Who is behind the bid by Alibaba to acquire SCMP?

December 04, 2015 10:48
If Jack Ma really acquires the SCMP, it is likely to be part of Beijing's plan to tidy up the media in Hong Kong. Photo: Xinhua

As a former editor and columnist for the South China Morning Post (SCMP), I have mixed feelings about the news that Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. is making an aggressive bid to acquire the century-old English newspaper.

Sources said Jack Ma Yun, Alibaba's co-founder and chairman, is determined to build his own media empire and that his negotiations with Robert Kuok Hock Nien, who owns a controlling stake in the SCMP, are already in the home stretch.

In fact, ever since the SCMP was acquired by Kuok in 1993, the paper has become increasingly pro-Beijing, and its acquisition by Alibaba would only reinforce that stance.

It is not difficult to see that it is Beijing that is pulling the strings behind the scenes over this deal and that Ma’s decision to buy the SCMP is part of the Communist Party’s plan to “tidy up” the media in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan to curb criticism against itself and silence the voices of dissent.

It goes without saying that the best way to shut the media up is to own it.

It has become an open secret that top officials of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong responsible for propaganda regularly invite the chiefs of local mainstream media to tea, during which they tell them what they should and should not do when handling news stories about the mainland, so as to serve the best interests of the state.

Not only has mainland capital successfully invaded the two free-to-air television broadcasters in Hong Kong, but several cash-flush mainland business tycoons closely associated with the party have founded two major online media networks in our city.

One of the most influential entrepreneurs in China closely connected with the so-called “Second Red Generation” of the Communist Party, Ma might keep a low profile and not introduce too many radical changes to the SCMP, at least during the first couple of years after his acquisition, so as not to attract too much attention.

But it is almost certain that the paper will toe the party line even further in the days ahead.

Beijing can also make use of the SCMP’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region to advance its propaganda campaigns.

It is said that the Politburo task force on Hong Kong and Macau affairs, headed by Zhang Dejiang, the president of the National People’s Congress, is going to summon a meeting soon to discuss the preparations and arrangements for Hong Kong's Legislative Council election next year and the election for chief executive in 2017.

The question of how to tighten control over Hong Kong’s media will definitely be at the top of the agenda of that meeting.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 3.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Adjunct Professor, History Department, The Chinese University of Hong Kong