Once Muckrakers, Now Capitalists

How Chinese journalists traded censorship for the tech boom.

Former journlalist Zhou Yuan—the founder and CEO of Zhihu, a knowledge-sharing platform popular among China’s professional class—speaks during the 5th World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, in Zhejiang province, China, on Nov. 8, 2018.
Former journlalist Zhou Yuan—the founder and CEO of Zhihu, a knowledge-sharing platform popular among China’s professional class—speaks during the 5th World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, in Zhejiang province, China, on Nov. 8, 2018.

The state of Chinese journalism is grim. Young people previously attracted to the field during its heyday in the 1990s and 2000s are now dissuaded by stagnant (or even declining) wages and an environment where clicks are often prized over journalistic ethics. The meager rewards appear even smaller considering the pressure many reporters face from an increasingly restrictive government and a cutthroat business world, where large companies will go to great lengths to prevent negative publicity from seeing the light of day.

Instead, many of the country’s best and brightest are now attracted to its booming technology and internet sector, which in recent years has created overnight millionaire and billionaire entrepreneurs.

But the death of one profession helped create the other. A remarkable number of China’s most successful internet entrepreneurs, executives, and investors began their careers in the same community of journalists. As they tell it, the skills, principles, and perspectives developed in their formative years as journalists enabled them to succeed in the business world.

The environment of business journalism in which many of these entrepreneurs came of age provides important context into who these particular individuals are and how they view themselves in the world. While investigative journalism on sensitive subjects, such as society and politics, is most often banned outright, China’s ruling Communist Party has granted business journalism greater leeway to challenge powerful corporate interests. In the decades following the implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up policy, the length of the leash given to business journalists has fluctuated.

The 2000s are often considered the period in which the leash was at its longest. With the Communist Party prioritizing economic growth as its primary metric of cadre performance, the private sector flourished. However, so did corruption and pollution. At this time, business journalism represented one of the few checks and balances within Chinese civil society, attracting many of the country’s bright, independent-minded, and socially conscious young people.

Upon finishing a master’s degree in journalism from Beijing’s Renmin University of China in 2003, Li Na took her first job as a reporter for the state-run business news magazine CEOCIO. “I wanted to cover business news,” Li said. “Although I didn’t know what area of business journalism I wanted to go into for my career.”

That began to change when she came under the mentorship of another young journalist, Zhang Peng (Jack Zhang). A talkative Beijinger with an infectious enthusiasm, Zhang had become inspired by the entrepreneurship stories of Silicon Valley and the potential of such a start-up culture taking hold in his home country. As Li put it, “He was so much more passionate than everyone else—it was contagious. So I wanted to cover the stories that he covered.” Zhang would provide the core of the movement that transformed these young journalists into tech titans.

Zhang had an evangelical quality about him, and that comes across even today, when people throw around terms such as “belief,” “tenets,” and “church.” “Belief” usually refers to a belief in the potential for technology to change lives for the better. “Tenets” center on curiosity, product design, and user orientation. And the “church”? Well, those are the tech and entrepreneurship meetups he has hosted for the better part of the last 10 years.

Around 2010 or 2011, Zhang leveraged his network to organize talks from successful tech entrepreneurs in a basement in Beijing. At one of the first, he managed to convince his old friend Zhou Hongyi, who at that point he had known for more than 10 years, to give a talk about how he was able to fight against the likes of Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, and Yahoo to establish Qihoo 360 and grow it to the success it later became. Listening in the audience that day was a young engineer named Zhang Yiming, who seems to have taken the lessons he learned from Zhou to grow his own company, ByteDance, into what is now—at $75 billion, the world’s most valuable start-up. Like Zhou, Zhang Yiming had to viciously fight off Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, and others in the process.

Zhang Peng and GeekPark also started hosting annual innovation award ceremonies, giving out praise and attention to the engineers and start-up entrepreneurs who had at that point gone largely unnoticed and unappreciated in society. “I wanted to turn the term ‘geek’ into something cool, to turn these guys.” The successor to those events that he hosted less than a decade ago is the GeekPark Innovation Festival, a three-day annual event that last year counted nearly 20,000 attendees, a mecca for geek culture. Among the guests of one such event was Elon Musk, who when speaking to the audience, proclaimed: “I’m here because I know these people will understand me.”

