Taiwan fends off attack on media diversity

Rice cracker king defeated in bid to take over Jimmy Lai’s Next media operations

A surprisingly formidable youth movement played a major role in the March 26 collapse of the purchase of Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai's Taiwanese outlets by an investor alliance led by rice cracker king Tsai Eng-meng, an outspoken admirer of the Chinese Communist Party.

The deal would have given Tsai, chairman of the Want Want China Times Group, effective control over half of Taiwan's print media market, the collapse of which was a bitter blow for Beijing because it lost the opportunity to exchange a highly-influential foe for a highly influential friend on the island.

"I have not seen real evidence that the Next deal was driven by instructions from Beijing, and Tsai must have his own reasons," Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, told Asia Sentinel, referring to the Next Media Group, which includes Sharp Daily, Apple Daily and Next Magazine, the latter two of which are heavyweights in the island's media landscape.

"But Beijing does not like Jimmy Lai and would be pleased to see him ruined."

In 2008, Lai, who fell out badly with the Chinese leadership in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy crackdown in China, tried to buy the Taiwanese TV stations CtiTV and China Television as well as China Times Weekly magazine, the Want Daily and the China Times, the latter being Taiwan's third biggest daily, but Tsai unexpectedly outbid Lai in the last minute, allegedly backed by Beijing's money.

Denied the chance to take over the television stations, sources told Asia Sentinel, Lai no longer felt his media plans in Taiwan were viable.

Tsai made his fortune with dozens of factories churning out rice crackers in China and, according to what he says in interviews, came to truly admire the Chinese Communist Party for having killed only very few pro-democracy protesters in the 1989 massacre. He was also caught on record saying that "unification should come about as soon as possible," so that concerns over media-monopolization in favor of China's quest for unification could no longer be dismissed.

Tsai in early 2012 got conditional approval to take over cable TV operator China Network Systems (CNS), which is watched by 23 percent of all Taiwanese cable TV subscribers, in a deal worth a staggering US$2.52 billion.

Tsai seemed almost unstoppable until his bid to take over Lai's Next Media Group came up against a colorful civic group calling itself the "Youth Alliance Against Media Monsters," which became standard bearer for the fight against Tsai's media ambitions. The group is comprised of thousands of Taiwan's reputedly politically uninterested university students, as well as academics and opposition politicians, who succeeded in heaping enough pressure onto Taiwan's regulators that one hurdle after another was erected against the Next deal.

The furious anti-monopoly movement's effectiveness gives Beijing plenty of reason to fear pro-democracy movements, including those in Hong Kong, could spread to the mainland if controls are loosened.

Still, it was not all about China, it was very easy for the Taiwanese public to develop a grave antipathy against Tsai, who is notoriously ill-mannered and obviously of very choleric temper. Tsai launched crude high-profile campaigns of vengeance against anyone who opposed the takeover, including lawmakers, academics and students, and he didn't shy away from firing renowned reporters in droves. And those journalists who stayed with his media empire saw their stories revised beyond recognition, so that they ended up published spiked with accusations against Tsai's opponents without any honor-saving changes to the bylines.

Perhaps most importantly, especially to Taiwan's university graduates, who can expect to earn as little as NT$22,000 (US$740) as a starting salary, Tsai perfectly fits the stereotype of an ugly capitalist stealing their future.

When Want Want China Times eventually threw in the towel last week, it declared that it does not want to suffer further humiliation by Taiwanese regulators. Unsurprisingly, the outcome was widely celebrated as a manifestation of Taiwanese rejection of Chinese political influence. Jimmy Lai quickly promised to return to Taiwan, making it clear that the Next Media Group will continue with its hallmark noisy investigative stories, taking on corrupt politicians regardless of their party affiliation.

What's worse from Beijing's perspective is that Lai's media outlets are about the only noteworthy ones in Taiwan that deserve the attribute "politically unbiased". It is this feature making Next Media a crucial pillar of Taiwan's democracy despite its often gory and always sensationalist style.

Some observers say that even if Tsai had won the contest, it wouldn't have helped Beijing much either, however.

"I question Beijing's ability to manipulate Taiwan's mass media, whether the Next issue goes their way or not," said Wu Yu-Shan, director of Academia Sinica's Institute of Political Science, adding that he sees the current linkages between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland as purely based on economic interest and that "very little common identity has developed on Taiwan's side."

Wu added that this makes the cross-Strait relation vulnerable to political changes in the future, say a new anti-unification president in 2016, when Taiwan's next presidential elections will be held, and that this basic situation is not going to go away.

"Not even if you have a bunch of self-censoring media, as in Hong Kong, let alone a single media group, as [it has nearly come about] in Taiwan."

Read previous Asia Sentinel story here

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