Hong Kong Media Fall to Pro-Chinese Owners

Beijing pushes friendly tycoons to buy up independent press

The Chinese government is tightening its grip on Hong Kong media by getting friendly companies to do national service by buying up control of the embattled territory’s television and newspaper companies, cementing control over the provision of information.

Phoenix Television, a major Hong Kong broadcaster, and Sing Tao News Corporation, which controls Sing Tao Daily, Hong Kong’s oldest Chinese-language newspaper, and the English-language tabloid The Standard, have been passed to new owners who are deemed to be pro-Beijing.

That further isolates Next Media, controlled by democracy advocate Jimmy Lai, who recently was sentenced to 14 months in prison and faces additional charges. Next Media operates the very popular Apple Daily, which has been a journalistic bulwark against the Chinese government’s tightening grip on Hong Kong.

On April 18, Phoenix Media Investment (Holdings), the company which operates Phoenix Television, announced its founding chairman Liu Changle, had sold his entire 37.9 percent controlling stake in the Hong Kong-listed firm for HK$1.16 billion (US$149 million) to two new shareholders. That comprises a 21 percent stake sold to Bauhinia Culture (Hong Kong) Holdings for HK$640 million and a 16.9 percent stake transferred to Shun Tak Holdings for HK$516 million.

Beijing’s increasing hold on Phoenix Television, which broadcasts news and entertainment in Mandarin and Cantonese, is underscored by the fact that Bauhinia Culture is headed by former Hainan province executive vice governor Mao Chaofeng and is a media company administered by the central government.

The chairman and chief executive of Shun Tak, which operates casinos in Macau, is Pansy Ho, a daughter of the late Stanley Ho who played a crucial role in making Macau the world’s biggest gambling hub. While Stanley Ho was a pro-Beijing tycoon who received honors from the Chinese government, his daughter is just as patriotic. When addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2019, she slammed the protests then roiling Hong Kong, saying Hong Kong students were “indoctrinated” with “hatred” for the police.

On April 18, Shun Tak announced it has bought 16.9 percent of Phoenix Media Investment and explained the reason for its investment, “(Phoenix Media) is one of the most established and influential media entities with an international viewership. It is a mass media entertainment conglomerate that commands leadership in multimedia production, internet media, digital and cultural content.”

“Following the acquisition, the group shall benefit from advanced insights and on-the-pulse perspectives gained, that can complement its vision of enriching its tourism-based offerings across China,” added the Hong Kong-listed casino operator.

In commercial terms, it makes no make sense for Shun Tak to buy a media firm like Phoenix, said an ex-banker based in Hong Kong. “Phoenix is so unrelated to Shun Tak’s core business. Shun Tak and Ho are used to being granted monopolies and concessions by the Macau government. Competing in open media isn’t attractive or necessary for them.”

It is likely that Shun Tak bought Phoenix Media at the wishes of Chinese leaders, said the source, who declined to be named.

“Ho’s businesses are not well diversified, so they are dependent on and vulnerable to government policy,” he added.” So Pansy must proactively prove herself to Beijing. And Beijing would prefer Hong Kong media outlets to be owned by reliable patriots rather than government.”

Besides Pansy Ho, another daughter of a pro-Beijing magnate has bought another Hong Kong media company.

On February 3, Sing Tao News Corporation announced its chairman Charles Ho had sold a 28 percent stake in the Hong Kong-listed newspaper company for HK$370 million to Kwok Hiu-ting, the 26-year-old daughter of Kwok Ying-shing, the founding chairman of Kaisa Group, a Chinese property firm listed in Hong Kong. Ho sold another 3.4 percent of Sing Tao to other shareholders. As a result of these two share sales, Ho has completely divested his holdings in Sing Tao, which owns Hong Kong’s oldest Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao Daily.

The younger Kwok is vice chairwoman of Kaisa Prosperity, a Hong Kong-listed property management firm related to Kaisa Group.

The purchase of a Hong Kong newspaper by a 26-year-old daughter of a tycoon bears partial similarities to the case of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s biggest English-language newspaper. Formerly, the Post’s chief executive was Kuok Hui Kwong (nicknamed Hui), a daughter of Robert Kuok, Malaysia’s richest man who previously was the newspaper’s proprietor. One decade ago when Hui was chief executive of the South China Morning Post, she was only in her thirties.

After Robert Kuok sold the South China Morning Post to Alibaba Group, the biggest Chinese e-commerce company, in late 2015, there are expectations that the newspaper would be sold again to a new owner. On March 15, Bloomberg reported that the Chinese government wanted Alibaba Group to sell some of its media assets including the broadsheet.

In an interview with Chinese state news agency Xinhua published on April 3, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said her government would step up efforts to “improve” Hong Kong’s education, media and civil service, saying this was crucial in restoring confidence in One Country, Two Systems. 

Press freedom is regarded as a core value of the Asian financial hub, which is supposed to maintain much autonomy under One Country, Two Systems, but there are fears it is being eroded. Hong Kong retained 80th spot out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2021 released by Reporters Without Borders on April 17, the same as last year. By comparison, China ranked 177 in the Index.

“The national security law that the Chinese government adopted in June 2020, allowing it to intervene directly in Hong Kong in order to arbitrarily punish what it regards as “crimes against the state,” is especially dangerous for journalists,” said Reporters Without Borders.

Jimmy Lai has been arrested and charged under the security law, the international nongovernmental organization added. On April 16, a Hong Kong court sentenced him to 14 months in prison, Asia Sentinel reported.

In the face of the imprisonment of its boss, Next Digital, the Hong Kong-listed firm which operates Apple Daily, is not standing idle. On April 19, Next Digital signed a non-legally binding memorandum of understanding (MOU) with an unnamed potential purchaser whereby Next Digital might sell Amazing Sino International, a company which owns the Taiwan version of Apple Daily and a property in Taiwan, to the potential purchaser.

“The proposed disposal is aimed to enable the group to rationalize and focus its resources on the group’s profitable operations which should, in turn, enable the Group to improve its overall business performance,” said Next Digital’s announcement.

A likely reason for this proposed sale of the Taiwan newspaper is to gain funds to keep Apple’s newspaper in Hong Kong operating, said a Singaporean executive who declined to be named.

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