Any SCMP sale would be just 'business decision'

Controlling shareholder Robert Kuok rejects talk linking politics to possible HK paper sale

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, is reported to be in the final stages of talks to buy SCMP.
Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, is reported to be in the final stages of talks to buy SCMP.PHOTO: REUTERS

Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok, whose family controls the South China Morning Post (SCMP), says any sale of the Hong Kong newspaper would be a "business decision", rejecting suggestions that political considerations are involved.

His comments come amid reports that Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, is in the final stages of talks to buy SCMP.

China watchers believe such a deal could be at least partially influenced by politics, as Beijing seeks to tighten its control of post-Occupy Hong Kong including its influential media.

When contacted yesterday, Mr Kuok, the 92-year-old patriarch of a sprawling empire that has held controlling shares in the English-language SCMP since 1993, told The Straits Times: "Where I am concerned, if SCMP (Group) feels that the time has come to offload their shares, it's a business decision. We have no influence on politics."

Mr Kuok was asked about comments that SCMP has been a political albatross around the neck of his conglomerate, which has vast business interests in China. The Beijing leadership keeps a close eye on the 112-year-old paper noted for its coverage of China and Hong Kong, while within the city, where media freedom is fiercely guarded, it is monitored for signs of censorship or self-muzzling.

It was the first time the tycoon had spoken on the rumoured sale.

Reports of the possible sale surfaced when mainland state paper China Daily wrote that Alibaba was in talks to invest in SCMP Group. Other media including Bloomberg, citing unnamed sources, later said talks are at an advanced stage.

Since Mr Kuok bought a 35 per cent stake in SCMP for US$349 million from media baron Rupert Murdoch 22 years ago, the broadsheet's fortunes have waned. Like other newspapers facing competition from online sites, it is battling dropping circulation numbers and uncertainty over its future direction.

Dr Willy Lam, a China politics specialist and a former SCMP China editor, says the clan has been looking to sell the paper in the past decade.

SCMP's director of marketing Michael Chu did not address queries on whether the reported sale is related to declining profits. But he ruled out any link between the sale rumours and recent editorial staff movements at the paper.

SCMP this month said its editor- in-chief of four years, Mr Wang Xiangwei, would be leaving in January. It comes on top of a recent exodus of staff.

Mr Chu said Mr Wang has decided to return to Beijing to be with his family, and that the staff movement "is a normal occurrence in any industry", adding: "There are no dots to connect."

But some have discerned connections between Mr Ma's purported interest in the Hong Kong newspaper and the central government's desire to bring the city to heel.

Dr Lam says it is part of a strategy by Beijing to increase mainland ownership of Hong Kong's media, to exert control over it as well as to project "Chinese soft power".

Says author Jonathan Fenby and former SCMP editor: "I have no inside knowledge but would expect that both parties would want to be sure of approval by Beijing, given the Post's position and the situation in Hong Kong.

"That apart, Jack Ma evidently sees ways of integrating the paper's resources with his operation."

Mr Ma - whose company has been a target of government regulators - could stand to reap political dividends from acquiring SCMP.

Many of the private equity firms that have invested in Alibaba are also packed with princelings, the offspring of Chinese leaders.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2015, with the headline 'Any SCMP sale would be just 'business decision''. Subscribe