On Tuesday, Politico announced a content-sharing partnership with the Hong Kong-based newspaper South China Morning Post (SCMP). “POLITICO readers will see on our pages today something new and important: the first stories reflecting the publication’s commitment to illuminating the U.S. relationship with China,” the publication’s editors wrote in a statement. In explaining their choice of partnership, the editors called the SCMP “the only independent English-language publication in the region.”
Someone forgot to do their fact-checking: The SCMP is not strictly independent.
The paper is owned by the Chinese Internet giant the Alibaba Group, which runs the country’s most popular e-commerce platform, as well as many other businesses. Alibaba is often compared to Amazon, since the two companies are roughly the same size and operate in some of the same spaces. And Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns a newspaper as well — The Washington Post.
But there is a major difference between a Chinese company and an American investor owning a newspaper. Despite President Trump’s criticisms, Amazon and Bezos are permitted to anger and provoke Trump. Operating with the permission of China’s ruling Communist Party, Alibaba does not have that same luxury with Party Secretary Xi Jinping — China’s president — and other top Party bosses. Like every major Chinese company, Alibaba must work with the Party to succeed. While speaking English, Alibaba founder Jack Ma sounds like a tech entrepreneur. In his native Chinese, he sometimes sounds like a die-hard Party advocate.
In November, for example, Ma spoke reverently about “studying” a recent report by Xi. “The report clearly showed us the future direction; it’s the historical promise and assumption of responsibility that our Party makes to the people,” he said turgidly.
Ma’s need to maintain a good relationship with the Party shows in the SCMP’s coverage since Alibaba announced its purchase in December 2015. In July 2016, the newspaper published a story, without a byline, claiming the then-detained Chinese activist Zhao Wei “regretted” her decisions and “repent[ed]” for what she did — at a time when her family couldn’t even reach her.
And perhaps unsurprisingly — but sad nonetheless — the SCMP has increased its positive coverage of Alibaba. In an interview, the paper’s CEO, Gary Liu, denied that Alibaba’s ownership negatively impacted the paper’s coverage of China, or influenced its coverage of Alibaba. “We believe our accountability is to inform the world what’s going on in China, whether it’s good or bad,” Liu said. (Alibaba didn’t respond to a request for comment.) For its part, Politico said in emailed statement from Editor in Chief John Harris: “We approached this partnership very purposefully … We will continue to write fearlessly and aggressively about the China-U.S. relationship in Politico style.”
At least Politico got the “English-language part” right in its announcement. In September 2016, the SCMP ended its Chinese-language coverage and deleted its Chinese archives — a decision many, myself included, interpreted as a decision motivated by a desire to please Beijing by reducing the spread of sensitive content on the mainland. (The site was “absolutely shut down for financial reasons,” Liu said.) “The SCMP management faced the impossible job of trying constantly to please both Beijing on the one side, and discerning readers and media critics on the other,” the editor in chief of FTChinese.com Wang Feng wrote at the time.
That’s not to say that the SCMP is a paper without merit. The newspaper does cover sensitive subjects, such as the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre, that mainland publications rarely even allude to. The paper still boasts excellent journalists. But the space for them to report on China’s most sensitive issues — Xi’s grip on power, democratizing China, the mistakes and foibles of the top leaders – is shrinking.
Alibaba executives regularly deny meddling with the editorial content of the paper. If one takes their denials at face value (a bad policy for anyone who’s trying to report on corporations anywhere), executives still speak about the PR gains. “Our business is so rooted in China, and touches so many aspects of the Chinese economy, that when people don’t really understand China and have the wrong perception of China, they also have a lot of misconceptions about Alibaba,” Alibaba’s executive vice chairman Joseph C. Tsai told the New York Times after the sale was announced.
More likely, Ma and top Alibaba execs bought the paper as part of Beijing’s strategy to increase positive coverage and decrease negative coverage of China and the Party. Alibaba needs the goodwill of the Party to succeed. Politico does not. Why tarnish the brand?