250 issues later…

We’ve written 3 million words about China

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Although we cannot claim to have counted each of them individually, our estimate is that we have published 3 million words on China since we launched Week in China in early 2009. Much has changed since we began liangbaiwushi (250) issues ago, but some key themes remain.

Looking back, the launch of WiC came at a turning point for China and its relations with the rest of the world. In the wake of the global financial crisis, Beijing’s financial and economic heft was suddenly much more visible in Europe and the United States, particularly thanks to its $586 billion stimulus package. Still the world’s third biggest economy at that stage, China’s higher growth rates also contrasted starkly with the recessionary conditions elsewhere (and not long after WiC was established, China overtook Japan in GDP terms, ranking second only to America).

With a rapidly growing market and increasing military, China was becoming a nation increasingly hard to ignore. Indeed, you might say that a decade ago global decisionmakers aspired to a better knowledge of Chinese affairs, but it wasn’t necessarily a top priority. In the wake of the financial crisis, China went from nice-to-know to need-to-know.

It was into this new era that WiC was launched, with a mission to help its readers better understand one of the world’s most complex and dynamic societies, as well as China’s rapidly evolving economy and business environment. Since then we’ve enjoyed a substantial jump in our subscriber base, with a readership that spans 135 countries and territories. So what did we write about in that debut issue?

Our first article begun thus: “Not since Stephenson’s Rocket crawled between Liverpool and Manchester at 12 miles an hour has a country got so excited about railways. Of course, this being China, those railways have to be bigger and better.”

The article detailed the major investment in rail, with spending reaching Rmb700 billion ($114 billion) in 2009. Much of this was on a new high-speed bullet train network. It was a good topic to identify. Although our subsequent coverage reported on a tragic crash in Wenzhou and some fairly daunting revelations about corruption, the new rail network has been a success, reducing supply chain bottlenecks and boosting tourism and local economies. Perhaps nothing demonstrates China’s ability to deliver on grand infrastructure projects better than its bullet trains.

And it is an ongoing theme. Only this week Premier Li Keqiang was visiting China Railway Corp to look at progress on new lines. A further Rmb800 billion is being committed to their construction over the next 12 months. But as Li pointed out during his tour, rail sector policy has evolved since we first wrote about it. “The government can no longer work alone in funding rail construction,” he said. “We have to open it up to the market. The problem is how to attract private funds with profitable projects while continuing the less-profitable construction of railways in central and western areas. In addition, the reform of rail construction funding will cast a light on similar reforms of other natural monopoly industries.”

Those remarks touch on another topic covered extensively in the past 250 issues: the battle between market reformers and a rival group of policymakers that have tended to favour the interests of the leading state firms over the private sector.

In our early issues the forces of state-led capitalism were in the ascendant, embodied in the phrase ‘the state advances as the private sector recedes’ (guojinmintui in Chinese). But more recently we have reported how the pendulum seems to be swinging back towards the market reformers, with private capital getting much more mention in announcements about new policy initiatives.

What else was in our first issue? Our first maritime story – now a very hot topic because of Beijing’s disputes with neighbours over sovereignty of various uninhabited islands – also involved a confrontation. On this occasion it was between Captain Peng Wei-yuan and some Somali pirates. Peng and his crew fired the public’s imagination with a heroic defence of their ship, throwing beer bottles at the African marauders and finally repelling them after four hours.

The naval theme emerges once more in our current issue, with an article detailing how a businessmen purchased China’s first aircraft carrier from Ukraine.

Also in our debut issue: we looked at the rising importance of China’s 737 million rural consumers; had a piece on graduate unemployment; glimpsed at Macau’s booming casino sector; profiled Guo Jingming (his latest film – adapted from his novels – took about Rmb500 million at the box office); detailed deteriorating Sino-US relations (“You guys keep on manipulating your currency,” said President Obama); looked at the prospects for healthcare reform; reviewed China’s ambitions in space; and mentioned the efforts to boost the domestic car industry (citing BYD), and analysed Volkswagen’s sales (a company you voted as the most successful multinational operating in China in our readership poll in January).

One of the things we soon learned is how quickly things can change in China. In our first issue we looked at the nascent private equity industry. A new government push had permitted brokers, insurers and asset management institutions to invest in PE funds. They have surged in size since – last year the China Securities Journal reported they had at least Rmb720 billion under management. (More of a concern is runaway credit: we noted in our first issue that the assets of China’s banking sector stood at Rmb61.1 trillion in late 2008; by the end of last year they had soared to Rmb151.35 trillion.)

Another topic we covered was shanzhai products, i.e. fake goods. They remain an issue. Only this week smartphone maker Xiaomi lashed out at state broadcaster CCTV, saying its critique of their phone chargers was flawed because the channel had inadvertently tested shanzhai versions of the devices.

Overshadowing shanzhai goods as a public concern is another threat to consumers: contaminated products. We didn’t mention food safety scares until WiC6, but this has been one of our most revisited topics ever since.

The environment is another, and sure enough in the first issue we looked at the government’s encouragement of solar power. In subsequent editions environmental worries grew, worsening as thick clouds of air pollution settled above millions of city dwellers across China. Indeed, as WiC has often pointed out, environmental meltdown, as well as water shortages, pose some of the greatest threats to China and its phenomenal growth story.

Of course, another leading concern of the moment is the misfiring property market. We didn’t write about the real estate industry in WiC1, although in later editions it came to the fore, in recognition that the property market is central to any understanding of the Chinese economy, as well as many of the country’s social and economic challenges.

Nor did the internet or e-commerce get a mention in our inaugural issue. In the following years the online world would become a dominant aspect of our coverage, as we tracked the rise of companies like Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent and discussed the threat to bricks-and-mortar retailers from internet shopping.

Since launch our goal has been to keep you in touch with the main themes and developments in modern day China – and sometimes even to make you the first to know. For example, we think we were probably the first English language publication to refer to local government debt vehicles, or to identify China’s new policy plans in restricting sales of rare earths to foreign customers. There are some companies we think we were first to mention as potential rising stars too, like Xiaomi, which we introduced readers to three years ago.

Above all we have tried to cover the China story as even-handedly as possible, recognising that ­– like the US – China is a large and complex continental society, where successes and failures occur together, sometimes even in tandem.

We hope that WiC has been useful in helping our readers to navigate and better comprehend this fascinating and complicated country.

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