During the last few months, the announcement by Hong Kong media group mogul Jimmy Lai that he would sell his Taiwan branch had sparked great controversy. Jimmy Lai owns the Next Media Group, to which newspapers such as Apple Daily belong. Apple Daily and its Taiwanese version are the most read newspapers in their respective areas of circulation.
The controversy stemmed from the fact that the consortium of buyers, who had offered to purchase the group for HK$4.16 billion, were headed by Chinatrust Charity Foundation chairman Jeffrey Koo Jr (辜仲諒), and Want Want China Times Group (旺旺中時集團) chairman Tsai Eng-meng (蔡衍明). The latter has often been criticized for using his media group for espousing and promoting pro-Beijing views (note).
The Taiwanese public was worried about the consequences of such a deal, which would have put Taiwan’s most popular media in the hands of a consortium led by Tsai Eng-meng, who already owns media such as the China Times, thus creating a big media trust.
However, yesterday newspapers in Taiwan and Hong Kong reported that the deal failed (note). As The Standard reported today (28/3/2013), Jimmy Lai stated that he will never try to sell his Taiwan media outlets again. “[I]t would be unfair to the staff as well as the readers. Our creditability would be lost,” he said. He added that his Taiwanese media outlets must become more profitable, earning as much as HK$340 million a year.
Jimmy Lai is a notorious ‘troublemaker’, at least from Beijing central government’s point of view. Lai’s life is an adventure in itself. Born into a poor family in Guangdong, he fled China as a thirteen-year old boy to seek his fortune in Hong Kong. There he set up a clothes retailer, Giordano, and became a garment tycoon. (Callick 1998, p. 94-95). In the early 1990s he founded the magazine Next, a sensationalist, colourful publication. The paper had enormous success, with a circulation of 400, 000 units, far ahead of the then market leader, the Oriental Daily. In June 1995, only two years before Hong Kong was handed over to the PRC, Lai launched Apple Daily (Mee Kau Nyaw, Li Si-Ming: Hong Kong Report. 1997, p. 488).
His tabloids, which attract readers through their eye-catching graphic and sensationalist stories about sex, crime and political scandals, are not focused on rational political analyses; but their provocative headlines and scoops, as well as their anti-establishment attitude, require freedom and independence from the government. This is where Jimmy Lai’s and the CCP’s views clash.
Lai has made himself a lot of enemies in Beijing for criticizing the Communist Party and for openly promoting the freedom of the press. When he first heard that Hong Kong would be handed back to China, he allegedly cried (Lai 2007, p. 121). In a famous article published in Next in 1994, he described then Premier Li Peng as a ‘turtle’s egg with a zero IQ’ who is a shame to the Chinese people, and whose head should drop dead. This prompted a fierce reaction in Beijing. The retaliation came immediately, with his Giordano shops being shut down in mainland China, allegedly due to license issues. In August 1994, Lai stepped down from Giordano‘s Board (Fenby 2000, p. 134; Dixon / Newmann 1998, p. 48). The Taiwanese version of Next Magazine and Apple Daily were launched in 2001 and 2003 respectively, achieving the largest readership in their market segment (note).
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