TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Appearing last year before Taiwanese regulators, billionaire media magnate Tsai Eng-meng appeared perplexed over a decision to fine his flagship newspaper for carrying camouflaged advertising on behalf of China's Communist government.
"I really don't understand this," said Tsai, who became Taiwan's richest individual by selling treacly rice crackers on the Chinese mainland through his Want Want China Holdings company. "I think they should allow me to make this money."
It was a vintage statement from a man Forbes magazine says is worth $8 billion and whose pro-China views have made him a lightning rod for criticism among many on this democratic island of 23 million people. Since purchasing Taiwan's China Times Group in 2008, the rough-hewn Tsai has burst like a meteor onto Taiwan's political scene, leveraging his China-derived fortune to promote a political union across the 160-kilometer- (100-mile-) wide Taiwan Strait. Despised by Taiwan's Beijing-wary opposition, the crew-cut 55-year old seems to roll effortlessly over his detractors, proudly flaunting his limited formal education and soaring business success.
Now he seems ready to roll over them again. Next month Taiwanese officials will rule on his bid to take a 32 percent share — through his son — in the Next Media Group, owned by Hong Kong's Jimmy Lai, an outspoken anti-communist reviled in Beijing. Next properties include Apple Daily, which is Taiwan's biggest selling newspaper, and Next Magazine, its pre-eminent investigative journal.
If the deal goes through, Tsai would add substantially to his existing ownership of another major newspaper, an influential business daily, a top-rated cable TV news station, and a popular terrestrial TV channel. Critics, who believe Tsai uses his media empire's consistently laudatory coverage of China to advance his mainland business interests, say this new level of clout could stifle Taiwan's press competition and even undermine its young democracy.
The controversy over Tsai and his expansive Taiwanese media holdings goes right to the heart of the dominant issue in Taiwanese politics: Whether the island should attempt to maintain the separate political identity from the mainland it has maintained since splitting apart from it amid civil war in 1949, or whether it should bow to China's increasing political and economic might and accept its sovereign sway. Taiwanese media, particularly the island's four national newspapers and its seven major 24-hour cable news stations, play a crucial role in the debate, using their columns and broadcasts to promote the competing pro-China and independence agendas of the two main political parties.
The strength of Tsai's pro-China views were underlined in January 2012 when he told the Washington Post newspaper that he unreservedly backed Taiwan's unification with the mainland. "I really hope that I can see that," he said. In the same article he also attacked the widely held belief that Chinese security forces killed hundreds if not thousands of demonstrators during pro-democracy protests around Beijing's Tiananmen Square in June 1989, citing the refusal of a phalanx of Chinese tanks to run over a famously bold protester as evidence of the forces' restraint.
Want Want's own internal newsletter reported in its December 2008 edition that during a meeting in Beijing, Tsai told Wang Yi, head of the Chinese government's Taiwan Affairs Office, that Tsai had acquired the China Times Group "in order to use the power of the press to advance relations between China and Taiwan." The newsletter quoted Wang as saying that if Tsai's company had any future needs "the Taiwan Affairs Office will do its best to help it, including giving support to its food business."
After a lengthy exchange of emails with a Tsai legal representative, Tsai declined to be interviewed for this article. Contacted by The Associated Press, his public relations department also declined to answer questions on Tsai's China attitudes and his plans for Next Media. "We do not plan on repeating ourselves again," wrote his son, Cai Shao-zhong, explaining that Tsai had outlined his views in other forums in the past.
Interviews with media figures and former employees help fill in the blanks about Tsai. They paint a picture of a hard charging, detail-oriented businessman, loyal to his friends, but implacably hostile to anyone he feels is getting in his way. They also suggest he either lacks an understanding of the role of the media in Taiwan's democracy or does not consider it important.
"My understanding of Tsai is that's he's a businessman, all his thinking is about business, and how to make money," said Ho Jung-shin, who left his job as deputy editor of Tsai's flagship China Times newspaper last year over what he said was Tsai's use of his sprawling media holdings to conduct vendettas against perceived enemies.
