Jack Ma Yun, founder and CEO of the Internet-based Alibaba Group, is the first mainland entrepreneur to appear on the cover of Forbes magazine. In 2014, he was the country’s wealthiest man (excluding Hong Kong) with a fortune estimated at US$24.1 billion (S$34 billion), and the 18th richest person in the world.
On Dec 11, the Alibaba Group agreed to pay HK$2.06 billion to acquire the widely read and revered 112-year-old Hong Kong English-language newspaper South China Morning Post (SCMP) — which has about 4 million website visitors per month, of which two-thirds come from outside Hong Kong and the mainland; and a print readership of about 100,000 — and all other media assets owned by SCMP Group. The acquisition has expanded Alibaba’s multiple media assets to 25.
Ma has said that his initial intention with this deal is to improve China’s image and provide a different perspective from other Western media.
Analysts believe that Alibaba is trying to diversify and decentralize the company’s layout to create a positive image.
I personally believe the challenge of burnishing the image of China globally and maintaining the SCMP’s editorial independence may be more difficult than boosting Alibaba’s bottom line, considering Ma is already admitted into the pantheon of the super-rich.
But it is reassuring to hear Alibaba’s executive vice-chairman Joseph Tsai say that “in reporting the news, the SCMP will be objective, accurate and fair” and “day-to-day editorial decisions will be driven by editors in the newsroom, not in the corporate boardroom”.
China cares about the country’s image in the eyes of the world and wishes to counter any negative perceptions.
But the country also needs to reflect in a mature manner on the feedback it receives from the outside world in order to attain the international status that befits the second-biggest economy in the world.
It is in this respect that a newspaper of record such as the SCMP, famed for its editorial excellence and independence, can play a crucial role.
In actual practice, while the SCMP will be answerable to Alibaba, an intelligent balancing of SCMP and mainland media coverage can only reflect well on China.
The privileged access of the SCMP in this regard will only propel this storied paper to new heights.
The combination of political power and media is hardly a new phenomenon.
As a matter of fact, media baron Rupert Murdoch has practically refined it to an art form. It remains to be seen if Ma’s delicate touch in business can be transferred to the media world.
He can look up to a more recent example in Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos, who took over (for US$250 million) The Washington Post in 2013, also with the aim of expanding it beyond a daily newspaper.
However, Ma would be wise not to exploit the SCMP’s prestige as purely a money-spinning tool, nor to allow it to degenerate into a blatant propaganda tool, even if by proxy.
Ma is right to capitalise on Alibaba’s digital technology to take the SCMP to the next level, especially on mobile devices. To grow the readership globally, the paywall on SCMP.com will be scrapped.
His media investment strategy of combining TV, radio, newspapers, websites, film, video, new media and e-commerce has demonstrated the viability of a new business model in the “Internet Plus” age.
He should be praised for pioneering ways of leveraging the Internet to help traditional industries in transition.
From now on, Ma will have an even closer relationship with our city.
His acquisition of the SCMP is a strategically smart move for Alibaba to vie for global influence, a necessity for Beijing to have more say in global affairs.
The positive fallout for us is that Hong Kong becomes a more vibrant world-class media center.
The energetic tourist guide, who enjoyed interacting with visitors to China not that long ago, is fast proving himself to be not just a visionary in technology, commerce and media, but possibly a patriot as well.
The author is an independent scholar and freelance writer. She is also the founder and president of the China-US Friendship Exchange, Inc.