The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is stepping up pressure on China’s Alibaba group to sell off its media assets including the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper, according to recent media reports.
Officials have been in talks with the company since last year, amid an ongoing clampdown on Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s power and influence that saw Beijing pull the plug on a planned U.S.$35 billion initial public offering (IPO) of shares in his financial affiliate Ant Group.
“Government officials are particularly upset about the company’s influence over social media in China and its role in an online scandal, involving one of its executives,” Bloomberg reported, citing a person familiar with the matter.
The Wall Street Journal has also reported that the government is asking Alibaba to offload a number of media assets, including online news sites, newspapers, television production companies, social media, and advertising businesses.
It reported that Chinese regulators were shocked at the extent of Alibaba’s media interests, and has asked the company to come up with a divestment plan.
Alibaba holds a major stake in social media platform Weibo and video-streaming platform Youku, as well as the English-language SCMP.
“Be assured that Alibaba’s commitment to SCMP remains unchanged and continues to support our mission and business goals,” Bloomberg quoted an internal SCMP memo from CEO Gary Liu as saying.
While Ma was initially lionized by state media as a loyal entrepreneur and billionaire, his huge wealth and power are increasingly being seen as a threat to CCP rule, analysts told RFA.
His criticism of financial regulation in China and Alibaba’s lightning-fast censorship of content referencing a scandal surrounding one of the company’s executives are seen by many in Beijing as a threat to CCP authority.
According to The Wall Street Journal, a recent investigation sparked concern after it found that Ant Group’s investors included Jiang Zhicheng, the grandson of Xi’s predecessor Jiang Zemin, and Li Botan, son-in-law of Politburo standing committee member Jia Qinglin.
A scholar who gave only the nickname Si Ling said the government is very worried about the extent of Ma’s power and influence.
“They want to avoid a repeat of the Southern Weekend incident [that saw concerted resistance to government censorship],” Si Ling said.
“They would feel more at ease if the media organizations currently controlled by Jack Ma were to come under the direct and total control of the CCP,” he said.
He said the intention would likely be to sell the SCMP off to a CCP-backed buyer, removing any trace of independent journalism, and replacing it with propaganda from Beijing’s Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong and long screeds on Xi Jinping Thought.
“That would involve sending personnel from CCP propaganda departments, or maybe from Xinhua news agency or the People’s Daily, to work in the offices of the SCMP,” he said.
Series of changes seen
Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), was once a journalist at Southern Weekend, which has been similarly reduced from delivering cutting-edge reporting to tamely parroting state propaganda.
He said such a drastic change at the SCMP is unlikely in the short term.
“The next step is to see who will take over [the SCMP], and how they deploy commercial methods, such as bringing in shareholders closer to the government, and larger advertisers, to exert control,” Fang told RFA.
“I personally think there won’t be an immediate change; rather a series of changes, the effect of which may take a long time to become visible,” he said.
The CCP is in the process of “re-educating” its already tightly controlled state media, requiring hundreds of thousands of journalists to sit an exam on the political thought of Xi Jinping to qualify for a new generation of official press cards.
The process started with a 2014 requirement for journalists to study Marxism, and followed up by Xi in 2016, when he warned during visits to state media organizations that state media are part of the CCP family.
All media operating in China must safeguard the authority of the Communist Party central committee, and adhere to “the correct direction” in forming public opinion, Xi said at the time.
Many journalists trace the beginnings of that process back to January 2013, when an op-ed article in the formerly cutting-edge Southern Weekend newspaper was forcibly expunged before publication, transforming a call for constitutional government and freedom of expression into a paean to the ruling party, and sparking a journalists’ strike and days of street protests.
Tuo Zhen, the propagandist who penned the replacement editorial, was recently promoted to editor-in-chief of CCP mouthpiece the People’s Daily.
China now ranks bottom in the world in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, and had the largest number of journalists behind bars, according to a 2020 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Reported by Cheng Yut Yiu for RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.Print