Tsai’s role in prodding Taiwan closer to China, however, is far bigger than just his ballot. He not only has dozens of factories churning out rice crackers on the Chinese mainland but also controls a string of media properties in Taiwan that champion ever-closer ties between this boisterous island democracy and authoritarian but increasingly prosperous China.
“Whether you like it or not, unification is going to happen sooner or later,” said Tsai, the chairman of Want Want Group, a sprawling conglomerate comprising a giant food business, media interests, hotels, hospitals and real estate.
While opinion polls show that only a tiny minority of people in Taiwan want a swift merger with China, Tsai says he can’t wait: “I really hope that I can see that.”
Many Taiwanese tycoons now look to China for most of their profits, and the island’s wealthy cheered the election victory last Saturday of President Ma Ying-jeou against a rival who favors keeping Beijing at arm’s length. “Praise the Lord for showing that he cares about Taiwan,” Cher Wang, a devout Christian and multibillionaire businesswoman, told local media.
But only Tsai, Taiwan’s third-richest person according to a Forbes magazine ranking, has poured so much money into trying to shape opinion through media that, critics say, often echo the views of Beijing. He controls three Taiwan newspapers, a television station, various magazines and a cable network. A bid for a second, bigger cable operator is now under review by Taiwan’s National Communications Commission.
When China Times, a leading Taiwan newspaper Tsai purchased in 2008, published an article that described China’s top negotiator on Taiwan as “third rate,” the editor was promptly fired. Want Daily, a tabloid Tsai launched in 2009, provides a daily digest of mostly upbeat stories about China and the benefits for Taiwan of closer cooperation.
Journalists, said the tycoon in an interview in a Taipei hotel that he also owns, are free to criticize but “need to think carefully before they write” and avoid “insults” that cause offense. The dismissed editor, he said, was a talented writer but “hurt me by offending people, not just mainlanders. On lots of things, people were offended.”
Taiwan still has a vibrant press. The biggest-selling paper is Apple Daily, which is owned by Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong-based Taiwan mogul and pro-democracy advocate who is detested by Beijing.
Freedom House, a U.S. group that monitors liberties around the world, said in a report last year that “Taiwan’s media environment is one of the freest in Asia,” while China’s is “one of the world’s most restrictive.” But it also warned that growing commercial links across the Taiwan Strait, the narrow band of water between Taiwan and China, “raised concerns that media owners and some journalists were whitewashing news about China to protect their financial interests.”