China's growing influence on Taiwanese mass media

August 13, 2013

Momoko Kawakami

Researcher at the Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO)

Momoko Kawakami, a researcher at the Institute of Developing Economies, JETRO, has a doctorate in economics from the University of Tokyo. Her areas of expertise are corporate research, industry and East Asian economies with a focus on Taiwan. Her book, "Asshuku Sareta Sangyo Hatten--Taiwan Notopasokon Kigyo no Seicho Mechanism" (Compressed industrial development--growth mechanisms of Taiwanese notebook PC manufacturers), published by the University of Nagoya Press, received the 29th Masayoshi Ohira Kinensho (Masayoshi Ohira memorial prize) this year.

China's influence on Taiwan's mass media has been growing in recent years, giving rise to skewed reporting and discussion on issues concerning the mainland.

The reasons come down to acquisitions of media outlets by Taiwanese entrepreneurs who are developing business interests in China, local governments in China "buying coverage" in Taiwan, and growing business interests among Taiwanese media companies in the mainland Chinese market.

The bottom line is this: There is an accompanying tendency to take greater heed of Chinese concerns in news coverage.

Young demonstrators scuffle with police during a protest against the proposed sale of influential media outlets to a pro-China businessman in Taipei, Nov. 27, 2012. About 100 protesters gathered outside the Cabinet offices to lambaste media magnate Tsai Eng-meng, well known for his pro-China attitudes and his extensive business interests on the mainland, with demonstrators alleging it will greatly expand Chinese influence on the democratic island amid receding press freedoms. (AP file photo)

Specifically, there appears to be growing trend among media outlets to slant the news coverage to encourage a friendlier view of China. At the same time, the media companies give less attention to topics that China is sensitive about.

BUYOUTS BY PRO-CHINESE ENTREPRENEURS

China's influence is primarily infiltrating Taiwan's mass media through the following routes: The first is through entrepreneurs who are developing a business in China--or planning to do so--and who buy up media outlets and have their own agenda when it comes to covering the news.

Taiwanese entrepreneurs who are developing vital business interests in China are fully aware of the need to establish friendly ties with the Chinese government. To them, acquiring a media outlet is one of the strategic ways to develop their business in China and gain protection from the Chinese government, which has made plain it seeks eventual reunification with Taiwan.

The 2008 buyout of the China Times by Want Want Holdings Ltd. demonstrated the political advantages of acquiring Taiwanese media outlets for Taiwanese capitalists. The group's rapid growth is attributed to its manufacture and sales of rice crackers, beverages and other products for the Chinese market. When Tsai Eng-Meng, the owner of Want Want Group, bought the China Times in 2008, the Chinese government began treating him as a VIP. After Tsai's acquisition, the China Times drastically changed its tone, and the people of Taiwan lost a high-quality liberal paper.

The second route is advertising that emanates from all levels of the Chinese government and passes as news. Over the past decade, some Taiwanese newspapers and TV stations have accepted payments for advertising from companies and governments to run product ads and public policy promotions designed to look like news stories. The use of this technique, called placement marketing, by Taiwanese governments is now subject to regulations, but regional Chinese governments at the provincial and municipal level have made heavy use of it since 2008.

It works like this: A regional government will pay money to a Taiwanese newspaper or other media outlet and request positive coverage timed to coincide with a visit to Taiwan by a provincial governor, mayor or delegation sent by that government.

The third route is through Taiwanese TV stations that sell their content to the Chinese market or expand their partnerships with Chinese TV stations, and through the accompanying deference they give to Chinese concerns. China's state-run TV stations are buyers of dramas and entertainment programs from Taiwanese stations. Because of the great growth potential in the Chinese market, the Taiwanese media is softening critical commentary directed at China to avoid displeasing these customers.

The factors behind China's growing influence in the Taiwanese mass media are clearly complex. While this influence is infiltrating the media through pressure from China--as with the placement marketing--the constant looking into China's face by Taiwanese entrepreneurs and media companies that are expanding their business in China is also leading to the skewed reporting and discussion on issues concerning the mainland.

ANTI-MONOPOLY MOVEMENT EMPLOYS SOCIAL MEDIA

As for the Taiwanese people, they have had an extremely healthy tradition of social activism since the start of democratization in the late 1980s and are not powerless against this trend. Students and young people across Taiwan began rising up last year to create an anti-media monopoly movement using social networking media.

Last December, the owners of three corporate groups, among them Tsai Eng-Meng, got together to announce plans to buy up the Taiwan-based operations of Hong Kong-based Next Media Ltd., which includes the Apple Daily, Taiwan's largest daily newspaper. The plan was met with lively protests.

The widespread support the protests garnered was one reason Tsai Eng-Meng and the other potential buyers abandoned their attempt to purchase media outlets such as the Apple Daily.

As the Chinese and Taiwanese economies become further intertwined, the two sides are forming special relationships with shared interests. On the one side are Taiwanese capitalists seeking support and patronage from the Chinese government; on the other side is the Chinese government, which has designs for reunification with Taiwan.

If these relationships grow deeper, China will be able to exert even greater influence over the Taiwanese media. The battle is only beginning between the power of strong cross-strait political and business alliances to infiltrate the Taiwanese media and the power of society to resist them.

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