BASED IN Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post has a distinguished 112-year history as an independent news source, in English, about China. For many years it served as a kind of one-step-removed free press for the giant Communist nation next door, whose journalists were under direct state control or not at liberty to tell the truth as they saw it. To be sure, the Morning Post has gradually lost its edge in the years since Great Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997; a steady squeeze by Beijing on the paper’s owners, reporters and advertisers made sure of that. But now there is reason to fear that even this dimmed beacon is about to be snuffed out.
Chinese Internet mogul Jack Ma’s company, Alibaba, has just announced plans to buy the paper from the Malaysian businessman who has owned it since 1993. There was bound to be cause for concern about the future editorial independence of the Morning Post simply because of Mr. Ma’s close ties to the Beijing government — to whose censorship and other strictures he readily submits his various Web retail, messaging and other enterprises, and whose protectionist policies shield Alibaba from competitors such as Amazon, Google and Facebook. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.)
Mr. Ma’s second-in-command, Joseph Tsai, did nothing to contradict such concerns by simultaneously promising editorial independence and offering his strong view of how news about China should be reported: “mainstream Western news organisations cover China . . . through the lens that China is a communist state and everything kind of follows from that. . . . We see things differently, we believe things should be presented as they are.” Of course, “the way things are” is that China is a communist state. A key Alibaba financial adviser, Eric X. Li — known for his pro-Communist Party political commentary — observed that “media coverage of China in the West has been too ideological and biased,” and that the Morning Post under Alibaba’s ownership would “give the paper a unique and powerful vantage point to offer global readers a more pluralistic and realistic view of China.”
Under the circumstances, the Hong Kong Journalists Association was right to declare itself “concerned that a control of South China Morning Post by Alibaba Group will further compromise press freedom in Hong Kong.” Perhaps it’s true that Mr. Ma really does intend to risk annoying his home country’s authorities, who have not hesitated to arrest and imprison mightier personages than he. Perhaps he does intend to produce untrammeled reportage about government and business in China, the better to draw attention to his e-commerce business and, perhaps, stir the cause of reform in China.
On the other hand, it may well be that the South China Morning Post is about to be molded into a pseudo-private instrument of the Chinese state’s “soft power,” much as Alibaba itself has helped launder Beijing’s image and co-opt potential foes through a splashy stock offering in the United States. This would represent another step in China’s march not only to control the news that people in China can see but also, through media ownership, visa denials and other methods, to limit free debate about China throughout the world.