Hong Kong: Keeping Ideals after '97

Article excerpt

Jimmy Lai Chi-ying of Hong Kong is one of Asia's boldest media moguls. In 1990, he used his fortune from the garment industry to start a lively newsmagazine, Next. In 1994 he wrote there that Chinese Premier Li Peng was "a turtle's egg with a zero IQ." China retaliated by closing the Beijing outlet of his Giordano clothing chain.

In June of last year Lai launched Apple Daily and shook up the Hong Kong media world. Its sensational stories and pictures and low newsstand price sent it soaring to No. 2 in a market that had already appeared saturated. Before, Hong Kong newspapers decided prices in unison. Apple busted the cartel by selling for the equivalent of U.S. 26 cents, when all other newspapers were 64 cents. That bold move triggered a price-cutting war that forced three smaller papers to fold. In June, despite a promise to maintain the 26-cent price until 1997, Apple Daily, facing dwindling profits, raised its price to 64 cents.

Lai, 48, was born to a Guangzhou family whose wealth was confiscated by the Communist government. He arrived in Hong Kong in 1961 penniless and unschooled. Now he again faces an uncertain future. On july 1, 1997, the British colony will revert to Chinese rule. Beijing's oppression of its own press and its heavy-handed efforts to control Hong Kong reporters covering China have raised fears of media restrictions in Hong Kong. Lai, forced recently to sell Giordano because of continuing pressure from China, now plans to invest heavily in the United States technology industry, although he intends to keep his Hong Kong media empire.

Judith Clarke, who teaches journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, interviewed Lai at his office in Hong Kong.

Q. -- Why did you go into publishing?

A. -- In 1989 I was tired of retailing. Then the june 4 Tiananmen massacre took place, and it inspired me to go into the media business. By letting people be better informed, I provide them with more choices in life, and the more choices they have, the more freedom they have.

Q. -- Did the idea include having a platform to criticize the Chinese government?

A.-- We're not in the business to criticize anybody. We're in the business to be honest. Sometimes being honest means being critical or offending people. In some circumstances, or to some people, honesty hurts, and we can't avoid it.

Q. -- How have you made your publications so commercially successful when others in Hong Kong have failed?

A. -- Because I don't have any preconceptions. I always go on the assumption that I don't know anything about the business, so I'm more receptive to learning from mistakes and more keen to try and find solutions through trial and error. Every day at 3 p.m. all 25 senior staff of the newspaper go into one room and criticize the day's paper: the headlines, the photos, the text, or the wrong positioning of the news. …