Will Cai (蔡華) is a pedigreed insider in China, where he clerked on the nation’s highest court and went on to become a high-profile merger and acquisition lawyer. That has not made it any easier to run a news Web site at a time of the nation’s worst media repression in years.
His site, Initium Media (端傳媒), debuted in early August last year and the next week an explosion hit the northern city of Tianjin. His editor-in-chief Zhang Jieping (張潔平) quickly dispatched three journalists to the scene, where toxic chemicals stored in a warehouse had erupted in a fireball that spewed debris and poisons over nearby apartments. The reporters slipped past security cordons to write about the disaster that claimed more than 150 lives and then reported on the connections of the warehouse owner. Within days, Initium’s Web site was blocked in China
Zhang and Cai never heard directly from Chinese officials, but they are convinced the nation’s increasingly strict censors cut off Chinese readers. Since then, the Hong Kong company has had to shift its business model and editorial approach. It is focusing on Chinese-speaking readers outside China and has pulled its reporters out of the nation, using freelancers to cover less sensitive culture stories.
Illustration: June hsu
“On the one hand, that meant we are doing some good, serious journalism. On the other hand, we must now really focus on the overseas Chinese market,” Cai said. “We are hopeful that gradually China will open up its media market.”
The Cyberspace Administration of China did not respond to a request for comment.
China is in the midst of a media crackdown, with tightened censorship, blocked Web sites and televised confessions from reporters.
Nevertheless, the country’s media industry is booming. China’s biggest Internet companies and start-ups like Initium are making record investments in news, movies and online television shows to satisfy the growing demands of Chinese consumers.
Venture firms put US$2.71 billion into Chinese media deals last year, more than five times the average during the previous four years, according to PitchBook Data Inc.
Alibaba Group Holding, whose primary business is e-commerce, has acquired Hong Kong’s largest English-language newspaper, a video streaming Web site and a television and movie production company.
Alibaba chief executive Daniel Zhang (張勇) refers to the company as an “e-commerce media ecosystem.”
“There is such pent up demand by the emerging middle class for culturally relevant fare that investors are right to scramble,” J. Walter Thompson Co advertising agency’s Asia Pacific chief executive Tom Doctoroff said.
China has more than 1 billion mobile phone users, looking for content beyond the traditional television stations and news outlets that have been under tight state control since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949.
Investors are betting they can profit from developing the nation’s own versions of Netflix, YouTube, Snapchat and Vice Media.
“The widespread use of smartphones in Greater China has created a tremendous opportunity for digital media,” said Marcus Brauchli, former executive editor of the Washington Post and founder of North Base Media Ltd, which has invested in a Taiwan-based news site. “For many younger users the traditional media brands either aren’t well known or are tainted by association with governments or political allegiances. They’re looking for fresh, honest and engaging content, for voices and viewpoints.”
Cai grew up in Fujian Province on the southeast coast of China. His father managed a small factory, working so many hours his son rarely saw him. The younger Cai took an interest in law and became a clerk for China’s highest court. He went on to Stanford University law school in California and later joined Skadden Arps Slate Meagher and Flom LLP in Hong Kong. He has worked on some of China’s biggest tech deals, including last year’s US$15 billion merger between the group-buying site Meituan.com and restaurant-review service Dianping.com.
Cai always dreamed of owning a Chinese-language newspaper and founded Initium as a high-brow Internet news site, with aspirations to make it his nation’s answer to The Economist. He has raised US$3.7 million in venture capital and plans an expansion into video production and movies in the future.
“I had a mid-life crisis,” said the 39-year-old, who has kept his day job as a Skadden lawyer. “This is better than buying a sports car.”
To staff the site, he hired some of the highest profile Chinese reporters working in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The editor-in-chief Zhang, who is also known as Annie, won acclaim for her coverage of the push for democracy in a small southern Chinese village called Wukan.
Cai has said he will not interfere with the outlet’s daily news operation.
In its nine months of operation, the site has already been criticized both for being too antagonistic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and too supportive.
Apple Daily, a Hong Kong newspaper owned by Jimmy Lai (黎智英) and critical of China’s rulers, accused Cai of having secret ties to Chinese backers and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
Cai has denied the allegations.
Zhang said the news site is working to find its place as the CCP cracks down on any sign of disloyalty.
“I want to not be close to the party, but not against the party,” she said. “The middle road is empty.”
The block on Initium’s site puts it in the company of Western media outlets such as the New York Times and Bloomberg. The Economist magazine’s site was cut off this month after it ran a cover story entitled “Beware the Cult of Xi” with an illustration of the president in Mao Zedong (毛澤東)-era dress.
Still, Zhang estimates as much as 20 percent of Initium’s readers are from China, evading censors with virtual private network software.
The block means additional challenges for Cai in building a profitable business. Initium is now focused on Chinese readers outside China with plans to expand within the nation in the future. The company aims to generate money from advertising and revenue sharing with e-commerce partners. In a sense, getting shut out reinforced Cai’s plans.
“Blocking our Web site just confirmed our understanding of the overall regulatory environment,” he said.
Cai said the Web site has about 2 million unique visitors per month and 110,000 downloads of its app. The vast majority of readers are from Taiwan and Hong Kong, given the limitations inside China, with the rest coming from the US, Japan and elsewhere. Cai is hoping to break even next year.
Peter Liu (劉宇環), founder of venture capital firm WI Harper Group Inc and one of Cai’s backers, said it might be simpler for the business to focus outside China, at least for now.
He has seen the toll China’s censors can take through his firm’s investment in media there.
“We have a history of investing in media and we used to own magazines in China. We learned our lesson,” Liu said. “Inside China there’s heavy censorship and it’s complicated, especially right now.”
Cai is trying to take a long-term view. He sees the opportunities for new media companies in China not just in news, but also in online video and movies.
“The Chinese are getting richer and richer, but look at the content,” Cai said. “There has to be a good media group.”
South China Sea exercises in July by two United States Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carriers reminds that Taiwan’s history since mid-1950, and as a free nation, is intertwined with that of the aircraft carrier. Eventually Taiwan will host aircraft carriers, either those built under its democratic government or those imposed on its territory by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). By September 1944, a lack of sufficient carrier airpower and land-based airpower persuaded US Army and Navy leaders to forgo an invasion to wrest Taiwan from Japanese control, thereby sparing Taiwanese considerable wartime destruction. But two
This year, India and Taiwan can look back on 25 years of so-called unofficial ties. This provides an occasion to ponder over how they can deepen collaboration and strengthen their relations. This reflection must be free from excitement and agitation caused by the ongoing China-US great power jostling as well as China’s aggressive actions against many of its neighbors, including India. It must be based on long-term trends in bilateral engagement. To begin with, India and Taiwan, thus far, have had relations constituted by various activities, but what needs to be thought about now is whether they can transform their ties
The US Navy’s aircraft carrier battle groups are the most dramatic symbol of Washington’s military and geopolitical power. They were critical to winning World War II in the Pacific and have since been deployed in the Indo-Pacific region to communicate resolve against potential adversaries of the US. The presence or absence of the US Seventh Fleet — the configuration of US Navy ships and aircraft in the Indo-Pacific region built around the carriers — generally determines whether war or peace prevails in the region. In the immediate post-war period, Washington’s strategic planners in the administration of then-US president Harry Truman shockingly
On Thursday last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a barnstorming speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, titled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future.” The speech set out in no uncertain terms the insoluble ideological divide between a totalitarian, communist China and the democratic, free-market values of the US. It was also a full-throated call to arms for all nations of the free world to rally behind the US and defeat China. Pompeo elaborated on a clear distinction between China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in an attempt to recalibrate the