Of Course An Alibaba ‘Morning Post’ Can Aid China’s Image Overseas
Overseas is a big place, and China’s soft-power ambitions can fill a large globe.While fears for the South China Morning Post and for Hong Kong’s future of free press and free expression are very real—and I have written and talked about them myself—those fears are greatest among the people China cares the least about influencing. The regular writers and readers of The New York Times or of ChinaFile, or the China experts in the U.S. and U.K. universities, who regularly despair at the state of the Chinese polity never had their views changed by theSouth China Morning Post and never will.
There’s a big world outside, however, and China’s soft power not only has room to grow but it has already found fertile ground.
To be very transparent, I consult for the news agency arm of China Central Television (CCTV), which has ambitions to have its footage used by broadcasters overseas. For some broadcasters in Africa, in Latin America, in southeast Asia, in central and eastern Europe, CCTV has no more (and no less) stigma than Reuters television or Associated Press TV. The price is right, the quality is acceptable (and sometimes high) and the overt politics can be edited around.
Similarly, Xinhua may have a huge electronic screen in Times Square in New York, but I don’t think it has any illusions that the Upper West Side cocktail party set will be quoting articles verbatim. It’s perfectly happy that it has a large online presence and is picked up by many newspapers around the world.
In a media environment where very few consumers of news are loyal to one brand or discerning about the bylines they read, the South China Morning Post, powered by Alibaba’s Internet skills and emboldened by a torn-down paywall, will see its articles picked up by search services, promulgated on social media, and integrated into the fabric of conversation globally.
The question really is to what extent the reporting thus made widely available actually does present an alternative view of China, and a more positive one at that.
Anything too overt will condemn the paper to the space occupied—quite successfully—by the officially-backed China Daily newspaper. That’s available in print editions worldwide and online, but always has the words or ethos of “officially-backed” connected to its name, undercutting its credibility.
The South China Morning Post, in a privately-owned capacity, where the new masters have explicitly blessed the editors with the power to edit—albeit with a world view different from the mainstream Western media—will have a subtler ability to shape coverage and attitudes.
That may be anathema to many in New York, London, Washington, the intellectual salons of Hong Kong itself, and newsrooms around the world where journalists love to sit in commiseration with their colleagues. But to ordinary readers surfing the web and coming across a South China Morning Post story on their twitter feed, their Google search, or their Facebook timeline in Lagos, Mexico City, Bangkok, Vancouver, or Dubai, that will probably be just fine—and very influential.