Will China Ever Purchase a U.S. Media Company?

In May 2010, when the Washington Post Company put Newsweek up for sale, it called for bids from interested parties. One surprising entry into the race was Southern Media Group, a Chinese media conglomerate that publishes the relatively liberal newspaper Southern Weekly, among other products. I was a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek at the time, and I remember several Chinese people asking me, with a mixture of pride and apprehension, whether I thought Southern Media Group had a chance. Unsurprisingly, the answer was no. (Newsweek was sold to stereo magnate Sidney Harman, who combined it with Barry Diller's Daily Beast.)

"The prospective buyers are not wrong that they have a right to bid on an American news organization, but they are wrong that they had the remotest shot of succeeding," Evan Osnos wrote in a New Yorker blog post about the sale and Southern Media Group's bid. "For the moment, the spiritual gap between them and American news organizations is larger than even the most sober Chinese media baron probably imagines. A sale of this kind is, for the moment, beyond imagination."

Fast-forward three years, and it's worth revisiting the issue. The past week's media news has upended the traditional notion of media ownership by publically traded companies seeking profitability. On Aug. 5, the Washington Post Company announced it will sell the Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million; the New York Times Company let go of the Boston Globe newspaper in a $70-million transaction involving businessman and Red Sox owner John W. Henry; and an even more beleaguered Newsweek found itself sold for an undisclosed amount to the company that publishes the International Business Times, an online publication that's widely read -- just not by journalists. (Foreign Policy, which is owned by the Washington Post Company, was not part of the Bezos sale.)  While it's too early to say whether the new owners of the Post and the Globe bought the papers as investments or prestige products, they are certainly aware that purchasing a media product is now a (relatively) cheap way to purchase influence.

Which brings us back to China, a country flush with cash and obsessed with the idea of soft power -- influencing others in the world by attraction rather than payment or coercion. One of the major ways in which China has tried to increase its soft power is by spending billions of dollars bankrolling its media companies' global expansion. Xinhua, China's state newswire, often gives free dispatches to "financially struggling news media outlets in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia," according to the New York Times. China Central Television, the country's main state broadcaster, has set up a U.S. division and hired dozens of people away from respected Western news outlets. A 2011 article in the Guardian reported that Beijing was distributing 2.5 million copies of a supplement of China Daily, the country's best-known English-language newspaper, in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Daily Telegraph.

So will a Chinese company bid for the next media company to hit the block? I think it's still very unlikely. The perception in the United States -- that a Chinese media takeover would turn the publication in question into a propaganda mouthpiece -- makes a sale difficult. I imagine the Onion's 2009 series, in which the satirical newspaper pretended to be purchased by a Chinese fish company, still rings true for Americans: The Onion's "publisher emeritus," T. Herman Zweibel, announced he had been paid "an appropriately absurd parcel of riches," and ran stories like "Nothing At All Happens To 28 Tibetan Protesters, Their Families" and "China Strong."

It's also not the way Beijing likes to do business. Even if a Chinese media company found a willing seller in the United States, as companies in other industries have done, China would probably view the transaction as too risky. One of the advantages of expanding CCTV into the United States instead of buying an American media company is that the employees hired know that coverage of issues involving China is sensitive. Journalists from an established media company in the United States, on the other hand, would expect to be able to cover China with a greater degree of freedom than the country's own straitjacketed media outlets are permitted. "The fundamental difference is that Western-style media views itself as a watchdog and a protector of public interests, while the Chinese model seeks to defend the state from jeopardy or questions about its authority," Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, told The New York Times last year. Owning a publication that couldn't defend the Chinese state while maintaining its credibility is not a gamble Beijing would take, even if there is a Zweibel out there willing to make a deal. 

National Security

This Is the 8th Time al Qaeda in Yemen Has Threatened U.S. Embassies

As new details have emerged about the terrorist threat that forced the closure of 19 U.S. diplomatic posts and the evacuation of American and British personnel from Yemen, officials have repeatedly raised alarms about how remarkably specific this particular threat was -- in terms of the size and timing of the planned attack (administration officials are telling reporters that the alert originated with intercepted communications between al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). But specifics about the intended target of the attack have yet to leak.

Still, based on the U.S. response to the threat and AQAP's track record, it wouldn't be surprising if U.S. embassies were discussed. According to the private U.S. counterterrorism intelligence company IntelCenter, AQAP has mentioned the United States in its messages 16 times this year alone -- making America far and away AQAP's favorite target. (In comparison, the second-most threatened country, Yemen, has only been mentioned eight times, followed by France with six mentions.)

In a separate analysis, IntelCenter found that AQAP has publicly discussed attacking embassies seven times since December 2009. Last September, in a statement issued shortly after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, AQAP praised the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and urged others to emulate the attack: "[W]henever a Muslim gets hold of US ambassadors or delegates, he has the best example in the act of the grandsons of Omar Mukhtar in Libya -- who slaughtered the US ambassador -- may Allah reward them. Let the step of expelling embassies and consulates be a milestone to free the Muslim lands from the American domination and arrogance."

AQAP went further in December 2012, announcing bounties for lone-wolf assassins who kill the U.S. ambassador or military personnel. For the death of U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein, AQAP promised "3,000 grams of gold" (a quick check of the price of gold puts this at about $123,000), and $5 million Yemeni rials ($23,250) for U.S. soldiers.

The most recent threat came in April 2013, as Yemen began its National Dialogue, an ongoing conference to resolve the conflicts between the country's political, tribal, and religious factions in advance of the formation of a new government next year. The statement was made by Ibrahim al-Rubaysh, AQAP's chief theologian, who is increasingly the public face of AQAP -- he announced the death of AQAP's deputy emir last month and is a possible replacement for the vacant No. 2 position in the organization. On Monday, the Yemeni government placed Rubaysh at the top of a new watchlist of active AQAP operatives. "The US ambassador rudely spoke in order to show us who is welcomed, or who is not, to this dialogue," Rubaysh said in April, according to IntelCenter. "This clearly shows that the country is run from inside the US Embassy [and] ... the interest of the ummah lies in implementing God's sharia and ridding itself of the occupiers from the lands of Muslims whether they are from among the Crusaders or from among their agents from our fellow countrymen."

U.S. officials have not discussed whether the messages they intercepted specifically targeted U.S. embassies, but it's clear these diplomatic posts are in AQAP's crosshairs.