Will Caixin Preserve Its Editorial Independence?

Note: this entry was first published in early 2014 and partially updated since then.

I don’t speak Chinese, so I rely on English editions of Chinese media to have a bit of a local perspective. The state-owned media such as Xinhua tends to run pure propaganda right out of their government/party/military masters. It’s so laughably bad it’s good. There is some fledgling independent media though, and among them I’ve been reading Caixin with interest for a while. I think Western media – and its media about the media – should stop their navel gazing and pay more than token attention to events such as China Media Capital (CMC) taking a stake in Caixin Media at the end of 2013.

There is of course some amount of Western reporting, and meta reporting, on this, but it tends to be ghettoized in sections about China/Asia. Approaching such issues primarily through the lens of geography strikes me as somewhat provincial, but this may reflect audience preferences that publishers don’t dare challenge. Anyway, this recent acquisition raises serious questions. What will CMC chairman Li Ruigang do and will Caixin continue the kind of reporting that can land its journalists in jail? State-owned China Daily rubs in the fact that major Western media outlets have no qualms riding on Caixin’s exposes of official corruption – here for instance the WSJ can’t be bothered to even hyperlink. Caixin EiC Hu Shuli complains about it but there’s little else she can do. I can only speculate, but she might have been left with little financial choice but to take CMC’s money to sustain Caixin’s operations. CMC, Shanghai Media Group (which Li led for a decade – or still is?) are busy making deals with the likes of Time Warner and WPP that seem focused on entertainment rather than “serious” media.

What will become of “little” Caixin in all of this? As often with China it is hard to know for sure who ultimately pulls the strings.  Will Caixin continue to write pieces like this when Chinese official tend to react like that? And if they do, will that be limited to their English edition? Will it start featuring titillating thumbnails and celebrity gossip to pay the bills, and as more and more Western news websites, trivialize and bury actual issues in the process? I have no idea, but this deserves more attention in media-about-media circles relative to the huge amount of coverage dedicated to, say, 538 or Vox at the moment.

That China doesn’t entirely stifle its independent media, and that us Westerners can learn about and from China through their own voices rather than solely via our own media, could have wide internal and international repercussions. There’s more to media in China than their blocking of Western websites! Especially when Bloomberg seems ready to make its reporting palatable to the powers that be in order to make sure its terminal business doesn’t suffer.

Meanwhile in Russia RIA Novosti, which used to provide somewhat neutral reporting, is being liquidated. As they themselves pointed out in a final spasm of independence, “the move is the latest in a series of shifts in Russia’s news landscape that appear to point toward a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector.” Instead, Rossia Segodnya is set up for clear propaganda purposes. It will be interesting to see where RIA’s journalists will end up working. Next thing you know, US-funded Voice of America doesn’t get its broadcasting license renewed by Russian authorities.

Big picture: it is worrying that China and Russia clamp down on independent media just as the former builds up territorial pressure with its neighbors, while the latter invades Crimea.

More Food for Thought


March 2021Beijing Asks Alibaba to Shed Its Media Assets [WSJ]

April 2019 – Chinese news outlet Caixin aims to raise up to $200 million for tech development, growth [Reuters]

January 2018 – Chinese editor Hu Shuli steps aside, not down [AP]

Caixin’s reshuffle comes shortly after Wang Qishan, an official widely seen as Hu’s longtime ally, stepped down from the Communist Party’s top leadership body, said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. […] Hu declined to discuss her relationship with Wang and denied that political factors were behind her move.

I’ve kept looking for a follow-up to the talks of Ant Financial possibly taking a stake, but this doesn’t seem to have panned out. That said, Caixin is not exactly transparent about its ownership, at least not on its English-language website.

March 2016Jack Ma’s Ant Financial Said to Be in Talks for Caixin Stake [Bloomberg] – Jack Ma’s Ant Financial in talks to buy Caixin stake [FT] – Is China’s media tycoon Jack Ma the new Rupert Murdoch? [BBC].

And here we go: Jack Ma probably isn’t feeling too good about his media investments right now [TechAsia] mentions recent censorship of SCMP and Caixin articles. See Chinese Publication, Censored by Government, Exposes Article’s Removal [NYT]:

Caixin Media posted an article on its English-language website reporting that the country’s Internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, which it called “a government censorship organ,” had deleted a March 3 article on Caixin’s Chinese-language website because it contained “illegal content.”

The English-language article denouncing the censorship has since then been replaced by a completely different piece at the original URL

Xi Jinping’s crackdown on free speech is being criticized—by advisers to China’s Communist Party [QZ]:

Jiang Hong, a professor at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, told news outlets he planned to speak about freedom of speech at a closed-door session in the meetings, after a March 3 interview he gave to well-respected business publication Caixin was scrubbed from websites. In the interview, he argued that the government had an obligation to ensure that the Chinese people could express themselves.

How Xi Jinping Views the News [China Media Project]:

Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles, and that is where we find the focal point and end point of propaganda and ideology work.

Alibaba bought SCMP for $266M in December 2015. Quartz asked at the time: Who cares if Jack Ma buys a tiny, dwindling newspaper in Hong Kong?

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