iSun Affairs magazine expands, betting on hard-hitting reports

Chen Ping is expanding his hard-hitting iSun Affairs weekly, confident a clear-eyed look at the mainland's problems will succeed in difficult times

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 3:23am

Chen Ping says he has never been afraid.

When China was embroiled in Mao Zedong's personality cult during the Cultural Revolution, Chen - just 12 - had the guts to throw Mao's "little red book" onto the ground at school, call the great leader an "emperor" and "tyrant", and dismantle a loudspeaker used for broadcasting Mao's thoughts.

He was beaten, kicked and detained. The son of a Communist Party military expert captured by the Soviet Union, he was denounced as the offspring of a "Soviet revisionist rebel".

That same courage saw him found the iSun Affairs electronic magazine - a hard-hitting publication run by liberal mainland journalists that exploits the media freedom in Hong Kong to report and comment on issues that are mostly banned on the mainland.

Launched a year ago, the e-magazine has already established a reputation for its bold reports on China's political and social issues, winning four press awards for its coverage of the Wukan riot in Guangdong and blind activist Chen Guangcheng's escape from house arrest. According to the company, iSun Affairs ' electronic and print versions have reached a combined circulation of 130,000.

This week, iSun Affairs launched its print version - an ambitious project to give it a bigger market presence and broaden its readership.

Chen Ping, now 57, said his experience during the Cultural Revolution only toughened his resolve to do something for his country.

"This has only made me more determined that, as Chinese people, we should change our motherland," he said. "If there is no democracy, there is no future."

Chen, a businessman who was a researcher in a government policy think tank until the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, laments the self-censorship and lack of depth in Hong Kong's mainstream media and sees a niche for a serious publication that can offer candid insight into the mainland.

He says his media business will play a role in changing China. Amid the social ills - corruption, income disparity and social inequality - he sees the country at a stage where "if you don't carry out reform, the regime will not survive … it's a choice between reform or downfall".

Chen looks down on media outlets that soften their editorial lines for fear of offending Beijing or for short-term commercial interest, but he pays a heavy price for being outspoken.

Because of their critical stance, the magazine and Chen's satellite television channel, Sun TV, are both banned on the mainland. Since he bought Sun TV in 2005, the Hong Kong-based broadcaster has become known for its high-quality current affairs programmes - some of them hosted by Chen - and documentaries on social and historical issues.

Chen has hired several high-profile mainland news veterans, but some have been harassed or have had problems staying in Hong Kong. The magazine's chief editor, Chang Ping, a respected commentator, was denied a work visa in Hong Kong and now works out of Germany, where he is a visiting scholar.

The group's internet marketing director, Wen Yunchao , a popular blogger better known as Bei Feng, faces difficulties over the renewal of his mainland travel permit to Hong Kong. Wen said his family in Guangdong had been threatened by the authorities to stop him from criticising the mainland government and, with the authorities insisting he return to Guangdong to renew his permit, he worries he could face retribution.

Most of iSun Affairs ' 30 or so employees from the mainland face harassment. They and their relatives are often given verbal warnings by the mainland authorities about their "dangerous" activities in Hong Kong, said chief executive Cheng Yizhong, the founder of Guangzhou's outspoken Southern Metropolis Daily. Many cannot cope with the pressure and quit.

Phone calls to the Ministry of Public Security went unanswered yesterday.

None of this has forced Chen to compromise the outspokenness and the independence of his media outlet. After Sun TV's signal was blocked on the mainland in late 2009, he closed or sold all of his businesses there.

Chen is now using profits from his energy, biotechnology and property businesses in Japan and Southeast Asia to finance his loss-making media outlets but says they will eventually do well because people want reports that are candid and unbiased, especially in difficult times.

"I'm making a loss but this is just a phase … readers don't want to read lies. The good days are over; people can't just think of song and dance," Chen said. "Now we know that if China doesn't reform, things won't get better. Serious media will definitely have a market."

Some question why Chen would pour money into a loss-making business and wonder whether he has political back-up from the liberal faction in party politics. He is friendly with Hu Deping , the son of late liberal leader Hu Yaobang , and Vice-Premier Wang Qishan , a fellow government think tank researcher in the 1980s and a front runner to enter the party's Politburo Standing Committee in next month's leadership reshuffle.

In Chen's office, there is a photograph, taken in 1987, of him with president-in-waiting Xi Jinping , and another one with Yu Zhengsheng , another contender for Politburo Standing Committee membership. But Chen denies he has political support and is adamant that he created his independent media empire to fulfil his ideal.

"Chinese people have this slave culture. I am no slave so I hope my media outlets will become a genuine public tool that can correct this culture," he said.