Alibaba, Joseph Tsai and the Future of South China Morning Post: Will the New Management Make Things Better or Worse?

by Jerome Cohen

In response to various queries about the background of Alibaba’s Joseph Tsai, I have a few tidbits of possible interest. Joe is a very able, dynamic lawyer turned businessman. I have only met him a few times very superficially when he was a young lawyer fresh out of Yale Law and working for a major American international law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell. His father, Paul, was my contemporary at Yale Law and a friend who returned to Taiwan from New Haven to work in government and then practice law with the family law firm in Taipei, the well-known firm of Tsar&Tsai founded by Paul’s father after he moved to Taiwan from Shanghai following Chiang Kaishek’s defeat on the mainland. Joe’s grandparents gave a dinner for me and my wife Joan during our first visit to Taipei in 1961. Although they had never yet visited the U.S. at that time, they spoke excellent English, probably as a result of missionary schooling in Shanghai before “Liberation”, and were charming people. Paul, Joe’s father, was always rather impatient with my interest in studying the PRC’s legal system and urged me to focus on Taiwan instead, something that I only began to do in the late ‘70s. My ties to Paul withered after I became active in supporting normalization of relations with Beijing. Joe obviously had a different attitude from his father’s, turning to business involving the Mainland not long after Deng’s Southern Tour in early ’92, and made Hong Kong his base. He also acquired Canadian nationality.

Joe apparently will take major responsibility for running the SCMP, at least initially. What he will do with it is unclear. A few sentences in his recent extensive public statements are worrisome, of course, to those who fear that he may make the SCMP merely a more influential version of the China Daily. For years even before Alibaba’s purchase, the SCMP’s reporting has been under ever greater Beijing influence. Some reporting, however, has continued to be quite feisty. The editorials have also often been punchy, and, until recently at least, the regular op ed writers have seemed diverse and quite free to express their opinions. For the past seven plus years, I have been writing controversial op eds for SCMP once or twice a month on an ad hoc basis and have never met any attempt to censor my views or deflect me from my choice of a sensitive subject.

Will the new management make things better or worse? Some current staff members who have been unhappy with their editors’ efforts to go easy on the PRC may finally give up the ghost and leave, as many predecessors have. Since the current news editors have already been leaning towards Beijing, the new owner need not replace them and can comfortably pledge not to interfere with editorial policy, at least as far as reporting goes. But reporters who have sought to resist editorial restrictions may now find less support than ever for their cause, and some are surely discouraged.

Yet Joe Tsai may surprise people. Although inexperienced in the news game, he might seize what is plainly an historic opportunity to create a world-class enterprise that will earn the praise of even liberal critics of the media and become prestigious enough to resist most pressures from the PRC. He surely has the ability to do this. One question concerns the future influence of Shanghai-based financier Eric X. Li, reported by David Barboza of the NY Times to have played an influential role in the acquisition. Li has been a strong and articulate supporter of PRC policies in the media and in political circles.

Having just seen two excellent films this week about the struggles of American media – “Spotlight” and “Truth”, I wonder whether there will someday be a comparable movie about the SCMP and Alibaba!