Ho said he was particularly upset by repeated China Times Group claims, which the group later backed away from, that a researcher at Taiwan's prestigious Academia Sinica paid university students to mount demonstrations against Tsai's efforts to purchase a major Taiwanese cable TV distribution system. Regulators on Wednesday nixed that deal, at least in its present form.
"He took this public trust and turned it into a personal tool," Ho said. "He's sees the media only as a tool to advance his own campaigns."
Other former China Times employees also lambast him for turning both the China Times newspaper and the CTi cable news station into rubber stamp apologists for China's authoritarian government. They cite a long litany of examples, including the two outlets' harsh criticism of the Dalai Lama during a 2009 Taiwan visit — Beijing reviles the Tibetan spiritual leader for allegedly promoting Tibetan independence — and the short shrift the outlets gave imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo when he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2010.
Taiwanese newspaper columnist Antonio Chiang, a longtime Tsai acquaintance, said a key to understanding Tsai's larger than life personality is the intense pride he feels at having taken over his father's small food business as a young man in the late 1970s and building it into what is now China's largest snack food company, despite having never finished high school.
"He's always talking about how little education he had and how it didn't hurt him in the least," said Chiang, who strongly opposes Tsai's views on China. "He loves the fact that he has all these PhDs working for him and that they have to listen to what he says."
"This is a man with extremely strong will," Chiang said. "He's not very sophisticated but he's very self-controlled. And he's completely honest. What you see from him is exactly what you get."
The lack of pretense Chiang describes is reflected in Tsai's unpolished persona, which includes a shoot from the hip social style and a preference for his native Taiwanese dialect over the clipped, Mandarin Chinese employed by the better educated doyens of the Taiwanese business elite.
A 2012 Chinese language biography portrayed him as a simple man of the people, most comfortable chewing betel nut and conversing informally with food processing workers amid a hands-on management style that includes familiarity with every aspect of his business, from buying raw materials to managing production lines and kibitzing with customers.
But Chiang said that beneath Tsai's everyman personality is a single-minded approach that threatens Taiwan's free press, including the Apple Daily newspaper, Chiang's current employer, and Next Magazine, the investigative journal.
Apple, while better known for its racy diet of sex, scandal and celebrity gossip, has also been praised for its editorial independence that sets it apart from most other Taiwanese media outlets, which seem most comfortable parroting the views of one or the other of Taiwan's two main political parties.
"He ruined the China Times," Chiang said. "He can ruin Apple as well."
Tsai has also stirred controversy by taking initiatives that appear aimed at bringing Taiwan and China closer together on important foreign policy questions.
Last September, Tsai contributed five million New Taiwan dollars ($166,000) to underwrite the voyage of some 60 Taiwanese fishing vessels to an island group in the East China Sea hotly contested by China and Japan. The voyage ended in a confrontation between Japanese and Taiwanese coast guard cutters, significantly raising tensions in the area, despite the declared intention of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to avoid taking provocative actions on the sensitive island issue.
Fishermen involved in the demonstration said they were only interested in asserting their fishing rights around the Diaoyu, or Senkaku islands, and had no interest in politics, or making common cause with China. But 11 days after they returned to Taiwan, the China Times ran a hard-hitting editorial, calling on the Taiwanese government to join Beijing in pushing for Chinese sovereignty there.
Initiatives like this are feeding the belief among Tsai critics that he and other deep-pocketed Taiwanese business people are attempting to subvert the Ma government's relatively cautious China policy, which while consciously moving the island ever closer to Beijing economically, still opposes an early political union.
"These business people are definitely pushing the two sides closer together," said Ketty Chen, a Taiwanese-American academic at Taipei's National Taiwan University. "They're very influential."
Arrayed against the influence of Tsai and his pro-China allies is Taiwan's boisterous democracy and the blossoming among many Taiwanese of a political and cultural identity distinct from the mainland.
"I wouldn't sell Taiwan short," said Taiwan expert Mark Harrison of the University of Tasmania in Australia. . "It won't surrender without a fight. This battle isn't over."