Malaysian Tycoon Dismembers HK Paper for Beijing

Why did Sarawak timber tycoon Tiong Hiew King stir up a hornet’s nest in Hong Kong by sacking the executive editor of Ming Pao, the once-respected Chinese language daily newspaper he owns, apparently over the publication of the Panama Papers?

The action by Chong Tieng Song, the Malaysian earlier made editor in chief of the paper, led to a near riot in the newsroom as 200 employees protested. To general derision, Chong claimed the decision was taken to save money and had nothing to do with the Panama Papers.

But two facts are beyond dispute, both of which point to an attempt by Tiong to curry favor with China. The most obvious is that Ming Pao published the names of various leading business and political figures in Hong Kong, including top government officials, from the cache of more than a million emails from the Panama City-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. Although Ming Pao is seen to have become less critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government since being acquired by Tiong’s Hong Kong-listed Media Chinese International (MCI) in 2008, it had continued to publish some stories viewed as embarrassing by the mainland.

In 2014, then chief editor Kevin Lau Chin-to was badly slashed by attackers who were later caught and sentenced, although the police failed to find who had paid them to do it. The motive seemed connected to Ming Pao articles.

The second, and probably equally relevant fact, is that on April 15 MCI made an announcement to the Hong Kong stock exchange extending until June 30 an exclusivity agreement between it and mainland based Qingdao West Coast Holdings. In January, it had been announced that Qingdao was in negotiations to acquire control of MCI from Tiong. That period of negotiation has had to be extended and Tiong may have seen it necessary to remove the likes of Keung to please the prospective mainland owner and exact a better price.

The apparent subservience to Beijing of an ethnic Chinese tycoon who owes his billions to the depleted forests of Sarawak courtesy of the state’s former Chief Minister Taib Mahmud ought to be a major worry for Malaysia. MCI controls three daily newspapers in Malaysia, including Sin Chiew Jit Po, the largest selling Chinese language newspaper. It also owns Harian in Indonesia, the weekly magazine Yazhou Zhoukan (once the stablemate of the now-shuttered English language Asiaweek). Ming Pao itself has editions in Canada and the US.

Doubtless mainland-owned Malaysian media would not dare point out that China’s sea claims and its marauding fishing fleets are a serious threat to Malaysia – and to Sarawak and Sabah in particular. Money making and ethnic pride often transcend loyalty to the nation.

Likewise the acquisition of a paper published in the US and Canada will make overseas Chinese media even more dominated by Beijing and its friends than they are already. Given China’s aggressive stances in Asia, and its contempt for western liberal institutions, this can only feed resentment against Chinese communities whether in SE Asia, Australia, the US or Canada.

Hong Kong already knows what happens when media are taken over by mainland groups. Today the splash headline in the South China Morning Post is an interview with the paper’s new owner, Alibaba chief Jack Ma, in which he expressed optimism about the Chinese economy. This follows an article last week on Ma’s charitable work – which just happened to replace an article on the June 4, 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.