What's good for China isn't always good for Alibaba

Late last Friday night, Alibaba's Mr Jack Ma joined Amazon's Mr Jeff Bezos as the latest tech billionaire to acquire his own newspaper, by purchasing Hong Kong's South China Morning Post (SCMP) for US$266 million (S$374 million).

The paper is the semi-autonomous city-state's most influential English-language news outlet, as well as a long-time thorn in the side of the Chinese regime. That would appear to pose a problem for Alibaba, which thrives in part because of its good relations with the government.

Executive vice-chairman Joseph Tsai claims to see opportunity instead. "When people don't really understand China and have the wrong perception of China, they also have a lot of misconceptions about Alibaba," he explained to the New York Times.

So in theory, if the SCMP now presents a rosier picture of China and the Chinese economy, Alibaba's business should benefit as well. "What's good for China is also good for Alibaba," Mr Tsai insisted.

That's a fairly convoluted rationalisation for a multimillion- dollar acquisition. And it's unconvincing for one simple reason: The market for neutered coverage of China is exceedingly small and is becoming smaller.

If Mr Ma is really serious about revising perceptions of China and his company, then he's going to have to have the confidence to present the country in all its aspects, good and bad.

Needless to say, China doesn't lack for pro-government newspapers. From the earliest days of Communist Party rule, control of the media was a key lever of state power.

Newspapers established internal Communist Party committees; to this day, they receive regular guidance from national and local propaganda bureaus. In a pre-Internet age, this might have worked to shape perceptions within China. But the development of the Web and especially social media has dramatically weakened the government's ability to channel the flow of information.

Even today, under one of the world's most stringent online censorship programmes, China's hundreds of millions of netizens have become adept at seeking out sources of independent information.

In years past, the government simply forced citizens to subscribe to Communist Party newspapers and hoped that - lacking other reading material - they might embrace the party line.

Occasionally, officials still employ that strategy. In 2012, for example, one Chinese city required local brothels to subscribe to a bundle of party newspapers.

Regular Chinese aren't the only ones who've grown tired of state-devised propaganda: China's 90 million Communist Party members seem equally fed up. Back in November, People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, grew so alarmed by the fall-off in interest in milquetoast China coverage that it ran a soul-searching editorial titled, "Is it okay for party members not to read party newspapers?"

The piece wistfully observed the propensity of young cadres to spend their nights surfing Internet gossip sites rather than studying the latest directives from Beijing.

Meanwhile, despite the increasing professionalisation of top-end Chinese media, there's even less appetite abroad for filtered coverage of China.

State-owned China Daily, the self-described "voice of China", publishes daily and weekly English-language print editions in China, the United States, Europe, Asia and Hong Kong.

Yet according to a company website, only a third of its daily circulation of 200,000 comes from overseas.

International interest is so low that the paper famously pays other media organisations to carry the print edition as a supplement or - in the case of The Wall Street Journal - as a special online advertising section.

How far Alibaba will go to change the SCMP's editorial focus remains to be seen, of course. The paper is currently censored online in China.

If it wants access to mainland readers, it's going to have to accept the same low standard for coverage as China Daily and its brethren do. At that point, the SCMP would have little comparative advantage over its mainland rivals, which are likely to dominate the few scoops that the regime sees fit to dispense. And in the meantime, foreign readers who count on the paper for insight into China are almost certain to abandon the paper in droves.

The better option would be for Mr Ma to offer the paper's editors and writers the resources and freedom to pursue the China story wherever it leads - and to count on mainland readers to continue to find a way to access its stories. Such an approach would inevitably lead to some uncomfortable moments between Mr Ma and party officials.

But the benefits of defying expectations and showing that both China and one of its most high-profile companies are open to a freer press would be enduring and profitable.

For Mr Ma, a noted risk-taker, it's a bet worth taking.

BLOOMBERG VIEW

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2015, with the headline 'What's good for China isn't always good for Alibaba'. Print Edition | Subscribe