Media at the centre as China tightens controls

Jan 06, 2021 at 05:38 pm by Staff


Two Asian media moguls are feeling the brunt of China's push for greater control in the region.

Jimmy Lai - who has Apple Daily editions in Hong Kong and Taiwan - has already been arrested under new laws in the SAR, while Alibaba chief Jack Ma is unusually keeping a low profile.

Ma has not been seen in public since a speech in late October in which he criticised China's regulatory system, a move said to have driven the suspension of the US$37 billion float of its Ant Group financial arm. He is also reported to have been missing from a November episode of game show Africa's Business Heroes, an absence credited to a "scheduling conflict" but now attracting notice.

Although best known as China's - possibly the world's - biggest ecommerce operator, Ma also controls Hong Hong's English-language South China Morning Post, which has taken a leading role in recent years as an "explainer" of Chinese affairs, especially to its fast-growing digital audience.

Ma has said he bought the Post because of his love for Hong Kong, but there is no doubt that he and Lai both want a role in influencing events there, and in Taiwan, the independence of which China disputes and which it wants to reclaim.

With its box seat at the democracy protests of 2019-20, the SCMP has just released a four-part documentary, China's Rebel City, telling the dramatic story of what it describes as "a city at the crossroads". Director of video Mat Booth says the publisher had amassed "thousands of hours" of video footage, producing more than 450 news videos since June 2019, and building its YouTube channel to more than a million subscribers.

It is understood that a major conflict between Alibaba/Ant and the mainland government is over control of the vast quantities of consumer data it holds, essential to its success in ecommerce.

Both the SCMP - which Alibaba bought for US$255 million just over five years ago - and the Chinese-language Apple Daily editions have long been noted for quality, not least that of their printed editions. Brilliant colour reproduction - the result of painstaking individual retouching - and investment in print and training put both Apple Daily editions in a class of their own, making them clear winners in technical competitions across the region including Australia. Both Apple Daily and the SCMP have offices and plant in crowded Hong Kong, while Apple Daily Taiwan's publishing business Next Digital has a remote print centre north of Taipei.

Apple Daily's offices in Hong Kong were raided in August, when Lai and chief operating officer Royston Chow Tat-kuen and chief administrative officer Wong Wai-keung were arrested and initially remanded until April.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: The normally extrovert Jack Ma in a martial arts film in 2018 (see GXpress Ma's billionaire fist is death to basketball)


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