Talking Point

Five hundred and counting

Editor Steven Irvine on Week in China’s history and who we reported on

TP-main

The original idea for Week in China came about in 2007, germinating over many discussions with my wife (our Ask Mei columnist). She would mention business stories from the mainland Chinese press and I was struck by how few of them seemed to make it into the English language media, despite how interesting the news items often were.

I sensed there was a gap to be filled by a publication that curated these stories in a readable, digestible way. I even saw a few similarities with the original mission of TIME magazine, co-founded in the early 1920s by Briton Hadden and Henry Luce. The duo saw a middle America that was starved of lively insights into the major stories of the day. So each week they collated the key news from the leading newspapers (in the US and beyond) and delivered it in a style that was easy to read.

The TIME magazine of that era also happened to chronicle the rise of America as a superpower (for those interested, a good book on the magazine’s early days is Isaiah Wilner’s The Man Time Forgot).

I had been a journalist and editor in Hong Kong since 1997 and had made many trips to China. But by 2006 it struck me that something had changed: practically every topic of importance that you cared to discuss had some kind of China dimension. China’s rise was a fact and I thought the time was ripe for a magazine to chronicle it. Our goal was to take the most relevant news and repackage it in an engaging way. Our target audience: business executives and fund managers keen to learn more about China than they could get from their local newspapers.

In some ways it was against all the odds that WiC even got off the ground since discussions for its launch coincided with the 2008 global financial crisis. Most decisionmakers had more immediate challenges on their minds than the prospect of a new, China-focused magazine. Luckily Stuart Gulliver saw the merits of such a publication, having spent much of his career based in Hong Kong. He had built much of HSBC’s investment banking and markets division (first in Asia and then globally), turning it into a huge business, and he had met many of China’s business leaders during his visits to the country’s major cities too. With his backing, WiC was launched in February 2009 as an editorially independent magazine, exclusively sponsored by HSBC (Gulliver would become the bank’s CEO a couple of years later).

When I described the magazine’s editorial policy in those early days the metaphor I often used was of a fine Scotch whisky. Just as the distiller blends the flavours to achieve a balanced taste and style, we would provide a mix of articles each week to reflect many of the positive things going on in China (such as the rapid rollout of the high-speed train network), as well as some of the more negative trends (the worsening smog, for instance).

By blending the good and the bad (and the accompanying shades of grey) we hoped to give a fairer picture of a continental-sized economy and its growing impact on the world, both for better and for worse.

Our objective was to be impartial in tone and to earn our readers’ trust, whatever their background. So I was gratified last week by the feedback from subscribers about our coverage – particularly the comments that mentioned our objectivity.

One reader wrote: “All in all I think each article that has come out has been fair and mostly impartial”. Another commented: “I have often wondered how it [WiC] has managed to maintain autonomy and objectivity, and now I wonder more than ever”.

I am thankful to the many readers who took the time to give their feedback last week. However, to mark this 500th edition I will not dwell any further on the kind words you sent, but revert instead to content. Specifically I was inspired by some of your comments to mine some data from our online archive of 7,272 articles for some of the key trends of the last 11 years, looking at who and what we have written about most.

China and the world…

The nature of WiC’s coverage – as an aggregator of trending news – makes us something of a ‘China barometer’. And one of my initial findings was how our archive reflects the key geopolitical relationship of our age.

Back in issue 7 our cover story was already referring to the G2 of the US and China and how the interdependence of the two economies had led to the coining of terms like ‘Chimerica’. So it’s no surprise that mentions of the United States (4,576) come up in more of our stories than any other country – and by a whopping margin.

In fact, well over half of the articles we have written contain the terms America or the US in some form (we tend to use the latter descriptor more). In part, that’s because we often look for contrasts and comparisons in how similar trends may be shaping events in the United States and China. But it also points to the ‘coupling’ of the two economies in terms of trade, investment and supply chains. It should also suggest the incredible difficulty of separating the pair – which now seems to be the strategy of parts of the Trump administration.

The next most mentioned country is Japan (1,030 articles), which is again understandable, given its status as China’s largest neighbouring economy and historical rival. Because of older conflicts, news stories about Japan or Japanese companies can be more emotive with the Chinese public too. Disagreements between the two nations still rankle today (primarily over islands that the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese the Diaoyus – we have written 17 articles referencing that dispute).

Conversely, Japanese companies are often respected by the Chinese for the quality of their goods, and Japan has become much more popular as a tourist destination. We have covered both of these trends as well, including the rising numbers of Chinese visitors that travel to Japan for what the Japanese describe as bakugai, or “buying explosion” consumption.

