Power Snacking On The Taiwanese Press
By Dave TaconMarch 28, 2013
Selling rice crackers to China made him a billionaire. Buying media in Taiwan is making him a bogeyman. Is it about money and media — or power?
Tsai Eng-Meng is the man who would be Taiwan’s Rupert Murdoch.
Before recently embarking on an aggressive media-buying spree, the 56-year-old made himself the richest person in Taiwan by selling rice crackers to China's vast snack food market. His fortune is estimated at $9.8 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which ranks him 112th on its list of billionaires.
In a country governed independently since 1949, when Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces fled there upon their defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communists, Tsai speaks his pro-China mind.
For instance, he told The Washington Post that China’s crackdown on democracy activists at Tiananmen Square in 1989 did not constitute a massacre. He regularly expresses his hope to see Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party considers a renegade province, unified with the mainland. His critics paint him as a Beijing stooge.
Shanghai-based now, Tsai began accumulating media businesses five years ago. First he purchased Taiwan’s ailing media company, the China Times Group, including three newspapers, and two television news channels and websites.
Next on the would-be mogul’s list was Next Media, the Hong Kong company that produces Taiwan’s most influential newspapers and magazines, along with a struggling television arm. The deal would have given Tsai and his consortium of Taiwanese businessmen control of almost 50 per cent of the country’s independent media business.
But this week, amid political controversy, street protests against the deal and regulatory scrambling, the USD536-million takeover proposal fell over.
Tsai is not abandoning his media ambitions; he is still reportedly trying to stitch up a separate Taiwanese cable deal.
Such takeover moves bring to the forefront the tensions of power, influence, money and the media in this contested nation.
Even while they dispute which of them is the island’s legitimate ruler, China and Taiwan have been drawn ever closer through economic ties. Taiwanese banks started trading in Chinese Yuan last month; at least 200,000 Taiwanese businesspeople live on the Chinese mainland; and Taiwanese companies such as Foxconn and Tsai's Want Want Holdings have huge business interests there.
This has enriched some tycoons. But among many ordinary Taiwanese, there is a growing fear that economic dependence amounts to unification by stealth, and poses a threat to their democracy.
AFTER CLAIMING INDEPENDENCE, Taiwan endured decades of military rule. By the early 1990s, though, martial law had given way to multi-party democracy, and today a free press caters to 23 million Taiwanese, offering 16 newspapers, thousands of magazines and more than 100 television channels.
Still, most of the country’s media is split down party lines, favouring either the current ruling party, the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), or the pro-Taiwan independence opposition Democratic Progress Party (DPP).
Next Media has set itself apart from either camp. Next is the Taiwanese arm of Hong Kong billionaire Jimmy Lai, well known for his pro-democracy and anti-Beijing leanings. His Apple Daily – a Taiwanese incarnation of the popular Hong Kong publication – has a reputation for fearless political commentary and sometimes tabloid muckraking, and has grown to be the island’s most widely read daily. Access to both Apple Daily’s Hong Kong and Taiwanese websites is blocked on the Chinese mainland.
Opposition to the Next deal was all about China.
In an interview days before the Next deal collapsed, Yeh Yijin, a DPP member of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, told The Global Mail: “I believe Tsai is a frontman for the Chinese government.
“In my opinion, it is reasonable to suspect that they [the Chinese Communist Party] are financing the purchase.”
Tsai, who did not respond to The Global Mail’s requests for an interview, rejected such claims during a hearing at Taiwan’s National Communications Commission in May last year.
The opposition DDP attempted to block the deal with an anti-media monopoly bill. Initially supported by President Ma Ying-Jeou's ruling Kuomintang (KMT), the bill was eventually rejected.
President Ma’s KMT government won office in 2008, and since then ties between the neighbours have been stabilised according to the One China principle (or 1992 Consensus). This is an unspoken agreement that there is one China, with the question of whether Taiwan's Republic of China or the Mainland’s People’s Republic of China has legitimate authority over Taiwan put aside for the time being.
Taiwanese who otherwise live with the country’s ambiguity were spooked by the prospect of Tsai silencing Next Media and its vigorous voices in the democracy debate.
“My generation was born after Taiwan was democratised,” says student activist Yenyu Lin, 20, a quietly spoken political-science student at National Taiwan University. “Most of our generation takes democracy for granted.”
Lin joined several protests against Tsai’s takeover of Next – some involving a few hundred people, others several thousand – and helped mobilise students across Taiwan through social media.
A student sit-in by the Youth Alliance Against Media Monsters on New Year’s Eve at Taipei’s Liberty Square made the front page of the Liberty Times (the English version is the Taipei Times). The same protest, however, was buried deep in the Tsai-owned China Times, which published a glowing, full-page profile of Tsai on the same day.
