A Taiwanese tycoon with big business interests in China is causing alarm as he tries to expand his media empire.
Want Want China Times Group chairman Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明) is trying to purchase a cable TV network system in a US$2.4 billion deal that would significantly bolster his influence in the nation, but regulators have held up approval of the deal for almost 18 months amid concern that the acquisition would give the group too much media influence.
Tsai purchased the China Times stable of media outlets for US$650 million in 2008. It includes the flagship China Times daily newspaper, China Television Co (CTV), and the CTiTV cable news station.
Adding to the controversy, a rival media mogul has been attacking Tsai over his close ties to China. Jimmy Lai (黎智英), publisher of the Apple Daily newspaper, says Want Want’s China business interests — the company’s fortune originated from food sales in China — and his pro-Beijing views should scuttle his application to acquire Taiwan’s China Network Systems (CNS). The broadcaster provides cable service to 1.18 million households, or a quarter of the total nationwide.
Lai is not the only one with doubts. Many Taiwanese fear that China is using big Taiwanese business to advance its agenda of gradually bringing Taiwan under its sway.
Journalism professor Kuang Chung-hsiang (管中祥) of National Chung Cheng University said that media purchases in Taiwan tend to be made more for reasons of personal influence than profit because of the relatively small size of the market, and that seems to be the case with the CNS deal.
“Tsai apparently hopes that his influence in Taiwan will bolster his stature in China to aid his mainland business,” he said.
Tsai raised hackles earlier this year when he told a Washington Post reporter that China’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square did not produce anywhere near the number of casualties attributed to it by international media reports, including those from Taiwan.
He also said that Taiwan’s unification with China was inevitable.
Lai, whose anti-China views have made him a pariah in Beijing, has pilloried the proposed CNS acquisition in the pages of Apple Daily. A recent headline declared “Taiwan cannot afford to have only the voice of Want Want left.” It was accompanied by a caricature of a smiling Tsai sitting next to a pile of outsized gold coins, representing his various media outlets.
Other Apple attacks have included accusations that the China Times has given undue coverage to Chinese purchasing missions in Taiwan, and has allowed itself to be used as a platform for Chinese advertising that presents itself as news, recently ruled illegal by regulators.
Tsai outbid Lai for the China Times Group when he purchased it four years ago.
China Times has hit back at the Apple Daily, which is best known for gory crime coverage, suggestive graphics, and reports on pop stars and other entertainment icons.
It has accused the paper of a slew of erroneous reports, including an allegedly slanderous expose which it said caused the suicide of the head of a local securities firm.
“Look at how many Taiwanese he has harmed,” China Times wrote about Lai, depicting him as a cavalier hitman, with a hammer in one hand and a mace in the other.
Apple Daily and its weekly Next Magazine are among a handful of profitable news outlets nationwide. The group launched Next TV last year, and CNS’s new buyer could have the power to decide whether it will be allowed to go on air because of its ability to control access — through fee deals or punitive administrative action.
While many in the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) support Tsai’s proposed takeover — the China Times Group normally gushes over KMT political policies — some do not.
KMT Legislator Lo Shu-lei (羅淑蕾) said that while many Taiwanese have “reasonable doubts” about the group’s editorial independence, an even larger concern was the possible emergence of a “super media group.”
She said that cable news programs in Taiwan — even those normally at odds with China Times editorials — have held off from criticizing the CNS acquisition because they are scared that if it is approved, they could be forced off the air by price hikes or other punitive measures.
Want Want rejects such worries as fanciful.
It says the Fair Trade Commission ruled a year ago that its proposed CNS buyout would not constitute an unfair media monopoly, and has called on the National Communications Commission, the ultimate arbiter of the merger bid, to make an early decision on the case.
Want Want official Chao Yu-pei (趙育培), who is handling the deal, said news outlets of all formats under the group’s control currently have 18 percent of the Taiwan market, significantly below what would be considered a monopoly in the West.
“Taiwan is a democracy with freedom of speech,” he said. “Everyone has his or her own views and is unlikely to be swayed by the views of any single media group.”
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