The third country in our ranking is from Europe but not perhaps the one you would think. I had expected it to be Germany, because of its intensive industrial links with China, and the fact that the Chinese are major admirers of Germany’s engineering talents and its Mittelstand firms.

But it turns out that we have mentioned Britain, or the UK, far more (in a total of 881 articles).

One reason is probably because British cultural influence is enduring (from its entertainment industry – TV shows like Sherlock have become incredibly popular in China, earning Benedict Cumberbatch the local nickname ‘Curly Luck’ – to the lure of its boarding schools and universities).

Perhaps it helps that the UK has been a popular investment destination for Chinese firms, although that may be coming to an end, with the growing rancor over Huawei’s inclusion in the country’s 5G network.

Fourth place goes to Australia (405 articles), driven in large part by Chinese hunger for its natural resources, especially its exports of coal and iron ore. That trade persists today, although services exports to China like tourism and higher education are becoming increasingly important to Australian growth.

In fact, over the course of our coverage Australia’s economy has become more and more dependent on sales to China, while its government remains more aligned with Washington militarily and politically. That is creating inevitable strains for Canberra, which has to work out how to maintain cordial relations with both countries.

Other countries featuring regularly in stories were India, Russia, Germany, France and South Korea. But China’s growing presence on the international stage also deserves mention, with major undertakings like the Belt and Road Initiative, as well as Beijing’s efforts to encourage the wider usage overseas of China’s currency, the renminbi. Progress in both plans has been patchy but there is no doubting the intention behind them, or China’s readiness to play a more active role in global affairs.

Industry sectors and terms

From the outset we have categorised our articles mostly by industry. And one thing that is immediately evident is how coverage of the ‘internet and tech’ sector has increased substantially over time. In the past five years we have written close to 250 articles on this category, versus about 120 in the prior six-and-a-half years.

That is no surprise, reflecting the impact the digital economy is having in setting the news agenda in China (the opposite trend is true of our Energy and Resources category, where content was more skewed to heavy industries like steelmaking in our early days, but less so now).

A quick search of the more popular terms also points to Chinese efforts to climb up the value curve into new industries and new technologies. The ‘internet’ features in 1,235 articles, weibo in 1,139, e-commerce in 407, education in 504, innovation in 296, patents in 161, intellectual property in 136, electric vehicles or cars in 133, artificial intelligence in 132, high-speed trains in 127, robots in 121 and 5G in 90.

That said, another consistent topic is less welcome for Chinese policymakers, with more than 700 articles mentioning the words corruption or graft.

Possibly the most corrupt official was revealed in 2011 when Huang Sheng, the former deputy governor of Shandong province, was reported to have amassed $9 billion in ill-gotten gains. He was also said to have kept 46 mistresses. Later a raid of the home of a former general unearthed not just plentiful cash but many crates of high-end booze and even a golden statue of Mao Zedong.

Aside from the more colourful cases, the topic has had a deeper political impact because of the “tigers and flies” anti-corruption campaign initiated by President Xi Jinping, which has netted two of China’s most powerful politicians in Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai.

Companies we write about most

Reflective of some of the discussion above, eight out of the 10 Chinese companies we have mentioned most come from the internet and tech sector.

The two companies at the top of the list are Tencent (678 articles) and Alibaba (655). Huawei ranks fourth, capturing a lot more of the headlines in the last two years (indeed, it is hard to find a recent issue where Huawei’s name does not crop up at least once).

The only non-tech firms to make the top 10 are the oil giant CNPC (including mentions of its overseas listed arm PetroChina) and the acquisitive property-to-entertainment conglomerate Wanda. For a ranking of the top 20, see the table below.

For foreign firms active in China the hands-down winner – based on our coverage – is Apple. We first mentioned the Californian firm in our inaugural issue and since then it has cropped up in 384 articles – more times than Chinese search giant Baidu, meaning that Apple ranks third overall across all companies (local or foreign) that we have written about.

Of course, our statistic reflects how dependent Apple has become on China – both as a place to make its products and as a market in which to sell them – and points to its extreme vulnerability should Beijing choose it as a target in reprisal for Washington’s campaign against companies like Huawei.

Our ‘non-Chinese’ top 10 is also dominated by tech firms (Google, Facebook, Samsung, Amazon, Microsoft), plus two carmakers (BMW and Daimler) – but also includes Disney and Coca-Cola. The list again points to the crossover of Sino-US commercial interests – seven of our top 10 firms are American (and it’s even more pronounced in the top 20, where only five firms are based outside the US).

Over the course of the 500 issues we have written articles that have featured 1,511 companies in total, serving as one of the first English language media to bring a number of lesser-known companies in China to your attention (that said, some of the start-ups became very large – for instance, the handset maker Xiaomi, which we first reported on in August 2011).

