Borton eyes the media This is the first installment of a media
column by author and journalist James
Borton, providing timely insights into Asian
media affairs; he shines the spotlight on media
Media tycoon an anti-Beijing typhoon
Jimmy Lai, 55-year-old entrepreneur
and brazen media tycoon,
shows no signs of
mellowing. He still brandishes the same trademark
paparazzi publishing style: investigative political and
propagandistic reporting, sensationalism mixed with the
requisite photos of naked women. But like a fast-moving
typhoon slashing across the South China Sea, Lai's
approach to news has almost guaranteed that he is no
friend of mainland China.
It has been three
years since Jimmy Lai took his Hong Kong-based media
road show to Taiwan and started Taiwan Next weekly
magazine - No 1 in terms of readership - and Apple Daily
Taiwan; he also publishes a Hong Kong edition of Apple
Some observers insist his relocation to
Taiwan was designed to be a launching pad for a tougher
media attack on China, and others suggest his Taiwan
move was solely motivated by Taiwan's freer and more
lucrative media market. After all, Taiwan has nearly 22
million readers, compared with Hong Kong's 7 million.
Lai Chi-ying, or Jimmy Lai, packed his bags and
his family in Hong Kong, leaving on his corporate yacht
(aptly named Free China) in the wake of dashed - but
only for a while - dreams, lawsuits and enemies, but he
took to Taiwan a resolute belief that Taipei offers more
personal and press freedom.
editor-in-chief of Next Media, the self-educated refugee
from Guangdong province wrote many vitriolic editorials
railing against China's stranglehold on personal
His publications are banned on the
mainland but they are published in Hong Kong, where
Beijing is somewhat more sensitive to the sensibilities
of Hong Kong residents.
While in Hong Kong, Lai
even took to the streets in Victoria Park in December
2002, along with tens of thousands of other protesters
rallying against the government's proposed
anti-subversion law. He said the law was "like an
invisible, tightening collar".
editorialized for bold action in Hong Kong An
editorial in his Hong Kong mass-circulation Apple Daily
was a clarion call for decisive democratic action: "In
order to avoid our children having to grow up in a place
without freedom of thought and freedom of information,
in order to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a silent,
'dead city', there is no more room for silence. We hope
citizens can, as soon as possible, explicitly express
their concerns and fears of Article 23 of the Basic Law
with various means."
That provision of
(anti-sedition) Article 23 of the Basic Law, against
which Lai and his Apple Daily galvanized mass protest,
spells out that "The Hong Kong Special Administrative
Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act
of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the
Central People's Government." Vague and
all-encompassing, to say the least,
arrival in, Lai reaffirmed with his relocation and media
investment that the small island of Taiwan is the first
and the only democracy in China.
newsstands are running out of space for its 6,000
magazines vying for new readership, but Jimmy Lai's
Apple Daily and Taiwan Next, a popular tabloid
newsmagazine, stand out.
The expansion of
Taiwan's media has led to desperate commercial
competition and no-holds-barred aggressiveness among the
island's viable media. Some 80 radio stations, 140
cable-television operators with 70 channels, 360
newspapers, and 235 domestic news agencies engage in
ferocious daily competition for the attention of the
public and advertisers.
"Looking ahead, we shall
continue to uphold our dedication to cost control in
both Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, we shall not in any
way sacrifice our content for the sake of cost-cutting.
A rich content is our trademark and a competitive edge,"
claims Jimmy Lai in the 2003-04 annual report of parent
company Next Media. To be sure, investors in Next Media
are concerned about the enormous expenses incurred by
the Taiwan expansion.
Jimmy Lai declined
repeated e-mail requests from this writer for an
interview; Asia Times Online, however, was able to
secure e-mail responses from senior members of his Hong
The formula: Politics,
business, lifestyle, sex Analysts have said that
Next Media Ltd invested more than US$15 million in Next
magazine's Taiwan edition, with the same focus on
politics, economy, entertainment and lifestyles as its
Hong Kong edition.
Next Media's latest
consolidated profit-and-loss account, filed in March,
reports only a modest loss post-taxes of US$11,528.
