A Chinese firm will need more than money and good intentions to buy a U.S. media company.
- By David WertimeDavid Wertime is a senior editor who manages Tea Leaf Nation, FP's channel dedicated to Chinese citizen and social media. David, a returned Peace Corps volunteer, founded Tea Leaf Nation as an independent media company in 2011, before it was acquired by the FP Group in 2013.
It won’t be the Grey Lady turning red. It may not be the self-anointed "capitalist tool" enduring a nominally Communist, and highly ironic, twist of fate. But while The New York Times easily shrugged off Chinese overtures, and Forbes may lend its hand to a different suitor, it’s getting easier to imagine some Chinese firm eventually making an acquisition offer too rich to refuse. With the immense amount of Chinese cash sloshing onto foreign shores — $14 billion in investment in the U.S. in 2013 alone — combined with the generally precarious financial state of even respected U.S. print and web media outfits that enjoy worldwide brand recognition, it’s no longer beyond the pale to envision some Western journalists collecting pay stubs issued by a Chinese company.
But money isn’t everything. The planned purchase of such a U.S. media company by a Chinese buyer will inevitably provoke not only political scrutiny, but concerns among journalists and the reading public about the editorial independence of the targeted asset and the safety of the information it husbands. A Chinese purchaser would have to navigate all of these minefields in addition to shelling out the lucre.
For years, Chinese investors have been kicking the tires on financially beleaguered U.S. media companies. Most recently, on Jan. 15, the Financial Times reported that Shanghai-based investment shop Fosun International was among a slate of finalists to purchase Forbes, Inc., the company that owns Forbes‘ print and web outlets and which put itself up for sale in November 2013. (A Forbes spokesperson declined to comment.) It’s eminently possible that Fosun’s won’t be the winning bid, but it isn’t the first attempt. In June 2010, the Southern Media Group put in a losing bid for ailing Newsweek. And in December 2013, colorful tycoon and self-proclaimed "Most Influential Person of China" Chen Guangbiao made a short and mostly risible bid to purchase the Times, one he abandoned Jan. 8 under a wave of domestic and foreign ridicule.
In each case thus far, prospective buyers have withdrawn after some combination of public opinion and financial reality supervened. There’s a reason for that; a Chinese purchaser of any media company will have to convince both readers and staff that it will be able to maintain its editorial independence, whether it’s reporting from China or about China, in Chinese or in English — all of which Forbes does. Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told Foreign Policy via email that China lacks "a strong concept of separation of church and state" where "keeping business and editorial concerns apart" are concerned.
The facts bear that out. Although they don’t yet have any direct influence on U.S. media, Chinese authorities have already shown themselves willing to put the squeeze on press elsewhere. That’s not just true of mainland media, which has been under Communist Party authority for decades; reporters in both Taiwan and Hong Kong have told CPJ that they feel self-censorship has worsened in the last several years under pressure from Beijing. On Jan. 20, some staff at respected Hong Kong paper Ming Pao printed blank columns to protest the sacking of their editor in what they felt was a blow to editorial independence intended to please Beijing. China also hasn’t shied from trying back-channel methods further afield, including the United States. An October 2013 report by NGO Freedom House describes a "transnational toolbox" that Chinese authorities use to influence China-related coverage abroad, including cyber-attacks and pressure via financially influential proxies like ad agencies, not to mention the old-fashioned phone call to bellyache about coverage. The Times has also felt Beijing’s wrath, after publishing an October 2013 expose of the family wealth of then-Premier Wen Jiabao in both Chinese and English. Some Times journalists have since faced difficulty getting Chinese visas, with some being forced to leave the mainland.
This kind of interference is vexing enough when it comes from a Beijing bureaucrat, but potentially unbearable from an immediate supervisor. Times reporters chortled at Chen, and have shown their willingness to go to the mat for press freedom. Forbes’ online outlet relies on an army of unpaid bloggers, but it also boasts on-the-ground reporters. The publication has also frequently reported on Chinese corruption, and according to one contributor, allows some writers to publish online before articles have been vetted. Any difference in this approach would register, and may cause the best practitioners to flee.
There’s also the question of information security. To be sure, companies that peddle written words, influential as they may be, don’t possess the same strategic import as atomic energy or banking, both industries in which foreign acquisitions have received review from a little-known Treasury Department body called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS. Daniel Rosen, a partner and co-founder at New York-based advisory firm Rhodium Group, says "there’s really no history" of CFIUS "having a problem with this kind of transaction."
But as Rosen also notes, media companies sit at the crossroads of a great deal of sensitive information, one likely reason Chinese hackers have previously struck at targets like the Times and The Washington Post. At major media outlets, government officials and well-placed anonymous sources frequently lodge off-the-record conversations that may find a home in a reporter’s notebook or inbox, even if they never reach publication. Some outlets have a policy requiring reporters to destroy their notes, while others do not. But emails are a tougher case: They can remain stored on a company’s servers for years, and are often retrievable even after a user has deleted them or left the organization. For their part, Chinese authorities have shown themselves willing to come down hard on leakers. In September 2013, award-winning Chinese journalist Shi Tao finally gained his freedom after serving over eight years in prison for leaking a propaganda directive to an overseas website. The evidence: emails sent from Shi to New York-based Democracy Forum, captured (and later shared with Chinese authorities) by provider Yahoo.
The buyer’s intent is also significant, and here Chinese suitors differ immensely. Fosun, which did not return a request for comment, is almost certainly not participating in an expensive bid — Forbes‘ asking price is reportedly in the low hundred of millions of dollars — so that it can snag a bunch of old emails. In a July 2013 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Fosun CEO Liang Xinjun explained that his company acquires foreign firms if it thinks it can "improve their value by helping them do well in China." Fosun probably just thinks it can improve Forbes‘ performance there, particularly the magazine’s vaunted list-making capabilities. Although Forbes‘ "rich lists" have brought it great attention, it has found itself behind the 8-ball in China, ceding mindshare to others like the upstart Hurun Report, founded in 1999 by a Luxembourg-born accountant.
But good intentions may not be enough. In June 2010, the same month state-owned Southern Media Group joined another Chinese bidder to attempt to buy Newsweek, the weekly’s then-owner (then the Washington Post Co., now called Graham Holdings Co., which currently owns FP) rejected the offer without disclosing why. It wasn’t enough that the bidder’s flagship paper, Southern Weekend, was (and is) seen domestically as liberal and somewhat pro-Western. After the deal died, the paper’s executive editor told a Chinese interviewer that the seller "genuinely does not comprehend the desires of Chinese media workers and institutions."
Even a future would-be purchaser that’s privately held, avowedly idealistic, but also China-based will have to live life under the thick shadow of Chinese authority. So, to some extent, would the affected journalists. They would be compelled to wonder what would happen if a Chinese official, instead of deploying sophisticated hackers to finger a source, simply picked up the phone and called their boss.