The West Should Accept China’s Media Model

Why Alibaba’s takeover of the <i>South China Morning Post</i> will improve coverage of China.


In mid-December, the South China Morning Post (SCMP), one of the best-known English-language newspapers in Asia, announced that it will be acquired by China’s Internet giant, Alibaba, for roughly $266 million. That Alibaba is buying this venerable newspaper, founded in 1903, has raised eyebrows, especially in the West. Some think that Alibaba needs the goodwill of the Chinese government — and therefore will sacrifice the SCMP’s objectivity in order to curry favor with Beijing.

I see the acquisition from another angle.

In April, a senior journalist from a leading U.S. newspaper emailed me for my views on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) following London’s decision to break ranks with the United States regarding the AIIB. Initiated by China, the AIIB is a multilateral development bank with the aim of funding infrastructure projects. I replied that Washington was misreading Beijing’s proposal as a move against the United States. It should be viewed instead as an economic necessity because of Asia’s huge infrastructural needs in the coming decades. My reply was ignored, probably because it did not fit into a prevailing view of China’s intentions.

It is not unusual for the Western media to see China through the lens of Western values — in other words, what China should be, rather than what China is. This is not good for either side because it leads to misunderstanding and miscalculation. What Beijing does has to be assessed with China’s own history and culture in mind. For example, its One Belt, One Road strategy seeks to revive the old overland and maritime silk roads for the 21st century on the basis of historical experience. It is now being played out on an epic scale and has the potential to transform Eurasia. Chinese trade has ebbed and flowed with the rise and fall of Beijing’s power over the centuries. From that perspective, the One Belt, One Road initiative, which AIIB will help finance, is not a new story at all.

Earlier epochs of Chinese trade were based on the countries involved maintaining their own jurisdictions. In sharp contrast, 19th-century trade with China was different — because gunboat diplomacy imposed it. The United Kingdom wrested Hong Kong from China in 1842 after the First Opium War. After the Second Opium War ended in 1860, Western customs officials operating extraterritorially would inspect ships docking at major Chinese ports.

The idea behind the One Belt, One Road initiative is similar to that of the earlier periods of Chinese trade and in some ways is analogous to the modern Internet. Each country maintains its own internal operating system. Participants accept higher protocols (like trade rules, property rights, dispute settlement) enabling economic exchange to take place. Countries still influence each other — but slowly, on the basis of persuasion and osmosis. This is not to say that military strength is not needed to protect trade routes. A larger peace is always a precondition, but the dominant consideration is economic, not conquest or colonization.

This noninterference in each other’s operating system has been a principle in China’s diplomacy over the centuries. When China launched free trade negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2002, then-Premier Zhu Rongji said that China did not seek for itself an exclusive position in Southeast Asia. He added that the terms should be changed should the agreement lead to an imbalance in China’s favor. And at a December summit meeting with African leaders in South Africa, President Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in aid to African countries, emphasizing that China would not interfere in Africa’s domestic politics.

Western observers are naturally skeptical of Zhu’s and Xi’s statements, often seeing China’s moves as cynically self-serving and amoral, if not immoral. China’s moves are indeed self-serving. In Chinese statecraft, good relations must be based on mutual interest. Historical experiences have taught the Chinese that no good comes out of interfering in the internal affairs of others when China’s own interests are not affected.

Beijing’s approach to interstate relations is conceptually different from that of the West, and especially that of Washington. The United States, for example, sets for itself the goal to convert others to its democratic values. Unlike China, it is a missionary power.

It behooves the West, and indeed all the major powers, to objectively analyze and understand China and its attitude toward Hong Kong. Alibaba’s acquisition of the SCMP should be seen against the history of Hong Kong’s evolution from a British colony to a special administrative region of China. When Hong Kong was a British colony, the SCMP was the establishment newspaper reflecting London’s worldview. Under press tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who privatized the SCMP in 1987, the London worldview became an Anglo-Saxon one. In 1993, Robert Kuok, an overseas Chinese from Southeast Asia, became controlling shareholder. Coverage of China improved hugely. The worldview of the SCMP became that of “one country, two systems” — the governing policy of Beijing toward Hong Kong — but from a local, Hong Kong perspective. Owners exercise influence through leadership changes, not through editorial interference. The question is what kind of influence Alibaba owner Jack Ma will wield in the coming years.

After 1997, when Britain returned Hong Kong to China, the SCMP’s role in Hong Kong diminished in importance compared with that of local Chinese newspapers. Hong Kong government leaders are now more concerned about coverage in the Chinese newspapers, read by the great majority of the city’s 7 million people. However, the SCMP‘s importance to English-language readers in Hong Kong and beyond has grown because of its mainland coverage. It is today the best English-language newspaper in the world covering China. No other paper devotes more time and space for China than the SCMP does. Roughly two-thirds of its fast-growing digital readership is outside Hong Kong and China.

Ma must respect the aspirations of Hong Kongers under one country, two systems, especially as Hong Kong approaches 2047, when Hong Kong’s separate status will be decided. What happens after that is a matter between Beijing and Hong Kong or, more broadly, between the people of mainland China and the people of Hong Kong. Will Basic Law 2.0 be an improvement over Basic Law 1.0 or a diminution? Or will it be withdrawn? As a newspaper with influence over an important segment of Hong Kong society, the SCMP‘s worldview has to internalize this existential challenge, which requires an objective appraisal of China’s prospects in the coming decades.

This objective view of China makes the SCMP an important newspaper for English-language readers interested in following the dramatic transformation of China. If Ma interferes in the SCMP‘s editorial policy, the newspaper will lose not only its relevance but also its economic value. Alibaba’s future is enmeshed in China’s future. It is in Alibaba’s interest — and in China’s — for the rest of the world to see China for what it is, warts and all, because what happens in China will affect us all.



SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

George Yeo is the chairman of Kerry Logistics, which is part of Robert Kuok's Kerry Group, and a former foreign minister of Singapore.

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