While shareholders may not fully understand the expenses
involved in the launch of Lai's Taiwan Apple Daily in
April 2003, the newspaper achieved an average daily
circulation of about 406,000. This is a remarkable feat
in an oversaturated media market. And Taiwan Next
magazine, established in 2001, sustained its top ranking
as the most widely read weekly magazine, according to
the ratings service Nielsen Media Research (Taiwan).
Next Media Company Ltd, the parent company, was
first established in Hong Kong in 1989, with the debut
of Next magazine, a Chinese-language weekly
general-interest magazine with the motto: "Don't Put on
Airs: Just Seek the Truth." It was only a matter of
weeks after the launch that the slick four-color
magazine lambasted Beijing with its strident editorials.
Lai personally branded Li Peng, China's former premier,
widely recognized as the key party official who ordered
the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989, as "the son of a
turtle egg with a zero IQ". References to turtles and
their eggs are considered extremely offensive in China.
Hong Kong Apple Daily has relentlessly attacked
China for years, often in front-page articles calling
Jiang Zemin, former Chinese president and until recently
the nation's commander-in-chief, as "one of the top
enemies of the press".
Last year in Hong Kong on
the eve of the July 1 pro-democracy protest, Lai's Next
magazine served up the ultimate in-your-face journalism
by placing on the cover a mock-up photo of Hong Kong
Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa taking a pie straight into
his face. The caption encouraged all readers to "take to
the streets". Jimmy Lai the media personality also
walked the walk to extol freedom in Hong Kong during
that freedom march, mixing it up with nearly a
Lai's language, his
verbal attacks against the government, and the macho
gestures are reminiscent of a Chinese version of Norman
Mailer, who in the turbulent 1960s placed himself front
and center in his own media carnival and published work,
The Armies of the Night.
chief executive cost millions As a result of
Lai's virulent anti-China rhetoric, all of his
publications are banned in the People's Republic of
China, though not in Hong Kong. He also incurred the
wrath of Kong Kong's pro-Beijing Chief Executive Tung
Chee-hwa, resulting in a loss of millions of dollars of
advertising from property developers last spring.
"Even today, we are still banned as reporters
from entering China to cover any story," Liu Kin-ming,
managing editor of the Hong Kong Apple Daily opinion
page, said in a recent Asia Times Online e-mail
Jimmy Lai ardently subscribes to the
belief that Taiwan has a historic opportunity and
mission. In an editorial in his weekly Taiwan Next
magazine, he states that "economic integration also
means you're playing a greater influence on China, an
influence that will urge it toward democracy". Democracy
in Taiwan, he argues, will protect the island from
losing its political independence; when push comes to
shove, the Taiwan people simply won't vote for
reunification, claims the flamboyant editor.
Controversy followed Lai in Taipei, where he
quickly earned the enmity of President Chen Shui-bian.
Taiwan Next magazine published a 14-page report
detailing how former president Lee Teng-hui supposedly
authorized the National Security Bureau to set up two
secret funds to finance diplomatic overtures to other
countries to win their support, sometimes involving
direct cash payments to their governments.
Asian media drama unfolded in a calculated manner when
Lai published allegedly secret documents taken from the
Taiwanese government's National Security Office. The
informant, Colonel Liu Kuan-chun, a former chief cashier
at Taiwan's National Security Bureau, reportedly passed
some of these sensitive papers to Taiwan Next magazine
before fleeing to Canada under protection of the US
Central Intelligence Agency.
publication splashed headlines about this alleged secret
US$100 million slush fund created by former president
Lee, allegedly used for wide-ranging diplomacy-building
programs to establish Taiwan as a special de facto
sovereign state. Virtually the entire world, however,
recognizes the People's Republic of China
diplomatically, while doing business with Taiwan.
