TAIPEI, Taiwan — A Taiwanese tycoon with big business interests in China is causing alarm as he tries to expand his media empire on the democratic island.
Want Want Group chairman Tsai Eng-meng is trying to purchase a cable TV network system in a $2.4 billion deal that would significantly bolster his influence in Taiwan. But regulators have held up approval for almost 18 months amid concerns that Want Want's China Times subsidiary is becoming too powerful.
Tsai purchased the China Times stable of media outlets for $650 million in 2008. It includes the flagship China Times daily newspaper, China TV, and the CTI cable news station.
Adding to the deal's controversy, a rival media mogul is attacking Tsai over his close ties to China. Jimmy Lai, publisher of the Apple Daily newspaper, says Want Want's China business interests — the company's fortune originated with food sales on the mainland — and his pronounced pro-Beijing views should scuttle his application to acquire Taiwan's China Network Systems. The broadcaster provides cable service to 1.18 million TV households, or a quarter of the island's total.
Lai is not the only one with doubts. Many Taiwanese fear that China is using big Taiwanese business interests to advance its agenda of bringing the island back under its control. The two sides split amid civil war in 1949, and Beijing continues to regard democratic Taiwan as part of its territory. During the four year administration of recently re-elected President Ma Ying-jeou, China leveraged billions of dollars in Taiwanese imports and substantial Chinese tourist spending to substantially increase its economic sway here.
Journalism professor Kuang Chung-hsiang of National Chung Cheng University in southern Taiwan said that media purchases on the island tend to be made more for reasons of personal influence than for profit, because of the relatively small size of the market, and that seems the case with the CNS deal too.
"Tsai apparently hopes that his influence in Taiwan will bolster his stature in China to aid his mainland business," he said.
Tsai raised hackles earlier this year when he told a Washington Post reporter that China's 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters near Beijing's Tiananmen Square didn't produce anywhere near the number of casualties attributed to it by international media reports, including those from Taiwan.
He also said that Taiwan's unification with the mainland was inevitable, a position that no political party on the island — including President Ma's China-friendly Nationalists — publicly accepts.
Lai, whose anti-China views have made him a pariah in Beijing, is pillorying the proposed China Network Systems acquisition in the pages of Apple Daily. A recent headline declared: "Taiwan cannot afford to have only the sole voice of Want Want left." It was accompanied by a caricature of a smiling Tsai sitting next to a pile of outsized gold coins, representing his various media outlets.
Other Apple attacks have included accusations that the China Times newspaper has given undue coverage to Chinese purchasing missions in Taiwan, and has allowed itself to be used as a platform for Chinese advertising that presents itself as news, recently ruled illegal by Taiwanese regulators.
Tsai outbid Lai for the China Times Group when he purchased it four years ago.
China Times has hit back hard at Lai's newspaper, which is best known for gory crime coverage, sexually suggestive graphics, and nonstop reports on pop stars and other entertainment icons.
It has accused the paper a slew of erroneous reports, including an allegedly slanderous expose which it says caused the suicide of the head of a local securities firm.
"Look how many Taiwanese he has harmed," China Times wrote about Lai, depicting him as a cavalier hit man, with a hammer in one hand and a mace in the other.
Apple Daily and its Next weekly magazine are among a few profitable news outlets in Taiwan. The group launched Next TV last year, and CNS's new buyer could decide whether it will be allowed to go on the air, because of its ability to restrict access — through fee deals or punitive administrative actions. Were it to be denied access, Apple's bottom line could take a significant hit.
On Monday, as the China Times-Apple spat went into its third mudslinging week, the chairwoman of Taiwan's National Communications Commission, the ultimate arbiter of the China Times bid for China Network Systems, called on the two media groups to moderate their rhetoric.
This is "a grave case of using the media to serve private interests," she said.
While many from the ruling Nationalists support Tsai's bid — the China Times Group normally gushes over Nationalist political positions — some do not.
Lawmaker Lo Shu-lei said that while many Taiwanese could justifiably have "reasonable doubts" about the group's editorial independence, an even larger concern appeared to be the possible emergence of a "super media group."
She noted that Taiwan's cable news programs — even those normally at odds with China Times editorial positions — have shunned criticizing the CNS acquisition out of fear that should it be approved, they could be forced off the air by price hikes or other punitive measures.
Want Want rejects such a scenario.
It says the Fair Trade Commission ruled a year ago that its proposed CNS buyout would not constitute an unfair media monopoly, and calls on the NCC to make an early decision on the bid.
Want Want official Chao Yu-Pei, who is handling the deal, said news outlets of all formats under the group's control now have a combined 18 percent of the Taiwan market, significantly below what would be considered a monopoly in the West.
"Taiwan is a democracy with freedom of speech," Chao said. "Everyone has his or her own views and is unlikely to be swayed by the views of any single media group."