Monday, October 13, 2014

The Trials of Jimmy Lai

I get the impression that the Western press isn’t enthusiastic about reporting on Next Media supremo Jimmy Lai’s rather central role in financing and backboning (a neologism of mine: providing critical support/determination/coordination/encouragement) the Hong Kong Occupy movement.

Jimmy Lai's partisanship, wheeling and dealing, hard-nosed business practices, and antagonism toward Beijing complicate his reformist advocacy and undercut HKO’s “spontaneous leaderless outpouring by idealistic students” framing, and he’s not going to do the movement any favors by becoming the face of democratic agitation in Hong Kong.

From what I’ve seen, when Jimmy Lai’s role comes up, a straw man is promptly constructed out of the “Jimmy Lai is a CIA front” excelsior, contemptuously torched, and tossed aside.  

The Jimmy Lai story deserves better, in my opinion, especially since the focus of the agitation is moving into the Hong Kong Legislative Council, whose pro-democracy faction is heavily funded by Lai and will presumably be responding to Lai’s influence as well as the democratic fire that rages in its collective bosom.

As to why the Jimmy Lai story is not deemed to be worthy of more in-depth and critical coverage, one theory might be that the Western press is consciously pushing a certain pro-HKO PR line and intentionally gives short shrift to the Jimmy Lai angle. 

I tend toward the explanation that, as I put it in a previous post, Big Media is interested in Big Stories.  Democratic ferment sweeping Hong Kong is a big story with implications for China and the entire world; Jimmy Lai’s machinations are just local news.

I can also speculate that news organizations may be guided, consciously or not, by a sense of equity. 

The pro-Beijing press and the PRC media are working day and night to put the hatchet to Lai and shift the focus of the Hong Kong democracy story to him; maybe there’s a natural inclination to shrink from doing the PRC’s dirty work for it and so the mainland’s Jimmy Lai news is balanced with, you might say, non-Jimmy Lai news from the Western side.

Jimmy Lai certainly deserves some sympathy.  It appears that Beijing has been conducting a multi-front war against his media empire, and with considerable success.  His flagship Hong Kong newspaper, Apple Daily created and owned the splashy tabloid market at first.  However, in recent years its circulation has dropped by a third, to 190,000, thanks to heightened competition and the introduction by the Sing Tao media company of a free newspaper (Apple Daily’s cover price is now HK$7), Headline Daily.

Free is apparently popular, and the most recent circulation figures for Headline Daily is over 800,000 copies per day.  Jimmy Lai’s Next Media group tried to launch a competing free sheet, Sharp Daily, with a target of 1 million copies per day.  However the venture folded a year ago, in October 2013, after absorbing HK hundreds of millions of losses.

As a result, Next Media’s Annual Report was reduced to trumpeting its EBITDA results.  For the layman, the message of EBITDA is, if you ignore our crushing mountain of debt, we can pretend we are making money.  In 2013, Next Media lost HK$ 1 billion, presumably mostly attributable to the Sharp Daily bloodbath; but in 2012, the company had also lost money, a more modest HK$ 200 million.

The fact that Apple Daily’s office is currently blockaded by anti-Occupy forces that have been rather successful in keeping the paper off the streets is not going to help the circulation figures or the bottom line in 2014, either.

Certainly, Hong Kong’s readership can be pleased that they can enjoy their daily paper for free and perhaps not share a thought for the financial beating that Jimmy Lai is taking.  However, it is not being excessively conspiratorially minded to note that Sing Tao News Corporation, the author of many of Jimmy Lai’s misfortunes, is extremely close to Beijing and something more than business competition might have informed the devastating launch of Headline Daily.

Sing Tao News Corp. was owned by the Aw family of Tiger Balm Garden fame until 1998, when Sally Aw, the proprietor was caught up in a scandal involving inflated circulation figures and was simultaneously hammered by the Asian financial crisis and a spate of bad financial decisions.  She escaped legal jeopardy, however, and critics wondered if her close friendship with the Hong Kong Chief Executive and Beijing’s man on the spot at the time, Tung Chee-hwa, kept her out of the courts.  

Sally Aw served as a member of the China National People’s Consultative Congress, the PRC’s united-front talking shop.  The Ho family, which bought her Sing Tao interest, is also very close to Beijing and one is welcome to speculate that the sale was forced upon Aw to make sure the papers stayed in friendly hands.  Charles Ho, the current chairman, also a CNPCC delegate (actually, a member of its standing committee) and is openly identified as “pro-Beijing”.  He heads a rather slush-fundy nonprofit, the Bauhinia Foundation, whose job is apparently to shake the tycoon money tree to fund study of Beijing’s “one country two systems” formulation and, presumably, provide welcome sinecures to deserving researchers and poobahs.

When the Chief Executive previous to C.Y. Lueng, David Tsang, awarded Ho the “Bauhinia Grand Medal”, a piece of bling recognizing unique contributions to Hong Kong (and partially compensating for the loss of those ancient and brag-worthy British decorations) there was considerably griping in the democratic quadrant as to his lack of worthiness.

The Sing Tao group, including its English-language offering, the Standard, has been an important recipient and conduit for the leaks and tittle-tattle concerning Jimmy Lai’s support of the democracy movement.

Sing Tao News Corporation recently announced after tax profits of HK$30 million for the first half of 2014.  Compared to Jimmy Lai’s operation, with its HK billion-dollar loss last year, Sing Tao seems to be doing pretty good.

One has to wonder how long Lai can sustain these losses, and one can wonder if his notorious trip to Burma with Paul Wolfowitz (Lai paid Wolfowitz $75,000 to get him in front of the ruling generals in order to pitch his business plans) was intended to open up a new financial front in a jurisdiction that, unlike Hong Kong (and like Taiwan, which now accounts for roughly half of Next Media’s revenues), is somewhat successfully wriggling out from beneath the PRC's thumb.

One can also speculate as to what would happen to Jimmy Lai’s business interests and personal fortunes if pro-democratic agitation wrests control of the Hong Kong executive out of the hands of his implacable enemies in the pro-Beijing camp.

It might be understandable that some people might think that it’s not right to help out the pro-Beijing pack trying to hound Jimmy Lai into bankruptcy by looking into his role in the democracy movement.

Then again, if Hong Kong democracy is, as we are sometimes told, the biggest and most important story on the planet, then what Jimmy Lai did, what Jimmy Lai does, and what Jimmy Lai wants is probably newsworthy.

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