Government officials raided Taiwan Next magazine
offices, threatening to shut down the publication and
seizing copies of that issue at his printer's plant. The
net result was regional and international publicity for
For Lai, it was another bold
step enshrining his public image as a media rainmaker or
for some, a petulant publisher, for taking on all
A bloody two years of
lawsuits, red ink The past two few years have
proved bloody for the pugilistic middleweight publisher
in Taiwan, whose stock, which includes shares of the
media corporation that publishes Apple Daily in Hong
Kong, now runs in the red.
Although Jimmy Lai
declined to forecast or discuss the group's full-year
loss figures, a staff assistant directed this reporter
to the annual report. Asia Times Online also learned
that the payroll for the Hong Kong Apple Daily newspaper
exceeds 500 employees.
"Apple Daily in Taiwan is
up to almost a 20% market share with circulation gains
fairly strong over the past six months and with a daily
circulation approaching almost 500,000 copies. His
operation lost almost US$70 million in fiscal 2004, year
ending in March, losses will reduce over the next three
years, but we still can't see a break even clearly until
2008/2009," media analyst Vivek Couto with Media
Partners Asia in Hong Kong said in a recent e-mail
interview with Asia Times Online.
undeterred in bringing freedom to the Chinese people
through his media enterprise. Some analysts say that
ever since the Hong Kong media mogul entered the fray in
Taiwan in 2001 and launched Taiwan Next weekly magazine
and Apple Daily, tabloid-style journalism has been on
Taiwan Next magazine was launched with
an expensive US$3.6 million advertising campaign touting
a circulation of 250,000, making it overnight one of the
country's best-selling weekly magazines.
bravado and capital has edged out all competitors.
This includes the entrenched and reputable China
Times Weekly. But few can dispute that Jimmy Lai's media
gamble on Taiwan is based on a single premise: that the
country's raucous and free-wheeling democracy would
embrace his controversial journalism.
Media the people's servant "It's very exciting to
live in a democracy. It's too tempting," Lai said when
asked by members of Taiwan media in late May 2001 why he
officially changed his residence to Taiwan. Lai offers a
revealing statement on the role of the media buried in
Next Media's annual report: "The media are not the tools
of the ruling powers but are the people's servant." And
that includes the occasional brothel review.
Before Lai's relocation to Taiwan, Hong Kong's
Apple Daily was on a new journalism trajectory that
might give that titan of tabloids, Rupert Murdoch,
pause. In efforts to boost readership, the newspaper
published daily sexually explicit images and even casual
reviews of recommended brothels in the "City of Lights".
Apple Daily still remains one of Hong Kong's
highest-circulation daily newspapers, approaching nearly
500,000 copies, but Lai's boldness and popularity has
carried a price: a plethora of lawsuits and high fines.
According to the popular Chinese website
Sina.com, since the enactment in 1994 of the Obscene and
Indecent Articles Ordinance in Hong Kong, Next magazine
has violated the law many times and has paid fines
ranging from US$5,000-$14,000.
Even Taiwan Next
magazine has also violated the island's law against
obscenity. Last year, a formal complaint was registered
against the magazine after the editor published a photo
of a nude schoolgirl.
No one denies that an
independent and lively press is the foundation of
Taiwan's democratic society, though debates continue
among academics and journalists over the true limits of
free expression. Taiwan's media penchant for covering
scandals was checked by this spring's high-profile
lawsuit filed by the daughter of presidential candidate
Lien Chan suing Taiwan Next magazine, alleging that it
falsely reported that she wrote a series of letters to a
friend about her father beating her mother.
"Jimmy Lai is merely reinforcing the existing
trends of [Taiwan's] print media to become even more
sensational and privacy-intruding," Professor Chien-san
Feng of the department of journalism at Taipei's Cheng
Chi University said in an online interview with Asia
There are few examples of
downmarket tabloids ever rising to the top, and some
analysts are still undecided whether media competition
generates innovation and creative commerce. But one
thing is certain: Asia media observers are all asking
what's next for Jimmy Lai.
is an author (
>Venture Japan, a pioneering
book on capital markets), freelance journalist and
director of Asia-Pacific projects for Foreign Affairs
journal, published by the Council on Foreign Relations
in New York. He welcomes media news releases, story
ideas, tips on trends and comments. He can be reached at
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