Mute Wonder

Asia’s inability to set a global agenda is due to the silence of the Asian media, and their failure to articulate a vision for the future.

Asia’s economic rise seems unstoppable. Except for Japan, Asia has motored through the global economic downturn with just a few bumps. Property prices are at or near record highs in Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and many other big cities. Tomorrow, it seems, belongs to Asia: Asians looking at the U. S. see a divided Congress and a rapacious Wall Street combined with a U.S. economy stuck in neutral and unemployment close to 10%.

But where is the media trumpeting an Asian vision? The local press acts as gadflies, harassing and annoying local politicians and business leaders. They cheer economic achievements, acting as capable corporate stenographers. They prompt the occasional political resignation. Thanks to cellphones and the Internet, ordinary citizens have embraced social media, which makes it harder for local officials even in countries like China to get away with bad deeds. And yet, impressive as Asia’s economic accomplishments are, it hasn’t started to stake a claim to moral and ideological leadership.

Asians know this. China’s state-run CCTV and other official media have big budgets to expand abroad, though the effort seems doomed to failure as long as the Communist Party vets content. Kishore Mahbubani, former longtime Singaporean ambassador to the United Nations and one of the most articulate Asian thinkers, laments the fact that media in New York and London set the global agenda. Yet Singapore has made a concerted effort in the past decade to woo just those media, establishing itself as a regional center for outfits like Reuters and the BBC. The idea that Singapore would develop a truly independent media sector is unimaginable in a country where senior officials aggressively use the courts to pursue their claims against media they think have wronged them. (Still, Singapore is pragmatic: It let in CNN after the first Gulf war when its oil traders found themselves at a competitive disadvantage.)

The lack of Asian media is all the more striking considering the dismal state of most Western media in the region. The Far Eastern Economic Review‘s slow disintegration is only the most striking Western pullback from Asia. Five years ago the magazine, which had been published weekly in Hong Kong since 1946, slashed its publication to ten times a year, while retaining only a skeleton staff. A year ago new owners News Corp. killed the magazine. The Review‘s demise followed Time Warner ‘s decision to close AsiaWeek a few years earlier. More recently BusinessWeek eliminated its Asian edition as part of a series of cutbacks that eventually saw it sold to Bloomberg. Many Western foreign correspondents have been eliminated in Asia as an expensive luxury at a time of industry frugality.

The biggest media opportunity is in explaining the rise of China–especially with the sort of inside-the-Beltway reporting that China’s half-open system now permits (the occasional espionage case against a foreign businessman notwithstanding).

Hong Kong should be ideally positioned to exploit these opportunities. It’s the only free city in China, where the sort of freewheeling media that would have the credibility to establish itself as an independent brand could possibly exist, given the current political climate in China (getting worse). There are serious political constraints on the Hong Kong media. These range from self-censorship to interference by owners to heavy-handed threats from both Beijing and Hong Kong officials. But that doesn’t explain why both English- and Chinese-language media have done such a poor job of reporting on China’s business and economic rise. Lack of commitment by media owners is the biggest reason.

Indeed, there is often better reporting from inside China than from Hong Kong. Hu Shuli, one of China’s most courageous journalists, founded Caijing magazine in 1998. The magazine quickly became a must-read among China’s business elite, featuring stories like a stock-rigging scheme run by mutual fund managers who met in a sauna so that none of them could tape the conspiracy. Protected by powerful reform-minded patrons, Caijing pushed up against the boundaries of what was permissible but rarely overstepped China’s ever-shifting limits. After a dispute involving both finances and editorial control, Hu and more than 100 people left to start a new publication, Caixin, setting up a publishing stable that includes a subscription-only English-language weekly. Caijing soldiers on and remains a hard-hitting publication. These two publications, with a handful of others, are chipping away at state control, at least in economic and business areas.

One thing is certain: Shanghai will not be an international financial center without the free flow of information. Free economies need free media. Even authoritarian places like South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s found that nurturing dynamic economies while stifling media was like trying to square a circle. Efficient markets thrive on the free flow of information. For now, with a handful of exceptions like Caijing and Caixin, Western media still provide the most concise and reliable assessment of China. Reuters and Bloomberg have made significant investments in Asia in recent years.

Media needs a strong owner. Most great media empires have been driven by powerful men, who had outsize, often ruthless, ambitions and were completely committed to their publishing empires. Media businesses attract enemies. Even the most timid article usually offends someone. In Asia many media owners have a web of business interests that make running a media business even more problematic.

One of the pure-play media entrepreneurs is Jimmy Lai. The Hong Kong-based pro-democracy publisher sold his chain of Giordano clothing stores to concentrate on newspapers and magazines when Chinese anger about his politics grew too intense. He’s repeated his newspaper-and-magazine formula in Taiwan, and added Internet-based tv to sidestep regulators. Now Lai is trying to upend the media business with a 200-person, $10 million-a-year operation making animated videos of news events, like Tiger Woods’ infamous car crash last November, for sale to global customers. Lai’s mix of politics, sex and sleaze has made him lots of enemies, but it’s clear that he’s changed the rules of the game. Too few other media owners have even tried.

Like the dog that didn’t bark in a Sherlock Holmes mystery, the Asian media’s silence in articulating a vision speaks to Asia’s impotence in setting the global agenda.

Originally published in Forbes. Can be accessed at www.forbes.com/global/2010/0927/asia-10-years-media-economy-local-press-cctv-mute-wonder.html