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With A Japanese Owner, How Will the Financial Times Fare in China?

The FT has been remarkably successful in China. That could change.

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Earlier this morning, the Chinese journalist George Chen messaged a Chinese media official with some news. Word had just broke that Financial Times, a publication almost as venerable in China as it is in the United States and the United Kingdom, had been sold to the Japanese business media group Nikkei, as part of a deal worth roughly $1.3 billion. The deal’s suddenness came as a surprise to many in the U.S. and European media world – earlier on Thursday, The FT itself had reported that German media group Alex Springer was close to reaching a deal to purchase the paper. It also shocked some in Beijing, where the sale could have big implications not only for FTChinese, the newspaper’s influential Chinese edition, but for the FT’s coverage of China, one of the world’s most important business stories. Chen told me the official reacted with shock and disappointment, uttering “no way, no way,” and then running to go tell his boss.

Japanese ownership is potentially a black mark for a publication that has been unusually successful among foreign media outlets in staying on the good side of China’s leadership. In mid-April, Beijing granted the FT an exclusive interview with Premier Li Keqiang – a nice get, especially considering how reluctant top Chinese leaders are to give interviews with Western media. (The FT also scored an interview with then Premier Wen Jiabao in 2009.) “After the interview, many people in China felt that, oh, if the Premier is happy to speak to the FT the Chinese government considers it more friendly” than other Western outlets, Chen told me. But with the sale, he added, that could change. A Chinese media worker, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, agreed. “I think the FT will have more problems with Chinese officials,” she said. (An FT spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Japan and China remain at diplomatic loggerheads almost 70 years after the conclusion of World War II, which saw repeated Japanese atrocities visited upon Chinese soldiers and civilians. China feels that Japan has never sufficiently apologized, and this Sept. 3, for the first time, China will mark a national holiday to mark the anniversary of the war’s end. Tensions with Japan sometimes result in Japanese owned companies in China taking the brunt of local rage: amidst anti-Japanese riots in late 2012, Chinese set fire to a Panasonic factory in Qingdao, and looted a Toyota dealership, among other acts of rage. If the relationship between China and Japan sours further, the Chinese media worker told me, so might FT’s position in China.

The story of the sale, which broke late in the evening, Beijing time, was far from big news in Chinese newspapers or social media platforms. But the deal “will hugely impact” Japan’s ability to increase its soft power globally, Chinese economist Zhao Xiao wrote on the Twitter-like Weibo. (Among other Weibo comments to FT Chinese’s online announcement of the impending acquisition were jokes. The paper’s popular “Lunch with the FT” will now be Japanese food, one wag wrote; many others mocked China’s inability to buy, or build, a non-“harmonious” newspaper of its own.)

It’s too early to predict what change, if any, the new parent company will exert on FT’s China coverage; FT Group Chief Executive John Ridding said recently that his employer was only negotiating with potential owners that would protect the newspaper’s editorial independence, and there’s no reason to suspect at this point that Nikkei would water down the FT’s coverage, or, alternatively, take a harsher stance on China.

But Beijing’s frosty relationship with Tokyo could crimp the paper’s ability to report in the mainland, by constraining its access to relevant officials. Beijing considers a media outlet’s reputation — and its perceived friendliness to the motherland — when assessing interview requests for Chinese officials, and when calibrating government treatment of a media outlet’s journalists. Because of the New York Times’ hard-hitting reporting on the wealth of the families of top Chinese officials, for example, that paper’s reporters have faced difficulties getting visas to report in mainland China, and have found their access to Chinese bureaucrats diminished.

It’s a risk factor, however small, that the FT’s new owners may have already considered. But it’s hard to overstate the depth of Chinese resentment toward Japan, or the degree to which Chinese officials are willing to pressure media they feel runs afoul of their priorities. After the sale, Richard McGregor, FT’s former Beijing bureau chief now on leave from the paper, tweeted that the Nikkei has “a great track record at home,” but asked whether the company can “manage a foreign media culture?” He was talking about the United Kingdom, where the FT has traditionally been based. But he might as well have been talking about the People’s Republic.

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Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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