Saturday, August 30, 2003

Subscribe Chinese Newspapers Please!

Zhang Jun - for more contact details
Tomorrow at Chinabiz - the Sunday Column

When Tom Rawski, Professor of Economics at Pittsburgh was challenging the inaccuracy of China's GDP statistics, he put his bet on the detailed information he was reading between the lines in the large number of officially published newspapers in China. He reads Chinese newspapers much more carefully than he does English papers we learn from his articles in the American Economic Review. He knows Chinese economy even much better than most Chinese economists because most of us read English papers when writing on Chinese economy.

Tom is certainly one of the American economists who can speak and read Chinese and who work extensively on Chinese economy. Nick Lardy is another one. Someone mentioned to me that Tom once said he would never challenged Nick's numbers about China. Where does Nick get his numbers from then? My impression is that he reads Chinese newspapers widely and carefully every week, if not every day. If you happen to read Nick's articles on Chinese economy, you may have noticed the references of his articles. Most references he cited come from Chinese newspapers directly, and he has good reasons to do so.

That is something most Chinese people didn't realize here in China. Every year I subscribed to about ten different Chinese newspapers. I like reading a great variety of Chinese newspapers because they contain much more and much detailed information than the official statistical yearbooks. For instance, if you are careful enough, you can keep track of the growing numbers of investment projects all over China; you can find statistics on all new buildings. Most Chinese readers would find that information boring to read and they complain because Chinese newspapers report not enough of what they consider to be 'news'. But these newspapers are valuable to those who work on China and invest in China.

I don't know how many newspapers there are in China, but they are too many. In the economics library here at Fudan University, there are perhaps over 50 economic and financial newspapers, and over 200 periodicals of economics and finance. And also most periodicals are newspaper-like, and are really informative in many different ways and they can serve different readerships. Each ministry has its own newspapers and periodicals, and each local government has its publications too. If you wanted to study Chinese car industry or gold market, you don't need to visit the National Bureau of Statistics, simply subscribe Chinese car or gold newspapers and the periodicals of car or gold industry.

Today most ordinary people in China pay for news from the private newspapers being sold illegally in railway stations or at long distance bus stations, but intellectuals would read between the lines in the official newspapers of great many kinds. The real value of Chinese newspapers depends much on who reads them.

Zhang Jun is the director at Center for Chinese Economic Studies at Fudan University.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

The Foreign Correspondent

The SFCC-discussion we had last week with XFN managing director Graham Earnshaw about the future of the media, and that of foreign correspondents, got today a nice addition with an article in the magazine Foreign Affairs.
They also signal the demise of traditional reporting under the influence of new technologies and - rather disappointing for such a leading magazine :-) - they fail to come up with a firm conclusion. It still can go either way, or we get a world divided in have and have-not's in terms of information, or we will have a bright future where everybody will share information with the rest of the world.
The most solid conclusion: the world is becoming a more difficult place to understand, especially now streams of information seek all kind of non-traditional ways, from in-house reporting by large companies, to bloggers.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

No media facts

Just now arrived the China - facts and figures 2003 in my mailbox, courtesy of the New Star Publishers. That was rather early since 2003 still has some months to go. Anyway: I still know the China of last century so any facts and figures are welcome, and I wanted to use the opportunity to bring you the latest official facts on the Chinese media.
There were none.
Perhaps there were problems in figures out whether media should fit into the category 'economy' or rather 'politics' or perhaps 'education'. Even a special category 'media' would have been welcome. Probably the number crunchers could not figure out the right numbers on the media on time.

