The CEO of Hong Kong’s 118-year-old, Alibaba-owned newspaper is quitting to sell NFTs

March 17, 2022, 7:59 AM UTC

Gary Liu, the 39-year-old CEO of Hong Kong’s largest English language news publication, is trading news for NFTs.

After six years at the helm of the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the executive is quitting his role to lead the paper’s new non-fungible token (NFT) spinoff, Artifact Labs, after the unit raised $126,000 in its debut sales on Tuesday.

“Blockchain holds great potential for the media industry, and SCMP is committed to leading in technological innovation and new business development. The founding of Artifact Labs is part of this mission,” Liu said in a statement.

The SCMP has been preparing Artifact Labs for months and this week launched the project’s first NFT drop—a collection of images of SCMP front pages from 1997, the year Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty.

In two hours, bidders bought 1,300 “mystery boxes” each holding five randomly selected NFTs of SCMP news sheets from 1997. The sale proved so successful that the SCMP decided to spin off the nascent NFT unit into its own business, and Liu is going with it.

SCMP’s creation of Artifact Labs to explore the potential of blockchain applications for media is a transformational step for our 118-year-old organization,” said SCMP chairman Joe Tsai, who is also vice chairman of China’s largest e-commerce site, Alibaba Group Holding, and the owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.

But Liu’s departure casts more uncertainty on the future of the SCMP, which was acquired by Alibaba for $266 million in 2016.

Flush with cash from Alibaba’s purchase, the storied publication hired new staffers to expand its push into digital journalism—launching three new sub-brands and opening a unit for branded content—and moved into flashy new offices in the center of Hong Kong.

But Alibaba’s ownership has raised concerns about the editorial direction of the Hong Kong publication. As China’s leading e-commerce platform—occupying 51% of the market, according to research firm eMarketer—Alibaba has a vested interest in appeasing Beijing. The Chinese government has punished businesses for crossing its political red lines before—including in November 2020 when regulators pulled the mammoth IPO of Alibaba-affiliate Ant Group shortly after founder Jack Ma criticized the government.

Following Alibaba’s acquisition of the SCMP, critics accused the paper’s executives of instilling a pro-government bias in SCMP coverage—a bias that makes coverage more supportive of both the local Hong Kong government and the central China government in Beijing. Executive editor Chow Chung Yan has defended the paper’s stance as occupying “the middle ground.”

In 2020—after Ma fell out of favor with mainland China’s central government—rumors spread that Beijing might force Alibaba to sell the SCMP to prevent Ma from holding sway over public opinion. Bloomberg reports that the state-owned Bauhinia Culture group is interested in buying the brand, but the SCMP has denied it is for sale.

Meanwhile, following anti-government protests in 2019, Hong Kong’s local leaders have torn the fabric of the city’s media landscape. Last year, authorities jailed Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai for his role in pro-democracy protests and forced the paper to close by freezing its assets.

In December, Hong Kong’s Stand News was forced to close, too, after police froze its assets and arrested its executives for publishing “seditious” content—a crime created by the controversial National Security Law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020. Fearing a crackdown on press freedom, some international news outlets, including the New York Times, have relocated part of their Hong Kong offices to Seoul.

The SCMP has not yet found a replacement for Liu, who will remain in his role until a new CEO is hired.

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