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Teaching Taiwan about a Free Press

When Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai moved to Taipei last year to launch Taiwan Next magazine, he proclaimed that the future of Chinese democracy was in Taiwan. But freedom of the press isn't always all it should be on the island, as Lai found out last month. After the Lai, known for his tabloid journalism in Hong Kong, printed a controversial story about an alleged $100 million political slush fund used to promote Taiwan's diplomatic image abroad, authorities raided his offices in Taipei, confiscated 160,000 copies of the magazine, and questioned the reporter who did the story.

Although the reporter is being investigated for aiding and abetting the enemy under the Taiwan Treason Act -- a violation of which is punishable by death -- the unflappable Lai shrugs off the events as a mere "transitional adjustment" on the bumpy road to democracy. He recently spoke to BusinessWeek Asia Correspondent Frederik Balfour in the lush, orchid-laden garden of the house he still keeps in Hong Kong. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: How do you view the government's attempt to muzzle your magazine?

A: The whole matter has proven that Taiwan is a place of law and order, and of democracy, and gives me more hope for the future of Taiwan. We sold 320,000 copies, our largest circulation ever, all because the police couldn't get an injunction to prevent us from printing. [Lai printed additional copies of the magazine after the raid.]

It's just one of those cases of trial and error that the Taiwanese government has to undergo during the transition from the old system to the new. The system has to refine itself. It's still a young democracy.

Q: What's the magazine's circulation?

A: It's now 165,000 per week, except the last issue which was 320,000. We are by far the largest weekly. [Lai estimates his nearest competitor sells 50,000 copies a week.] Advertising [sales] is about $65,000 per week. In six months, we will have enough to break even, so we will be able to launch a Taiwanese version of Apple Daily [Hong Kong's muckraking Chinese-language newspaper].

Q: Have advertisers pulled out since the slush-fund story?

A: That [kind of thing] happens in Hong Kong all the time. But in Taiwan, I don't think anybody pulled out as a result of the incident.

Q: How does the Taiwanese readership differ from Hong Kong's?

A: The Taiwanese have a greater propensity to read and spend more time reading. There are subtle or peripheral differences, but they still both like things to be exciting, gossipy, entertaining, well researched, [well] written. In both places, people are quite ambivalent about politics.

Q: But the story about the slush fund involved politics.

A: That was a scandal -- very sexy politics.

Q: How do you see media freedoms now in Hong Kong? [Lai's Next Media puts out several publications in Hong Kong, and he divides his time between Hong Kong and Taiwan.]

A: Nobody pushes me, nobody cajoles me. Nobody tries to pressure me. Yet, the longer Hong Kong is part of China, the more our values will be eroded by the Chinese values, and the more people will start to accept the Chinese way of things, including the way they look at media.

They might even become ambivalent about government intervention in the media, and [it will become harder and harder] for media to be independent -- especially now when Hong Kong is receding from world stage.

Q: How do you view China today in light of recent labor unrest?

A: I've been wrong about China -- nothing I said has ever happened. I don't think the protests will destabilize China because China's market has definitely opened very far, and there are still opportunities for people who live there to have a better life. As long as hope is there, disaster won't happen. As long as it opens up, tensions will ease.

Q: Do you imagine being able to distribute your magazines there one day?

A: We envision Taiwanese media going direct to the north of China and Hong Kong media to the south once the market opens. We have a good strategic position in Taiwan. It will happen in my lifetime, I'm sure, within 10 years. With the flow of information accelerating, the pace of evolution of society accelerates also. What took 50 years may only take five years now.

Q: Are there any sacred cows you cannot touch in Taiwan?

A: We have to rigorously stick to facts and not overstep the law, and you can't be in bad taste -- though sometimes it can't be avoided because you always peer into the darker side of humanity, which needs to be exposed. That's the job of the media. People want to know the danger of a polluted river.

Q: So how many pollution stories have you run in Taiwan?

A: Not many. This is an issue people care about -- but not to read about. It's boring. You can't be in the media business and be boring. That's the greatest sin.

Q: What issues do you feel strongly about?

A: What we have to feel strongest about is always freedom of the press. Without that, we cannot survive. We have to fight for it. Other than that, I don't think we should have an agenda. You shouldn't impose your own priority on a newspaper. What you should impose is what society demands of you. If you want to be mass media, you have to [be about] mass values.

Q: Do you feel like an outsider in Taiwan?

A: At least I don't feel [rejected] or rebuked. A danger of our business is to feel you should be a part of the power game, the elite, or the system. If you have this idea, you will strive [to use the media as a tool to achieve that], which is dangerous. I don't feel any need to integrate.

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