What is happening to this country when we can actually read news in its papers? It might be partially due to my temporary self-imposed quarantine to finish writing my book, but this morning I had to read in the Shanghai Daily Pudong and its financial center Lujiazui have been hit by a major blackout.
China did have this tradition of hiding al major accidents, but this one in the center of new Shanghai obvious had to be reported.
Nothing compared to the American thing, only 200,000 people have been hit and most of its was over within 24 hours, but air traffic to Pudong Airport was disrupted.
I was yesterday evening in Pudong to see a new apartment, have been hanging around in Lujiazui: it all seemed normal. I might be getting out of touch.
Media discussion

The discussion on last Thursday's SFCC meeting is still going on. The key message of Graham Earnshaw was not appreciated by the romantics among the journalists present, some calls today proved. Graham predicted the demise of the traditional media, and has made his own XFN targeting profits, a fast IPO and many happy wallets.
That was indeed a nasty message for those who hope that media and journalism are more than only a commodity to make money with. While I sympathise with that idea, will even be willing to fight for it, Graham's message should at least be a wake-up call for those who thing media have a higher value than only make money.

Found this thought-provoking, midly related piece by Katrina Heron as the editor-in-chief of Wired in 2001. Good piece, but gets really into it when she talks about Google, even when there was not yet a Google News!

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Testing the systems

When things work like planned, traffic to this blog should be up today and tomorrow. I took the privilege of including this url into my column. So, some of you are Guinea pigs, that how to show whether being mentioned at Chinabiz works out or not. And it should show also how many of you are going around the Internet block in China, of course.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

From teddy bears to financial news

Wat is better than nice company and a good discussion? This evening the mildly-illegal Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club met to hear Graham Earnshaw, managing director of XFN, to talk about his new financial newswire, that is concentrating on financial news from China. Graham has already 30 years of experience in this region and especially China.
The question was whether China would move after exporting teddy bears and washing machines would move from computers to now the financial news, undercutting its major competitors. For the time being the answer is yes, said Graham in a speech that was rather challenging, so I would not call it a sales pitch only.
XFN has Xinhua as a minority shareholder, but the mouth piece of the Chinese government stays away from the operation, allowing it just like earlier china.com to make money for them. An IPO is perhaps not imminent, but certainly high on the agenda.
Graham could as an ex-Reuters man rather convincingly convey the message that quality and speed would be key for his service.

the end is near

His predictions for the traditional newswires - and especially Reuters in the short run - were dim. They will succumb under their own dead weight, cutting down already, but working with a business models of dedicated terminals and that has become obsolete with the introduction of Internet.
Depressing was also his prediction on the future of journalism outside strict financial news. There will be none. Reuters is now already heavily subsidizing its general news for the media, but nobody is willing to pay for that anymore. General news has become a commodity without any value.

Cottage journalism

What is the way out? I do not know whether the term cottage journalism is new or not, but it was the first time I heard of it. Small scale blog-like operations that have low costs and an interesting target group. It might be the only way out.
Dana - continued

The discussion on whether or not to do anything on Mazen Dana's death continued. The blast at the UN HQ in Bagdad has put things are bit more in perspective. It is a damned dangerous place to be, as a journalist, but no less for an UN diplomat.
Crystal - one of the more active SFCC-board members - came this afternoon with a rather sensitive discussion. Since circumstances are still not very clear, why not give our activities a more educative angle and try to find somebody among our members who has been there, can talk about the relations between journalists and the different parties.
Seems smarter than giving way to our initial indignation. Just see what the members say about it this evening.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003


Looks like some form of action surrounding Mazen Dana is going to take place. Mentioned our plan in an email to our Hong Kong friends, who are involved in getting an international alliance of foreign correspondents in place. What better than to start with something concrete.
Ideas vary between an add in the International Herald Tribune to a petition for the US consulate in town to ask them not to shoot at us. Is going to be fun.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003


Today is the first day of a self-imposed quarantine to work on my book: so I might miss some things going on in the world.
Shanghai Telecom is even helping me a lot by not allowing me to download my daily dosis of spam. Might become a nuisance in the long run to have to access to your email account. "Customer first" it says on their headline. They must be referring to another customer.
Had to make one exception, very hard to miss the killing of Mazen Dana by the American troops in Iraq. I'm presiding over a meeting of the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents' Club on Thursday and it seems only appropriate to address the killing of a colleague.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Leading - 2

In my column of this weekend I complained about the lack of really authorative media informating us about China and creating a buzz. At least the column started to create some buzz. Among others a reaction of the China Business Review, who are doing pretty well among US companies, but otherwise - also because it is a membership-based publication - is limited to a smaller circle.
My reaction: "I know [the China Business Review] is doing pretty well among US companies, but I would not say it is the epicenter of business discussions on China. My problem is that I cannot identify any epicenter. What I miss is a publication that can create a buzz, provoke people into reacting and in the end helps to change things.
"Maybe I'm just an old-time romantic, longing for the days when media could make a difference. At this stage they don't and I think that is a pity."

