Alibaba’s Ma in talks to buy HK newspaper

‘GRAVITATIONAL PULL’::Jack Ma’s ownership of the ‘South China Morning Post’ could further erode the independence of the media in Hong Kong, analysts said

NY Times News Service, HONG KONG

Thu, Nov 26, 2015 - Page 15

Alibaba Group (阿里巴巴) chairman Jack Ma (馬雲) is in talks to buy the South China Morning Post, an influential English-language newspaper based in Hong Kong, according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussions.

It has not yet been decided whether the buyer would be Ma or Alibaba, the person said on Tuesday. Any deal for the Hong Kong newspaper would have a political dimension.

A deal could be weeks or even months away, said the person with knowledge of the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were private, adding that the talks could also fall apart.

Nevertheless, talks between the two sides have made “significant progress” in recent days, the person said.

Alibaba declined to comment.

A deal has been the subject of media speculation for much of the past month after news of the possible acquisition was reported in the China Daily, an official Chinese newspaper, on Nov. 9.

Having Ma make the investment personally would mean that only one company’s board — the newspaper’s — would need to approve it.

“For him, it’s like pocket change,” the person said.

A deal for the South China Morning Post, the person said, would fit in with Alibaba’s broader holdings.

The company owns stakes in Chinese Internet sites with a media bent, like Youku Tudou Inc (優酷土豆), and Sina Weibo Corp (新浪微博).

The person said the South China Morning Post had a good brand and that the takeover “might lead to some synergy,” adding that any such advantages would be easier to realize if Alibaba were the buyer.

However, the companies have drastically different audiences. Despite having a Chinese-language service, the South China Morning Post is primarily focused on the limited English-speaking market in Hong Kong, although its coverage of China is read globally. Content on Youku, Tudou and Sina Weibo is overwhelmingly in Chinese.

The main concern among some people who study the Chinese and Hong Kong press is that ownership of the newspaper by Ma or Alibaba could further erode media independence in Hong Kong. Chinese enterprises have been deepening their stakes in the local industry, and journalists in the territory say that they are feeling increasing pressure to soft-pedal issues deemed provocative by the Chinese Communist Party.

At times, Ma has been an outspoken critic of Beijing. When major state-owned banks took aim at his financial business, he accused the banks of failing to keep pace with market reforms.

Still, Ma walks a fine line.

In a 2013 interview, he told the South China Morning Post that the Chinese government’s move to suppress the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square demonstrations, in which hundreds of people died, was “the most correct decision” under the circumstances.

While Ma said he avoids doing business with the government, some of the investors in Alibaba ahead of its initial public offering last year had ties to China’s ruling families, the New York Times reported at the time.

“Obviously, we’ll have to watch and see what impact a Jack Ma or Alibaba stake in the South China Morning Post could have on its editorial line, and particularly its coverage of China,” said David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project Web site at the University of Hong Kong.

“But in recent years, the gravitational pull of Chinese business interests has already had a very real negative effect on editorial independence in Hong Kong,” Bandurski said.