Tea Leaf Nation


A brutal knife attack on a Hong Kong journalist marks yet another setback for press freedom there

"They cannot kill us all," read the large banner laid on the ground before a group of more than 100 staff members and students of Chinese University of Hong Kong who had gathered to voice concerns about press freedom in Hong Kong. The demonstration occurred in the wake of a savage attack on the former editor in chief of a major local newspaper, who was beset by knife-wielding assailants on a city street in broad daylight on Feb. 26. This latest -- and most gruesome -- incident comes in what has been a rocky year for Hong Kong media, one that has shaken Hong Kongers already worried about the erosion of media freedom in this former British colony, now a special administrative region of China.

Kevin Lau Chun-to, the former editor in chief of Ming Pao, one of Hong Kong's top Chinese-language newspapers, was making a quick stop for breakfast while on his way to work when he was ambushed by two men on a stolen motor scooter. The assailants hacked Lau with a knife at least six times before speeding away. One cut to his back was so deep that Lau's lungs could be seen. Another two cuts severed major nerves in his legs. Later evaluations of Lau's wounds indicated that the assailants were aiming to cause permanent injuries. As of Feb. 28, Lau had survived multiple surgeries and was in serious but stable condition.

Lau's removal from Ming Pao's helm in January 2014 stirred controversy at the paper. While management insisted that Lau's sacking had nothing to do with freedom of the press, many Hong Kong journalists and citizens suspected that it was an attempt to rein in reporting that was unfriendly to China. For his part, Lau never openly disagreed with management's decision and stood side to side with it in calling for his upset colleagues to "give some space" for the personnel change. He took a job as the new media director at Ming Pao's parent company.

According to Ming Pao journalists who spoke to Foreign Policy, the staff suspects that the attack is related to one of the investigative reports of the rich and powerful in mainland China or in Hong Kong, which included Ming Pao's collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to expose the hidden wealth of China's elite in a report released Jan. 21. But no single incident has emerged as the most likely culprit among them. A Feb. 26 Reuters report speculated that the collaboration with ICIJ could have been a factor, but no direct evidence links it to the attack. Also, because Lau had already left his position as Ming Pao's editor in chief more than a month ago, the motive behind the attack is "perplexing," said an investigative journalist at Ming Pao who asked not to be named.

Before the attack on Lau, Hong Kong had experienced several cases involving vandalism or minor violence against local media executives who came across as less than pro-Beijing in the past year. In June 2013, two men clubbed Chen Ping, the publisher of iSun Affairs, a respected online news magazine. Only days later, an ax and a machete were left on the doorstep of Jimmy Lai, the owner of Apple Daily, a large local paper critical of the Chinese government. But according to the Ming Pao journalist, the attack on Lau is "in a totally different ballpark" compared with these previous incidents. "Honestly, it has cast a deep shadow in my heart about my work and my profession," the journalist said.

Reporter Jun Mai of Ming Pao's China desk told FP that Lau is a "very easygoing" editor who also served as a cautious gatekeeper for the paper's reports. Mai said he is "unnerved" by the fact that almost all the cases of violence against journalists in Hong Kong have gone cold, even in a city usually known for safe streets and strong rule of law. "I'm not optimistic that the police will solve this one either," said Mai.

Journalists and concerned citizens in Hong Kong are planning a march on March 2 to show solidarity with Lau and put pressure on Hong Kong police to solve the crime. "We are all Kevin Lau," read another banner on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It continued, "Today they silence us, tomorrow they kill us." 

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Tea Leaf Nation

Hard Target

A Chinese firm will need more than money and good intentions to buy a U.S. media company. 

It won't be the Grey Lady turning red. It may not be the self-anointed "capitalist tool" enduring a nominally Communist, and highly ironic, twist of fate. But while The New York Times easily shrugged off Chinese overtures, and Forbes may lend its hand to a different suitor, it's getting easier to imagine some Chinese firm eventually making an acquisition offer too rich to refuse. With the immense amount of Chinese cash sloshing onto foreign shores -- $14 billion in investment in the U.S. in 2013 alone -- combined with the generally precarious financial state of even respected U.S. print and web media outfits that enjoy worldwide brand recognition, it's no longer beyond the pale to envision some Western journalists collecting pay stubs issued by a Chinese company.

But money isn't everything. The planned purchase of such a U.S. media company by a Chinese buyer will inevitably provoke not only political scrutiny, but concerns among journalists and the reading public about the editorial independence of the targeted asset and the safety of the information it husbands. A Chinese purchaser would have to navigate all of these minefields in addition to shelling out the lucre.

For years, Chinese investors have been kicking the tires on financially beleaguered U.S. media companies. Most recently, on Jan. 15, the Financial Times reported that Shanghai-based investment shop Fosun International was among a slate of finalists to purchase Forbes, Inc., the company that owns Forbes' print and web outlets and which put itself up for sale in November 2013. (A Forbes spokesperson declined to comment.) It's eminently possible that Fosun's won't be the winning bid, but it isn't the first attempt. In June 2010, the Southern Media Group put in a losing bid for ailing Newsweek. And in December 2013, colorful tycoon and self-proclaimed "Most Influential Person of China" Chen Guangbiao made a short and mostly risible bid to purchase the Times, one he abandoned Jan. 8 under a wave of domestic and foreign ridicule.