Critics of his media expansion, including lawmaker Yeh Yijin, are routinely attacked in media owned by Tsai. China Times was forced to make an apology after groundlessly accusing academic Huang Kuo-Chang of paying students to attend anti-media-monopoly protests. Tsai makes no secret of his desire for more positive reporting on mainland China in the Taiwanese media. Indeed, in December 2008 Want Want Holding’s own internal newsletter reported that Tsai had met Wang Yi, the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, in Beijing and informed him he aimed to wield his future ownership of the China Times Group to “use the power of the press to advance relations between China and Taiwan”.
Lawmaker Yeh Yijin points out that Tsai has already been exposed and fined for publishing articles paid for by Chinese authorities and masquerading as news. One such example involved five consecutive days of extensive coverage of the Taiwan visit of Shu Shulin, the Governor of China’s Fujian Province, in May 2012. An investigation by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council found “clear evidence” that this was in fact paid advertising. The not-for-profit media monitor Foundation for the Advancement of Media Excellence reported 378 instances of ‘news buying’ by Chinese authorities in Taiwanese newspapers in 2010. Sixty-nine of these appeared in Tsai’s China Times.
Many people see see this as part of China’s ‘soft power’ push; last year’s National Congress in Beijing made it a priority to promote China internationally through arts and the media.
As Yijin sees it, Tsai’s attempt to buy 10 cable-service providers owned by Taiwan’s China Network Systems (CNS) – Taiwan’s second largest cable TV service - is even more worrying than the Next deal because it would give Tsai the power to grant and refuse cable broadcast licenses.
Last month Taiwan’s National Communications Council rejected Tsai’s bid for CNS. The regulator found Tsai had failed to meet conditions set by the board to relinquish control of his CtiTV news channel, turn his CTV channel into a non-news broadcaster, and establish CTV’s editorial independence from the Want Want China Times Group.
Tsai can however reapply for approval.
TSAI’S CRITICS ARE concerned that what’s happening now in Taiwan looks very like the tactics already successfully used by pro-China businessmen in Hong Kong.
Ahead of the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, pro-China businessmen purchased media outlets that subsequently soften their editorial line towards mainland China. In one well-publicised incident, soon after Tsai purchased China Daily, he fired an editor for describing China's chief negotiator on Taiwan as “third rate”.
According to Mak Yin-ting, journalist and chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, more than half of Hong Kong's major newspaper owners are either National People's Congress members or members of mainland political advisory board, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. This does not include the owners of the Ming Pao Daily News and South China Morning Post, Tiong Hsiew King and Robert Kuok, who are Chinese Malaysians and therefore not eligible as members, but who also who have extensive business interests in mainland China.
An example of the deep commercial ties all these newspaper owners have with the mainland can be seen in Charles Ho Tsu-kwok, who owns a number of papers including The Standard, one of only two English-language dailies in Hong Kong. He is a consultant to Shandong Provincial Government and a non-executive director of China Aviation and China Petroleum and Chemical Corp. According to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association in 2007, almost 60 per cent of respondents felt that press freedom had been eroded since the United Kingdom’s handover of Hong Kong in 2007.
“China’s ultimate goal is reunification,” says Chung Nien-Huang, 46, a Taiwanese political commentator and former Apple Daily reporter. “They want to influence opinion by showing their best side and ignoring issues of freedom, democracy and human rights.”
Nien-Huang has an insider’s insight into the muzzling of dissent already occurring in Taiwan. He was a regular guest on The Talking Show, a popular cable program on which live panel discussions often touched on topics off-limits on the Mainland – topics such as Taiwanese independence, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the suppression of spiritual practitioners of Falun Gong or jailed Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiabao. The Talking Show was axed last year and replaced with New Taiwan Go Go Go, whose host resigned in December last year amidst rumours reported in the Liberty Times that the show had a blacklist of topics deemed offensive to China.
“I only found this out months later, but in 2009 we were discussing the Tiananmen Square massacre. The studio received a call and when we came back from a commercial break, the host changed the topic. This had never happened before,” says Nien-huang.
Nien-Huang, who last year published a book on the demise of The Talking Show titled ‘My Talking Life,’ has his own theory on the softening of political discourse at the cable station SET-TV, which aired the former discussion program. Its parent company, Sanlih, produces highly successful dramas that are exported to Hong Kong and South East Asia; he thinks the potential millions to be earned licensing these to the Mainland market outweigh the merits of such politically troublesome vehicles as The Talking Show.
Yijin says the battle for Taiwan’s media is only part of a larger struggle.
“I hope that people in Taiwan and the world look seriously at the rise of China in the context of democratic values,” Yijin says, “not just economic ones.”