Sunday, August 17, 2003

China Daily

Today the media reforms were again important enough to get a major piece in the China Daily, the English language propadanda paper. It was one of those magnificent pieces that makes you wonder what it means. It is still the Chinglish of a past century.
I know it is very hard to express your thoughts in a clear way, but these pieces are not meant to be clear. "China's bold media reform might take longer than expected, but insiders vow the plan, to have a market-oriented media industry, will not be altered," was the strong opening of the article. Hoping to find so strong clues on what might delay the reforms, I struggled through the swampy article. Then it came:

"Resistance by some media outlets - especially heavily subsidized publications - is impeding the reform. Some outlets argue they will face bankruptcy and their employees will lose their jobs if their government support is cut off. Also, some government departments are reluctant to give up their publications because they don't want to lose their soapboxes. ".

Gosh. What would have made this article really good would be some strong comment of the conservative forces that resist change. But is might be too early for that. Real changes are expected to be in place in three years time.


I saw yesterday this beautiful documentary Bowling for Columbine made by Michael Moore and the press conference he gave after he got his Oscar on March 23, 2003 (click on 'documentary feature'). In China it would be impossible to make such a documentary, but the line of questioning by US-reporters at the press conference was equally amazing. Moore had stepped over a line and got critized in the same way it would happen in China. The US and China are in many ways not that far apart.

Friday, August 15, 2003

Leading media – the WTO column

Shanghai – In one of the standard phrases I use to introduce Chinese media to newcomers in this city, I tell them that reporting on economy and finance has gone up, both in volume and in quality, over the past few years but that none of the Chinese media would have an authoritative position as a leading paper at this stage – making it very hard to follow all the information available.
Mostly my visitors take my input for granted and move on to the next subject, but last week one of those smartarses started to ask me questions.
“Who do you think is the leading English-language information source on China,” she asked after my introduction.
I was lost for a moment. Since Chinabiz is running an English language headline service, I do see the most important news about China in foreign media and I could not come up with an answer. Up to five years ago, I would have probably mentioned the South China Morning Post, but I stopped reading that paper when it started charging for their online access and I have not felt I have missed a lot since then. This month I cancelled my subscription for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the last subscription I actually paid for. I can read their articles at the site of the Wall Street Journal for free so why should I pay?
Chinese English-language media might be offering more and more reliable information than in the past but at times when you really need it – take SARS – they would rather toe the official line than tell the truth. I can deal with that, since I have learned to read between the lines, but it will stop them from becoming really mainstream or even leading media. In Amsterdam and New York they can read the People’s Daily online nowadays, but that does not mean they can make sense out of it.

Online sources are in no position to take up a leading position as paying for online information is still not en vogue and might never become a trend, as the New York Times discovered when they started to ask money for their email alerting service and lost 96 percent of their subscribers. All kinds of media, the South China Morning Post, the Financial Times, have been trying to ask money for part of their content, but – heck – I’m still getting so much information for free; I would not even have time to read more even if I wanted. I might be a bit conservative, but I do think you need to make money to pay your journalists.
Since I guess I’m not so much smarter that you are in getting my information for free, I wonder who is still paying. Newswires like Reuters get 90 percent of their revenue from corporate subscribers, severely hit by the economic crisis, so at a certain moment the continuity of basic news gathering will become an issue.
When I had a look at the last meeting of the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club I noted that less than half of the visitors work as a journalist. Then Shanghai is not doing that bad, as it is still an upcoming financial center, high on many agenda’s. The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club saw its number of journalists drop from over 400 in 1997 to 170 now and that is not only because this city is losing some of its international clout.
How to keep the flow of information going is going to be a big issue in the coming years, not only for Chinabiz but for everybody whose business relies on trustworthy information.
(online tomorrow at Chinabiz)

