A holding company directly owned by the government of China is reportedly considering an offer to buy the South China Morning Post (SCMP), one of the most widely-read and influential English-language newspapers in Asia, according to Bloomberg.
Bauhinia Culture Holdings Limited, a Chinese-owned firm, has reportedly broached the subject of a deal with Alibaba, the Chinese online marketplace that bought the paper in 2016. Alibaba, an e-commerce giant, has been enormously lucrative but has run afoul of Beijing in recent months due to controversial remarks made by co-founder Jack Ma.
The company was reportedly pressured by Beijing to sell some of its external companies, particularly its media outlets, according to Bloomberg. Bauhinia, which is fully owned by the Chinese government through a separate holding company, Sino United Publishing Holdings Ltd., would be a safe choice for Beijing; it also already owns Phoenix TV, a local Hong Kong-based news channel.
All parties involved have refused to confirm that the sale of the newspaper is being considered, with Alibaba spokesmen explicitly denying it and claiming that the company was committed to the running of the SCMP.
Prior to Alibaba’s acquisition of the newspaper in 2016, the South China Morning Post, founded in 1903, traded hands between the HSBC bank, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok. Observers alleged that Alibaba’s purchase of the newspaper came at the expense of its editorial independence, given Alibaba’s close ties to and reliance on the Chinese government, and it had subtly taken a pro-Beijing editorial line after the acquisition.
However, the newspaper provided largely balanced and independent coverage of the massive wave of protests in Hong Kong in 2019—protests that ultimately failed after a Beijing-directed crackdown as part of the national security law it imposed on the territory during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that secured world attention and drove negative popular perceptions of China. One outlet targeted by the authorities during the crackdown, the Apple Daily, was forced to cease print publication in 2021 after the high-profile arrest of its founder, investor, and protest leader Jimmy Lai.
Beijing has also proposed banning domestic private investments from news operations, arguing that doing so would keep the corrupting influence of money out of news media—and conveniently ensuring that only government-run news outlets could be reliably funded.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.