of being a long time thorn in Beijing’s heels.
So why did Jack Ma agree to acquire a newspaper that thrives due to its strident anti-mainland stands? Won’t it affect the prospects of China-focused Alibaba, which has managed to prosper, in part because of its good relations with the communist regime?
For Alibaba, SCMP is a Means to an End
Freedom of press was the last thing on Jack Ma’s mind. At least that’s what the executive VP of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd seems to suggest.
“When people don’t really understand China and have the wrong perception of China, they also have a lot of misconceptions about Alibaba,” Joseph Tsai told the New York Times. “What’s good for China is also good for Alibaba.” In short, don’t be surprised, if from now on, the SCMP starts toeing the party line.
Media watch dogs are concerned. A statement issued by the Hong Kong Journalists Association said Tsai’s stated goal of presenting alternative views of China could be part of a move to clip SCMP’s wings.
“A professional media should employ the universal values on human rights…in its reporting on any country,” the HKJA said. It went on to add that it fears Tsai’s comments indicate there could be “further restrictions on the Post’s reporting on China.”
Hong Kong’s Autonomy is at Grave Risk
Press freedom has been in steady decline in Hong Kong in recent years amid a surge in both physical and cyber attacks on journalists. The semi autonomous city state was ranked 70 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 Press Freedom Index. That’s a big fall from No. 34 in 2010.
The U.K. handed back Hong Kong to China in 1997. But the former colony still enjoys substantial governance and financial freedom, including an unbridled Internet and an often-animated local media.
Interestingly, the city’s only other major English daily, the Standard, is already controlled by prominent pro-Beijing business tycoon Charles Ho. The growing attempts by the Chinese regime to regulate Hong Kong media was best summed up by local tabloid Apple Daily that ran the news of Alibaba’s buy on its front page under the headline “SCMP has been dyed red.”
Shares of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd closed Monday at $80.57. The stock is down 22% year to date.