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

David's Daily

A minor media crisis might be in the making. This morning the Wall Street Journal published a commentary by David Lore, former editor of the Shanghai Daily, China's second English-language daily and much better than China Daily, the former monopolist.
David Lore has been working with the Shanghai Daily since it started at the end of 1999 and was very proud about what he was able to do under rather restrict circumstances. The paper is rather informative, although we always knew there would be a bottom line, where the paper would have to toe the official line, rather than the truth. David always thought is was the art of how to bring the news, if you would do it in the proper way, it would always be possible.
David himself has now proved that even when a paper looks for 99 percent as a credible news source, the remaining one percent can screw up your credibility at least among your own journalists. David noted the changes in policy with amazement, when SARS changed on April 20 from a problem that was under control in a People's War.
He made then a fatal mistake by giving a comment on US public radio as an editor of the Shanghai Daily about SARS. Even though he said actually nothing bad - he was much more positive about Shanghai than any of us - he crossed a line by acting on behalf of the paper. David decided to quit his job, he did not wait until he was asked to, and had to vacate his apartment within two days.
By doing that, the Shanghai Daily made it into a much bigger thing than it should have been, and I wonder what happens now David makes is even in a much bigger thing. He told me the WSJ had actually asked him to do this - he is now working for them every now and then. It is without doubt put into the discussion of press freedom in the middle of the attention. Unfortunately, the case is not a very clear one, as David admits, the paper could not have done much less than asking him to leave, when he would have have resigned earlier.
Maybe it goes over, maybe this is yet another opportunity for a messy discussion about China.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Damned spam

I have always been complaining that the Chinese censors could rather give their time to stopping spam. Well, somebody has been listening and the spam filters are getting better and better. Unfortunately, they have also the same disadvantage as the real censors: when they take their task too serious they stop also a lot of useful stuff.
I was receiving the emails with business news headlines from Chinabiz over my Yahoo account. I had to do that, since two other servers did not let them through anymore. It is almost funny: this service goes over a Hong Kong server, where I have one of my email accounts who does not accept the emails its has been sending out itself.
This morning also my Yahoo-account decided this wanted headline service was spam. Have been checking some of my online resources and it really seems a very serious problem. When things continue, email services might be done as a useful tool.
That might also mean in the longer run the end of many services like Chinabiz.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Half full or half empty?

When I'm getting excited by the - in my eyes - fast development of the Chinese media, I always ask my friend Cao Yang of the Shanghai People's Publishing House out for a meal to dampen my enthusiasm a bit. When you are working inside the system, changes do not take place as fast as the outside world sometimes thinks.
He thought my excitement about the changes in ownership structure of the Chinese media, the large number of new media being launched and the end of the compulsory subscription on party organs was way out of line with reality. Those are only very small changes, he said.
I did not want to give up right away. We have a long history together of talking about media projects that all had one thing in common: it did not work out. He admitted that his negative point of view was partly a problem of different perceptions. The changes that made me rather enthusiastic were futile compared to what he hoped in the past was going to happen.
So, we are still talking about changes, but according to Cao Yang they are futile. We will see. Although the government is still in control of the media, changes I have seen over the past ten years are gigantic. And that will continue, although perhaps not as fast as Cao Yang hopes.
Financial news

Seems like the new SFCC-event is getting shape very fast. On Thursday 21 August Graham Earnshaw will talk about "Who pays what for what news - the fast changing landscape of the financial news" - certainly a hot topic among the press corp in Shanghai that focuses mostly on economics and finance. A very timely article also by Judith Matloff, who belonged with Graham Earnshaw and SFCC-member Bill Kazer to a core of veteran journalists at Reuters at was laid off in the second half of the 1990s.
It is not going to help them now both Bill and Graham are developing the Xinhua Financial Newswire into another, cheaper global competitor.

