- By Isaac Stone Fish
Isaac Stone Fish is associate editor at Foreign Policy. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, he wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea. His articles have also appeared in the International Herald Tribune, the Economist, and the Los Angeles Times.
In May 2010, when the Washington Post Company put Newsweek up for sale, it called for bids from interested parties. One surprising entry into the race was Southern Media Group, a Chinese media conglomerate that publishes the relatively liberal newspaper Southern Weekly, among other products. I was a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek at the time, and I remember several Chinese people asking me, with a mixture of pride and apprehension, whether I thought Southern Media Group had a chance. Unsurprisingly, the answer was no. (Newsweek was sold to stereo magnate Sidney Harman, who combined it with Barry Diller’s Daily Beast.)
"The prospective buyers are not wrong that they have a right to bid on an American news organization, but they are wrong that they had the remotest shot of succeeding," Evan Osnos wrote in a New Yorker blog post about the sale and Southern Media Group’s bid. "For the moment, the spiritual gap between them and American news organizations is larger than even the most sober Chinese media baron probably imagines. A sale of this kind is, for the moment, beyond imagination."
Fast-forward three years, and it’s worth revisiting the issue. The past week’s media news has upended the traditional notion of media ownership by publically traded companies seeking profitability. On Aug. 5, the Washington Post Company announced it will sell the Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million; the New York Times Company let go of the Boston Globe newspaper in a $70-million transaction involving businessman and Red Sox owner John W. Henry; and an even more beleaguered Newsweek found itself sold for an undisclosed amount to the company that publishes the International Business Times, an online publication that’s widely read — just not by journalists. (Foreign Policy, which is owned by the Washington Post Company, was not part of the Bezos sale.) While it’s too early to say whether the new owners of the Post and the Globe bought the papers as investments or prestige products, they are certainly aware that purchasing a media product is now a (relatively) cheap way to purchase influence.
Which brings us back to China, a country flush with cash and obsessed with the idea of soft power — influencing others in the world by attraction rather than payment or coercion. One of the major ways in which China has tried to increase its soft power is by spending billions of dollars bankrolling its media companies’ global expansion. Xinhua, China’s state newswire, often gives free dispatches to "financially struggling news media outlets in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia," according to the New York Times. China Central Television, the country’s main state broadcaster, has set up a U.S. division and hired dozens of people away from respected Western news outlets. A 2011 article in the Guardian reported that Beijing was distributing 2.5 million copies of a supplement of China Daily, the country’s best-known English-language newspaper, in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Daily Telegraph.
So will a Chinese company bid for the next media company to hit the block? I think it’s still very unlikely. The perception in the United States — that a Chinese media takeover would turn the publication in question into a propaganda mouthpiece — makes a sale difficult. I imagine the Onion‘s 2009 series, in which the satirical newspaper pretended to be purchased by a Chinese fish company, still rings true for Americans: The Onion‘s "publisher emeritus," T. Herman Zweibel, announced he had been paid "an appropriately absurd parcel of riches," and ran stories like "Nothing At All Happens To 28 Tibetan Protesters, Their Families" and "China Strong."
It’s also not the way Beijing likes to do business. Even if a Chinese media company found a willing seller in the United States, as companies in other industries have done, China would probably view the transaction as too risky. One of the advantages of expanding CCTV into the United States instead of buying an American media company is that the employees hired know that coverage of issues involving China is sensitive. Journalists from an established media company in the United States, on the other hand, would expect to be able to cover China with a greater degree of freedom than the country’s own straitjacketed media outlets are permitted. "The fundamental difference is that Western-style media views itself as a watchdog and a protector of public interests, while the Chinese model seeks to defend the state from jeopardy or questions about its authority," Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, told The New York Times last year. Owning a publication that couldn’t defend the Chinese state while maintaining its credibility is not a gamble Beijing would take, even if there is a Zweibel out there willing to make a deal.