Tycoon Robert Kuok’s strategic purchase of Hong Kong’s paper of record in 1993 from Rupert Murdoch, was hailed as a master-stroke of timely guangxi before the 1997 handover of the territory from the UK to China. Murdoch exited as he did not want the aggressive China reporting of the South China Morning Post to derail his TV plans for the mainland.
But the independent streak of the SCMP prevailed over its new owner – to his bafflement. Kuok ran an Asian business empire where employees did as they were told. The SCMP proved doggedly different. Its journalists and editors were fixated on disclosure rather than political correctness. From the 1980s, the paper proudly tagged itself “One of the world’s great newspapers.” Its mission was to serve its readers rather than bow to the whims of transient owners.
Chairman outraged over China coverage
Editor Robert Keatley, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, in June 2000 copped the full blast of Kuok’s fury for a front-page story by then-China Pages Editor Willy Wo-Lap Lam on a delegation of Hong Kong tycoons (including Kuok) invited to meet President Jiang Zemin.
Willy wrote that their political support was sought and that business opportunities in China would be their reward. The China Liaison Office howled: how could a “friend of China” allow such insensitive reports in a paper he owns?
A livid Kuok bawled Keatley out in his corporate office. The SCMP chairman then took the unprecedented step of penning an angry 2-page letter of displeasure. In corporate business culture, that should have triggered the resignation of the executive. Instead, the scholarly Keatley felt any reader disagreeing with the paper had a right to be published in its Letters Page.
And so SCMP readers and Hong Kong’s establishment woke the next morning to the full text of the chairman’s tirade against his editor. The editor’s footnote below the letter declared that Kuok was chairman of the SCMP. Kuok resigned his chairmanship at the end of 2000. Keatley, to Kuok’s credit, continued to the end of his contract.
From that point the SCMP was up for sale. It took 15 years more for a buyer with the cash – and the political logic – to take the SCMP off Kuok’s weary shoulders.
Was Jack Ma misquoted?
In July 2013 the SCMP published a Chinese language interview of Jack Ma in which he justified the 1989 military violence against student protestors in Tiananmen Square as “the most correct decision.” The subsequent blowback on mainland websites led to Ma claiming he was misquoted and demanding a correction from the paper. SCMP’s mainland-born editor Wang Xiangwei refused. (SCMP announced that Wang would be replaced as editor as takeover negotiations commenced).
The tense relationship between Alibaba and the SCMP continued as the paper questioned Alibaba corporate practices and highlighted the complaints of fake goods hosted on its e-commerce platform. Alibaba’s attempt to list on the HK Stock Exchange in 2014 failed to satisfy HKSE regulators. The SCMP’s subsequent commentaries were not altogether flattering. (Alibaba was accepted on the New York Stock Exchange).
Good for China, good for Alibaba
On Dec. 12 the SCMP published a full page Q&A with the executive vice-chairman of Alibaba, Joseph Tsai. The platitudes on editorial independence were trotted out to reassure jittery journalists and sceptical readers.
But Tsai made two telling points which reveal the Alibaba agenda for the SCMP: that negative perceptions in Western countries about China reflect on Alibaba as a corporation, and that Western journalists view China through a distorted lens.
So the role for the Alibaba-owned SCMP is clear – correct the “imbalance” and “bias” in Western reporting on China and replace that mindset in its newsroom. The paywall will be removed so that anyone can access SCMP online freely. Digital amplification via mobile channels and social media networks will counter the dominant Western narratives on China and Alibaba. The newspaper will the digital bullhorn in the English language, aimed at Western audiences.
Replace Western newsmen
The SCMP newsroom for 112 years hosted editors and section heads from the UK, Ireland, Australia and the US. That has been whittled down with every successive editorial reboot under Kuok tenure since 1997. The few remaining Western editors and reporters will go as their contracts run out. Or perhaps faster under Alibaba.
Western journalists have a distaste for authoritarian governments and kleptocratic dictatorships. Most Asian and African journalists share that sentiment too. It is not a peculiar Western inclination. Independent, investigative journalism is inconvenient for demagogues and political mafia everywhere.
The late Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and the former strongman Mahathir Mohamad, who served for 22 years as premier in Malaysia, excoriated Western media for “interfering” in domestic politics. They easily intimidated local editors and reporters. Hacks willing to go along were rewarded with promotion and perks. There was no shortage of eager candidates in Singapore and Malaysia. Nor will there be in Hong Kong.
Does it make commercial sense?
Shaun Rein, of China Market Research Group in Shanghai, declared in a BBC interview that the deal does not look like investment value for Alibaba. “...they are a little lost. What is their strategy? Is it to integrate the newspaper into the rest of its business? I don’t see how they would do that given you can’t read the SCMP in mainland China right now.”
He conceded that there could be a strategic, relationship-building angle. “It might be a way of currying favour with the Chinese government.”
In an interview with the New York Times on Dec. 11, Joseph Tsai conceded: “The downside is limited. Even if we lose money, it won’t be material, but the upside is quite interesting.”
Cyril Pereira was a senior executive at the South China Morning Post from 1985 to 2001, serving as Operations Director and publisher of the company's Sunday Asia Magazine, which circulated across the region. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.