Sunday, August 10, 2003


Since last week the Chinese media suddenly went into an anti-Japan rage. A kind of friendship treaty has te be renegotiated and without advanced warning all kind of fierce anti-Japanese rethoric hits the media. It all seems government-directed, although it does not need much direction to get the media into an anti-Japanese mood.
Also a remarkable patriottic website that collected a lange number of signatures against the Japanese highspeed train China is considering to buy for the Shanghai-Beijing track that should be finished by 2010. De Germans have lost that struggle for their Transrapid already a long time ago because of the too high expense, but now the Japanese get into political trouble. I wonder who else has a train to offer?

Saturday, August 09, 2003

The FCC discussion

Last night a late email from Tom Crampton, a fellow retired president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club - in his case the Hong Kong one and correspondent of the IHT. He was quoted in a critical article on the Foreign Correspondents' Clubs who are struggling for their survival. Tom has been fighting against the tendency of especially the Hong Kong Club to turn into a commercial direction.
But it is a tough struggle. Only ten percent of their 1,600 members are journalists and cities with smaller groups of journalists, like Hanoi and Phom Phen have actually not linkage anymore with the formal idealistic reasons that allowed journalists to get drunk together. They are just commercial enterprises.
Our club is fairly young, but when I looked around at our most recent FCC-meeting, while I tried to start a discussion on our relationship with the local government, I realized that for most of the visitors it was not an interesting issue: they were no journalists.
The number of foreign journalists in Hongkong has dropped dramatically, from over 400 in 1997 to about 170 now, illustrating that this city is loosing its position as a information hub in Asia. From here wars in Vietnam and Cambodja, and the changes in China have been reported.
No other city is replacing Hong Kong at this stage. Bangkok has always been more a meeting place of convenience, cheaper than Hong Kong, but not really a regional center, although with excellent flight connections. Tokyo has a large FCC, but because of the high costs and Japan's position in the world it will not that easy get a hub function. Singapore never got it and Shanghai is because of the restrictive climate (our Club is technical illegal!) not ready to receive larger numbers of journalists. Media would also increasingly send out people directly to hot spots without relying on their local people. When an American president comes to Shanghai, local correspondents are pushed aside to give way to the White House press corps.

Not only in terms of numbers the position of foreign correspondents is under pressure. Because of the emergence of the Internet, people everywhere can now read the People' Daily and might (wrongly, I think) wonder why they should pay one of their own people to cover a region. The ongoing economic crisis in the media and expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq only adds to that pressure.
The international newswires increasingly replace their correspondents by stringers or hire locally journalists - again to save costs. Officially in China they cannot hire locals because there are rules against that and in the mainland you would still have a fairly large cultural gap between Chinese journalists and requirements of foreign media. But in other places in Asia local hires can do the regular newswire work as good as foreign correspondents and there is no reason why this is not going to happen over time in China too.
So, we have to redefine the position of the FCC's, and of course also our own position. Have posted the article also to my colleagues here in Shanghai, wonder whether that would trigger off some discussion.

I could not post a link to the original article but will do so when it is available.
(Unfortunate the article was published in the Far Eastern Economic Review and that is not free available online.)

Friday, August 08, 2003

The truth about the truth

An interesting meeting last night of the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club where Kate Hartford was able to keep more than 30 people busy in discussing the censorship on the Internet. Many beautiful examples on how people find ways around the censors, protest against the censorship, but in the end mostly behaved.
Since the meeting was off the record, I cannot go into great details, but one argument was too nice not to mention here. Kate was asked how it came that the Chinese government was able to turn around its story on SARS (and many other occassions) a 180 degrees and get away with it. Why did the Chinese people stick with their government, even if they must realize the government is lying and manipulating the truth?
That was not much different in the US, Kate said, where the government had obvious lied about the ability of Iraq to hit the world with weapons of mass destruction and still got away with it. The worrying message for both journalists and academics was that the truth is perhaps less important than we all hoped.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

