Tsai Eng Meng, who has a sprawling business empire, says he can’t wait for Taiwan’s merger with China. (Andrew Higgins/The Washington Post)

Shortly before Taiwan’s presidential election last weekend, Tsai Eng Meng, a local billionaire who spends most of his time in China, jumped in his Gulfstream 200 corporate jet and flew home to cast his vote.

More than 200,000 other Taiwanese businessmen based in China also rushed back, contributing to a comfortable victory by an incumbent president committed to rapprochement with China.

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.”

Wuerkaixi, a former Tiananmen Square student leader who now lives in exile in Taiwan, said he used to regularly get asked to write columns in China Times but not anymore after Tsai Eng Meng bought it. (Andrew Higgins/The Washington Post)

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.”

Economics first

Tsai denied currying favor with Chinese officials to advance his business and said he wants only to help Taiwan get over its wariness of the mainland. China “is very democratic in lots of places. Lots of things are not what people outside think,” he said, adding that it is “constantly moving forward” while “Taiwan progresses very slowly.”

Elections, he said, are fine, but economics should come first: “Most of us don’t want to become some sort of chairman or president. . . . From the standpoint of ordinary people, the most important thing is to eat a little better, sleep a little better and be a little happier.”

Tsai said he, too, used to fear China’s ruling Communist Party and didn’t want to risk doing business on the mainland, but that changed after the 1989 military assault on student protesters in Tiananmen Square. While the crackdown outraged most in Taiwan, Tsai said he was struck by footage of a lone protester standing in front of a People’s Liberation Army tank. The fact that the man wasn’t killed, he said, showed that reports of a massacre were not true: “I realized that not that many people could really have died.”

The party’s own propaganda apparatus made the same argument at the time, citing the tank incident as evidence of the military’s “humanity.” What happened to the unidentified man who faced down the tank is still not known. Hundreds of others were killed by the army elsewhere in Beijing on June 3-4, 1989.

Tsai has since moved most of Want Want’s operations to China, where the company employs more than 50,000 people, compared with 6,000 in Taiwan. It has 331 sales offices in China. In Taiwan, it has two. His corporate jet is painted bright red. Focused on selling food, Want Want “needs mouths,” Tsai said. “Taiwan has only 23 million people, but China has more than a billion. . . . The most important thing is that the mainland market is so big.” It generates more than 90 percent of his profits.

A more pro-China line

When Tsai first bought China Times and an affiliated television station, rumors spread that he had received encouragement and even money from Beijing, which was wary of the media group falling into the hands of Lai, the owner of Apple Daily.

Lai was near to signing a deal but lost out at the last minute when Tsai offered more money.

Tsai denied getting any help from Beijing. “I’ve already got money,” he said. “Why would I go and take their money?”

Since the takeover, the paper has nonetheless veered sharply toward a more pro-China line, say journalists who have worked there and media analysts. The goal, according to Want Want’s own company brochure, is to make China Times “the most influential Chinese-language daily” so as to “benefit the public” and “promote peace and harmony across the Strait.” Flora Chang, a professor at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Journalism, said Tsai’s media “are very biased” in favor of positive news about China.

Wuerkaixi, a former Tiananmen Square student leader who now lives in exile in Taiwan, said he used to regularly get asked to write columns in China Times but not anymore.

When a provincial Communist Party boss traveled to Taiwan from China in 2010, he got an effusive greeting from Tsai on the front page: “On behalf of colleagues at Want Want, I welcome the Hubei Province (Party) Committee Secretary.” The Chinese official, who visited CtiTV, a cable channel owned by Tsai, was invited to “give guidance.”

Tsai said he was just being polite and denied being obsequious to boost his business in China. “I don’t stroke the horse’s bottom,” he said, using a Chinese phrase for flattery.