After seven years building up a magazine empire in China, I had it stolen by the state. I lived in the grey zone that is China's media business and, despite my commitment to the country, paid a high priceby Mark Kitto / April 23, 2006 / Leave a comment
“I have good news,” said Mr Yuan of China Intercontinental Press. He removed his glasses and looked hard at a spot below my right shoulder. “My leaders have agreed, in principle, to create a joint venture with you.”
It was early 2004 and we sat in a bare villa-style apartment, an hour’s journey by taxi from downtown Beijing, near the old Summer Palace.
As Mr Yuan spoke, I could not believe my ears. His publishing company was controlled by China’s State Information Council, the Communist party’s propaganda machine. No one had got this far, not even Rupert Murdoch. (Indeed, within a few weeks of my meeting he would admit he had “hit a brick wall” in China.) The only partial exception was Li Ka-Shing, Hong Kong’s richest man, with massive property investments in China and a symbolic media joint venture with a mainland magazine. I had built a “mini media empire” in China, as the Financial Times described it, and now I was going to own part of it.
No individual “owns” media in China, only the government. The industry is controlled by licences, issued by government entities to government entities. But Chinese officials have difficulty making media businesses make any money, so the press has become the most tightly controlled, yet most loosely regulated industry in this contradictory state.
Now a man with a direct line to the highest authority in Chinese media was offering me, a foreigner, an ownership stake in a media business.
It all started by accident. I only ever wanted to be a journalist. But things happen fast in China, and in 1998, within eight months of resigning from the trading job that had brought me back after studying here in the 1980s, I had become the co-publisher of two city magazines. With my business partner, Kathleen Lau, an American national of Chinese origin, I started in Guangzhou in 1997 with a simple expatriate community paper. Within six months of opening Clueless in Guangzhou, Kathleen and I had taught ourselves all we thought we needed to know about the magazine business. We were ready for the big time. So we moved to Shanghai and launched what would become my life’s work, Ish (“in Shanghai”), the monthly magazine that spawned the that’s brand.
I have always hated the word “expat.” Ten years ago, the few English-language magazines for the international community in China were smug…