In each case thus far, prospective buyers have withdrawn after some combination of public opinion and financial reality supervened. There's a reason for that; a Chinese purchaser of any media company will have to convince both readers and staff that it will be able to maintain its editorial independence, whether it's reporting from China or about China, in Chinese or in English -- all of which Forbes does. Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told Foreign Policy via email that China lacks "a strong concept of separation of church and state" where "keeping business and editorial concerns apart" are concerned.

The facts bear that out. Although they don't yet have any direct influence on U.S. media, Chinese authorities have already shown themselves willing to put the squeeze on press elsewhere. That's not just true of mainland media, which has been under Communist Party authority for decades; reporters in both Taiwan and Hong Kong have told CPJ that they feel self-censorship has worsened in the last several years under pressure from Beijing. On Jan. 20, some staff at respected Hong Kong paper Ming Pao printed blank columns to protest the sacking of their editor in what they felt was a blow to editorial independence intended to please Beijing. China also hasn't shied from trying back-channel methods further afield, including the United States. An October 2013 report by NGO Freedom House describes a "transnational toolbox" that Chinese authorities use to influence China-related coverage abroad, including cyber-attacks and pressure via financially influential proxies like ad agencies, not to mention the old-fashioned phone call to bellyache about coverage. The Times has also felt Beijing's wrath, after publishing an October 2013 expose of the family wealth of then-Premier Wen Jiabao in both Chinese and English. Some Times journalists have since faced difficulty getting Chinese visas, with some being forced to leave the mainland.

This kind of interference is vexing enough when it comes from a Beijing bureaucrat, but potentially unbearable from an immediate supervisor. Times reporters chortled at Chen, and have shown their willingness to go to the mat for press freedom. Forbes' online outlet relies on an army of unpaid bloggers, but it also boasts on-the-ground reporters. The publication has also frequently reported on Chinese corruption, and according to one contributor, allows some writers to publish online before articles have been vetted. Any difference in this approach would register, and may cause the best practitioners to flee.

There's also the question of information security. To be sure, companies that peddle written words, influential as they may be, don't possess the same strategic import as atomic energy or banking, both industries in which foreign acquisitions have received review from a little-known Treasury Department body called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS. Daniel Rosen, a partner and co-founder at New York-based advisory firm Rhodium Group, says "there's really no history" of CFIUS "having a problem with this kind of transaction."

But as Rosen also notes, media companies sit at the crossroads of a great deal of sensitive information, one likely reason Chinese hackers have previously struck at targets like the Times and The Washington Post. At major media outlets, government officials and well-placed anonymous sources frequently lodge off-the-record conversations that may find a home in a reporter's notebook or inbox, even if they never reach publication. Some outlets have a policy requiring reporters to destroy their notes, while others do not. But emails are a tougher case: They can remain stored on a company's servers for years, and are often retrievable even after a user has deleted them or left the organization. For their part, Chinese authorities have shown themselves willing to come down hard on leakers. In September 2013, award-winning Chinese journalist Shi Tao finally gained his freedom after serving over eight years in prison for leaking a propaganda directive to an overseas website. The evidence: emails sent from Shi to New York-based Democracy Forum, captured (and later shared with Chinese authorities) by provider Yahoo.

The buyer's intent is also significant, and here Chinese suitors differ immensely. Fosun, which did not return a request for comment, is almost certainly not participating in an expensive bid -- Forbes' asking price is reportedly in the low hundred of millions of dollars -- so that it can snag a bunch of old emails. In a July 2013 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Fosun CEO Liang Xinjun explained that his company acquires foreign firms if it thinks it can "improve their value by helping them do well in China." Fosun probably just thinks it can improve Forbes' performance there, particularly the magazine's vaunted list-making capabilities. Although Forbes' "rich lists" have brought it great attention, it has found itself behind the 8-ball in China, ceding mindshare to others like the upstart Hurun Report, founded in 1999 by a Luxembourg-born accountant.

But good intentions may not be enough. In June 2010, the same month state-owned Southern Media Group joined another Chinese bidder to attempt to buy Newsweek, the weekly's then-owner (then the Washington Post Co., now called Graham Holdings Co., which currently owns FP) rejected the offer without disclosing why. It wasn't enough that the bidder's flagship paper, Southern Weekend, was (and is) seen domestically as liberal and somewhat pro-Western. After the deal died, the paper's executive editor told a Chinese interviewer that the seller "genuinely does not comprehend the desires of Chinese media workers and institutions."

Even a future would-be purchaser that's privately held, avowedly idealistic, but also China-based will have to live life under the thick shadow of Chinese authority. So, to some extent, would the affected journalists. They would be compelled to wonder what would happen if a Chinese official, instead of deploying sophisticated hackers to finger a source, simply picked up the phone and called their boss.

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