When a Chinese company buys a major American magazine, does the publication censor its coverage of China? There is only one example so far, and the results are discouraging. In 2014, a Hong Kong-based investment group called Integrated Whale Media purchased a majority stake in Forbes Media, one of the United States’ best-known media companies. It’s hard to demonstrate causality in such cases. But since that purchase, there have been several instances of editorial meddling on stories involving China that raise questions about Forbes magazine’s commitment to editorial independence.
On Oct. 9, longtime China commentator and Communist Party critic Gordon Chang received an email from Avik S.A. Roy, the opinion editor at Forbes. “Due to a wide-ranging reorganization of Forbes’ content,” Roy wrote, “we are going to be concluding our official relationship with you.” Roy added, “As a result of the organization, the articles you’ve written for us will no longer be stored on the Forbes server nor appear at Forbes.com,” according to the email Chang forwarded to me at my request.
Many people who follow China — myself included — often disagree with Chang’s dire views of the country. That said, he’s a well-known China hawk. It’s very unusual for a publication to delete articles of a former contributor, unless there were credible allegations of editorial misconduct, which seems unlikely in this case. “I’m a huge fan of your work,” Roy wrote in his email to Chang. (Roy directed my queries to a Forbes spokesperson. In an emailed statement, the spokesperson said: “Your premise that the investors are interfering with Forbes’ editorial independence is simply wrong. Our investors respect Forbes’ editorial independence and they do not get involved with Forbes’ editorial decisions.”) It’s unclear why Forbes terminated Chang. “Forbes was very good to me,” Chang told me. “They would often promote my pieces and put them as the number one story on my website.” After 2014, however, “they basically stopped promoting me. I don’t know the motivation, but that’s what occurred.”
Consider also what happened to Forbes in February 2016, after then-contributor Anders Corr wrote an article comparing China to North Korea. Corr provided me with an email that he says came from a Forbes editor. “Your last post has some language the editors here feel is problematic,” the editor wrote, adding that it was “not accurate to say China impoverishes its people or to label Xi Jinping a dictator.” Whether China’s Communist Party Secretary Xi deserves the description “dictator” is debatable — though some prominent international affairs commentators think it’s an accurate description. An editor using the term “problematic” to describe an opinion writer’s opinions, seemingly with the intent of discouraging him from writing about controversial subjects, is, well, problematic. (The content of the email, which Corr forwarded to me, couldn’t be independently verified; the Forbes spokesperson didn’t specifically address Corr’s or Chang’s claims. “The contributor model drives Forbes.com, with content from contributors who are carefully vetted and onboarded,” she wrote.)
In July, Corr wrote a post about Asia Society trustee Ronnie Chan, alleging Chinese influence at the organization. Several days later, Forbes removed the piece, reportedly telling the news site Hong Kong Free Press that “it’s standard practice for us to remove articles if we feel there are certain issues — editorial or not — that we need to address.” Corr alleges that Chan pressured Forbes to take down the article, which could not be independently verified. Days later, Forbes terminated Corr. Asia Society referred questions about the incident to Forbes. (Disclosure: I am a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, but had no prior knowledge of the events described. I also applied for a job at Forbes in 2011).
As China grows increasingly powerful, its ability to constrain the free speech of organizations that wish to enter or flourish in the Chinese market grows in tandem. From tech giants to Hollywood studios to the American Bar Association, American organizations have censored themselves and their products to avoid offending Beijing. Forbes is far from the only media company to incite controversy with its China coverage. After Bloomberg published an excellent series on the family wealth of Chinese leaders in 2012, for example, Beijing retaliated by constraining the company’s ability to sell its lucrative terminals in China. The company then partially repudiated its earlier work. Sometimes “we … write stories that we probably may have kind of rethought — should have rethought,” Bloomberg chairman Peter T. Grauer said at the time. Yet Forbes, majority owned by a Hong Kong entity, has to contend with the possibility that officials in Beijing actively expect them to steer away from controversial China subjects.
Forbes’s reputational problems began before the 2014 purchase. The magazine drew flak for a contributor model that allowed writers to publish without any editorial input, forsaking the traditional gatekeeper model that editors play for writers. “I thought it was weird that I could literally publish anything,” a former Forbes contributor, who asked to remain anonymous, told me.
But the Hong Kong company’s purchase seems as if it weakened the publication’s reporting on China, and serves as a warning lesson for other formerly storied media outlets that might consider Chinese buyers in the future. Another former Forbes contributor who writes about China and asked to speak anonymously distinguished between the China coverage before 2014 and “the kind of China cheerleading in many of their posts today.” Ray Kwong, a senior adviser at the University of Southern California’s China Institute — and a Forbes blogger until 2013 — put it more succinctly. Coverage of China in Forbes these days, he said, “is disheartening and lame.”