This other revolution: XFN

Just got a confirmation from Graham Earnshaw, sometimes the managing director, sometime the chief editor of XFN, the Xinhua Financial Newswire, to speak at one of our upcoming events of the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club. Xinhua is the official newswire of the Chinese government, but expanding fast.
XFN is a media company to watch. Chinese companies had a reputation for low-end products, toys, textile and have only recently started to export washing machines and TV-sets to the rest of the world on a larger scale, rightfully frigthening local industries with their competitive strength. But China's competition will not stop there. XFN is going to take on Bloomberg, Reuters and Dow Jones by offering financial news much cheaper.
With an economic crisis in full swing, that might be just another nail in the coffin. Just read at the BBC site that Reuters will be moving their content headquarters from England en Singapore to India. The newswires are going cheap and XFN will be one of the forces that will hunt the traditional companies.
They just closed deals in the US and Japan, covering the most interesting financial markets. Since the core business is done by retired Reuters' veterans, these guys might know what they are talking about. I guess that Reuters never thought their own people would hit back in this way!

The outline

I have started to publish this blog for pure selfish reasons. Soon my book on "Fifteen misunderstandings on China and the Chinese" will be published in Dutch. To make the best out of the distance between the Netherlands and Shanghai I have mobilized some Internet tools and a blog in Dutch ias one of those tools. It allows me to talk to my readers and hopefully some of them will talk back later on.
Then, only a smaller part of my book relates to Holland, so I do estimate that when there is a market for my book in Dutch, there might also be a market in English, although the competition might be tougher too. I know it is pretty early to start this blog, even before my Dutch edition has been published, but that is a personal problem I have. The moment an idea comes up, I have to go for it.
The Internet allows me to do it, right away, so here I am.

The book gives an overview of some of the more important cultural minefields in China, but describing all those changes here in this blog would be too much. So I limit myself to my own trade: the media. That will be more than enough. I have been working for nine years from Shanghai and sometimes I think I have a clue about how things works. Those moments never last very long, so I cherish them and hope to share them with you.

When I arrived in China, the media seemed that last industry to get touched by the fast changing climate in China. The news agents did become more colourful over the years, but limitations were dominant in what could have been a vibrant industry. The Internet has started to change things, allowing a small but important part of the Chinese to get exposed for the first time to a wealth of different opinions.
Since the new central government took charge, also many of the bureacratic barriers that held back the development of the media have come under fire. Starting new publications has become easier, and a flood of new dailies and other publications do create hundreds, even thousands of new jobs for young Chinese journalists. Traditionally media are published by a government department, but this year that affiliation has to end. End the compulsory subscription of the so-called work units on the boring party press will come to an end, eradicating much of the traditional party organs.
That is in short the battle field. Let's move on and see what the casualities will be later in this week.
The agenda of today

So, let's see if I can do some effective time management by writing down what is on the agenda. This evening I will be chairing an evening of the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club on the censorship at the Internet, so talked already to guest-speaker Kate Hartford. The venue can take only about 30 people and we got already that many rsvp's, so I have to do something about the longstanding tradition of showing up without having rsvp-ed.
Then my weekly column to write for Chinabiz. Got yesterday already some inspiration while sipping Macallan whisky in their new Asia Pacific headquarters here in Shanghai, I have to chase the writer of the Sunday column of this week, IMD-professor Bill Fischer in Geneva. And it would be a good idea to make a short overview for the un-inaugurated in China on what this blog is going to be about.
Better a shower first.
The media revolution

I should not do this. I have no time to do this, but this morning the China craze got me again. The Shanghai Daily spelled out some of the latest changes in the ongoing media revolution that is taking place in China.
Even the China Daily, still in some ways the official propaganda paper from Beijing gave today its blessing to the media revolution.
No time to really get this together at this stage in a coherent piece, actually nobody I know who would be interested. But the almost daily changes are so mind-boggling I have to start this blog. Will bother later about the lay-out and other details.
After nine years in Shanghai - and actually preparing for a one year sabbatical next year the speed of change in this country keeps on amazing me.
Later more....
Google Answers

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Living In China