The Communist regime in China has directed the Alibaba group to ‘shed its media assets’ after learning about its control and influence over public opinion in the country, reported The Wall Street Journal. The Chinese government reviewed the media holdings of the Alibaba group and were ‘appalled to discover their ‘expansive media interests’.
The development comes months after Alibaba founder Jack Ma went missing for several weeks before making a reappearance in a Chinese state media video. The business tycoon owns a whopping $3.5 billion stake in Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo Corp, $2.6 billion in video-sharing platform Bilibili and a significant stake in Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
His media portfolio extends from digital, broadcast, social media to print. Over the years, Alibaba has acquired the South China Morning Post (SCMP), set up partnerships with State-run Xinhua News Agency, established joint ventures with newspaper groups in Sichuan and Zhejiang provinces. It must be mentioned that Jack Ma’s media portfolio poses serious threats to the propaganda machinery of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Alibaba only a ‘passive investor’, claims company following the crackdown
Following the crackdown on Alibaba group, the company has stated that it is only a ‘passive financial investor in media assets.’ It emphasised, “The purpose of our investments in these companies is to provide technology support for their business upgrade and drive commercial synergies with our core commerce businesses. We do not intervene or get involved in the companies’ day-to-day operations or editorial decisions”.
Despite this, the Chief Executive of South China Morning Post has stated in an internal memo that Alibaba’s commitment to the newspaper will remain ‘unchanged’. SCMP has expanded its digital footprint and editorial staff, following its acquisition by Alibaba in 2016. Since Alibaba had its offices a few floors above SCMP’s newsrooms, several readers had feared that it would influence the editorial policy of the news organisation.
Jack Ma’s media ventures and his stance on objective communication
Despite Alibaba’s stakes, SCMP covered the democratic Hong Kong protests in 2019 and 2020 and also highlighted the growing influence of China over the city. In Jack Ma’s own words, “We must not let the media fall, must not let the media lose themselves, and must not let the media lose objective and rational communication because of money.” He reiterated his stance of respecting journalism and not influencing editorial policies.
Alibaba also purchased stakes in business news provider Yicai Media Group and tech-based news portals such as 36Kr.com and Huxiu.com. With Alibaba’s huge financial investment and expertise in digital media, the news organisations have successfully expanded their readership. As such, it remains a growing concern for the CCP. While it remains unclear whether Jack Ma’s company will have to dispose of all his media holdings, any plan will need the approval of the Chinese Communist regime.
Alibaba accused of exploiting its media influence to its advantage
It is believed that Alibaba has used its influence in the media to ‘reshape’ government legislation to favour its businesses. In May 2020, several social media posts on Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo, accusing Alibaba executive of an extra-marital affair was removed. In a probe by internet watchdog Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), it alleged that Alibaba used ‘capital to manipulate public opinion.’
China worried about Alibaba’s media clout as it threatens CCP propaganda
Alibaba has contributed around $100 million in advertising revenue on Weibo in 2019. CAC had lashed out at the micro-blogging platform for interfering in online communication. Without naming Alibaba, the Communist Party of China leader Xu Lin said that China will “resolutely prohibit dilution of the party’s leadership in the name of (media) convergence, resolutely guard against risks of capital manipulating public opinion.”
Not just Alibaba, several Chinese tech giants such as Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Bytedance Ltd. hold significant assets in the media. However, the Chinese regime has not made it clear whether the other tech companies will face the same wrath like that of Alibaba. Experts believe that giving aways its media assets would not affect Alibaba in a negative manner but will instead improve ties with the Communist regime by dismissing its insecurities. It will also help them in deterring future crackdown by the CCP, as it continues to tighten the restrictions on media.
Jack Ma and his criticism of Xi Jinping, China
Jack Ma had gone on a tirade against China’s current banking system, the financial regulatory structure of the Communist-ruled country and how it was unsuitable for his fintech giant, Ant group. Ma’s critical remarks for the Communist regime, which demands nothing more than complete and utter obedience, terminated the planned IPO of his fintech giant, Ant Group, on November 3, just two days before it was scheduled to begin trading.
Days after his unflattering opinion of the Chinese authorities, Ma was summoned to a meeting with Communist Party officials. His other venture, Alibaba is also under investigation for monopolistic behaviour, as per a statement released by the Chinese Communist Party’s market supervision arm.On the 20th of January, Jack Ma made his first ever public appearance since October 2020.
Earlier, reports had emerged that Jack Ma has been ’embracing supervision’ at an unknown location. However, Duncan Clark, the chairman of BDA China, said that he does not believe that Jack Ma was under custody. Ma’s disappearance from the public sphere is a part of a bigger design by the CCP to exact compliance and loyalty from individuals who hold great sway in shaping public opinion. It is pertinent to note that Jack Ma is not the first high-profile man to have disappeared into thin air.