The people making headlines

The most mentioned person in our pages is Chinese leader Xi Jinping – a reflection of the dominant role he has played since coming to office in 2012. Our very first reference to, however, predated his taking the positions that confer power in China (General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and President). Actually the first time Xi featured in WiC was in April 2010 when he flew to Gothenburg to attend the signing ceremony for Chinese carmaker Geely’s purchase of Volvo for $2.9 billion.

The other politician to dominate our coverage over the past four years won’t be much of a surprise either – US President Donald Trump, who has notched up appearances in 174 articles.

But the first time we mentioned him was in a Chinese Character feature we wrote on Yan Jiehe, the tycoon behind the China Pacific Construction Group (and dubbed by local media at the time as “China’s No.1 Madman”). Written in December 2009, the piece suggested that Yan had been inspired by Trump, and that he showed a similar sense of chutzpah when he made remarks like: “My biggest failure is not to know what failure is” (Yan only made it into two further editions of WiC).

However, in China’s business world there is one tycoon who has taken many more of our column inches than any other. You can probably guess who that it is: Jack Ma, of Alibaba fame.

Ma appears in 218 articles, thanks to the seminal importance of his e-commerce firm, but also because of his media savvy. His WiC debut was in an article in 2009 in which it was reported that China Eastern Airlines had approached him about setting up an airline ticketing venture on his e-commerce platform. Back then Taobao had just 98 million members. Today Alibaba’s online marketplaces have more than 900 million active users worldwide. Its digital payments tool Alipay, operated by sister firm Ant Financial, boasts even more: 1.2 billion worldwide. Aside from e-commerce, it is hard to keep track of how many businesses Alibaba is involved in. They range from chipmaking and cloud computing to food delivery, video streaming, movies and entertainment and even publishing a Hong Kong-based newspaper.

The other Ma, of course, is Pony Ma, boss of Alibaba’s main rival Tencent. He is more low-key, which is why he appears only 66 times, despite Tencent taking the title of the most-mentioned Chinese company.

Ma Huateng (his Chinese name) first appeared in one of our Who’s Hu business leader profiles in November 2009. In that year Tencent had made a first-half profit of $330 million, although Ma was already said to be worth $3.5 billion himself. Both numbers have grown massively in the time WiC has been publishing. In its most recent quarter, Tencent’s net profit was $3.95 billion and Ma’s personal wealth had risen to $40.9 billion, according to an estimate by Hurun in April.

All told, no other tycoon gets close to Jack Ma’s appearance tally (Wanda’s Wang Jianlin features 97 times and Hong Kong’s iconic mogul Li Ka-shing 88 times).

Among foreign business executives, the most frequently mentioned is the Sage of Omaha (92 times). Warren Buffett is still revered in China for his investment skills and we have cited six different Chinese tycoons that the local media have anointed as “China’s Warren Buffett”. Steve Jobs – founder of another of the most respected foreign brands among the Chinese public – also appeared in our debut issue and in 76 other articles after that.

Our entertainment stories try to draw out themes with wider social or commercial significance in China, but they also point to some of the trends that are shaping the film and television world, as well as the stars most in demand from audiences and sponsors. In this respect the actress Fan Bingbing was the dominant celebrity figure, featuring 91 times as we tracked her rise to red-carpet icon and fashion endorser; and then disaster as she fell from her perch following a tax fraud scandal in 2018.

Rival actresses Zhang Ziyi, Angelababy and Tang Wei make up the accompanying cast, appearing 61, 38 and 29 times respectively, while film directors Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogang received 78 and 65 mentions.

What’s new, and what’s not

Much has changed about China and its place in the world over our 500 editions. Vast fortunes have been made, new brands have blossomed and new technologies have taken over. Vibrant businesses have been created, and older industries have withered and even disappeared.

Looking back to our first issue, our very first words were a quotation from the Lee Ang movie The Wedding Banquet, where a Chinese bride at a marriage registry in New York mangles her wedding vows as: “For better and richer, not poorer. Till sickness and death.”

Taking the line as a metaphor we pointed out that “separated by language, there are many misunderstandings that flow between China and the outside world”. Our feeling today is that some of these misunderstandings may never have been greater, despite the fact that more is being written about China than ever before. This puts even more onus on trying to stay current with what is happening in China, at a time when the worlds of business and technology are ever more intertwined but the politics has been taking on a more polarising and pessimistic tone.

It’s also why WiC’s original mission – a balance between positive and negative, and a mix of local and global perspectives – is as important today as in 2009, when we published our first issue.


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