Some saw Zhang’s enthusiasm for China’s start-up ecosystem at its earliest stages as an oddity. “When I first started working with him, most people in China’s business world didn’t even know what VC [venture capital] was,” Li said. “Most people would think you were talking about vitamin C. They would get confused.” But he was a master salesman—or perhaps a preacher.

The general lack of interest in China’s early tech entrepreneurs, however, did allow journalists such as Zhang and Li access that would be the envy of tech journalists today. In 1999, new to the field, Zhang wrote the first article spotlighting a little-known entrepreneur named Zhou Hongyi, who at the time had just founded 3721, a search engine that sold Chinese-language keywords for Roman-alphabet domain names. Famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) for his brash and no-holds-barred approach to competition, Zhou went on to sell 3721 to Yahoo in 2003 for $120 million. In 2005, he left his position at Yahoo to start Qihoo 360, the internet security company that has grown to make Zhou one of China’s wealthiest tech founders.

In 2000, Zhang took an interest in Kingsoft, the software company known for creating WPS, a Chinese alternative to Microsoft’s office suite. His time covering the company led him to take an interest in their dynamic CEO, Lei Jun, who would later go on to found Xiaomi, the mobile phone and smart device firm that went public last year at a market cap of $50 billion.

Later on in his career, Zhang commissioned the first-ever cover story of a serial entrepreneur named Wang Xing, who had made a career for himself copying Silicon Valley platforms and localizing them to the Chinese market. One, a Groupon clone, would grow into Meituan-Dianping, one of the world’s most comprehensive super-apps, combining a number of related services into one marketplace, which went public at $55 billion.

Zhang credits his enthusiasm with helping him earn the favor of the would-be giants of China’s tech world. As he put it: “I was usually more excited about what they were doing than even they were, and I think they liked that.”

Zhang seems to have a knack for mentorship, connection-making, and talent development. The list of journalists who have reported to him reads like a who’s who of China’s tech start-up royalty. Li Na went on to be a founding member of Yunfeng Capital, the VC firm established by Jack Ma and David Yu, which has backed successful start-ups such as VIPKid; the secondhand auto sales platform Guazi; the ticket vendor Damai; Ali Health; and Sogou, China’s second-largest search engine.

Zhang was the editor of a team of journalists that for three years included Zhou Yuan (Victor Zhou), who later founded and currently runs Zhihu, the knowledge-sharing platform popular among China’s young and educated professional class, now valued at $2.5 billion, and an indispensable institution of the Chinese internet. As the company started out in 2011, one of its earliest employees was a young man named Cheng Yuan, also a former CEOCIO journalist.

At both CEOCIO and Business Value, one of the top journalists was Xia Yongfeng, who left journalism in 2013 to be the earliest employee hired for Xiaomi’s ecosystem division, the former vice president and a core architect behind the company’s user interface, MIUI. After working as a mobility and automobile industry reporter under Zhang at GeekPark, a young Zhejiang woman named Hu Weiwei went on to found the dockless bike-sharing company Mobike, which was acquired by Meituan-Dianping last year for $2.7 billion. One component that allowed the deal to transpire was a long-standing relationship between Hu and Meituan founder and CEO Wang Xing. The two met while Hu worked for Zhang at GeekPark.

For all of these journalists-turned-titans, the skills, methodology, and ways of thinking learned as journalists are still key today. “I still consider myself a journalist,” Li said. “There’s really not much difference between good journalism and good investing. In both areas, you must sift through information to find the truth, and then you place bets based on the information you have. The difference is that in investing, you bet with money. In journalism, you bet with your credibility.”

“Being a journalist opened my eyes to the world, how to think logically and solve problems,” said Mobike’s Hu. “Journalism taught me independence, how to be the boss of myself.”

Xiaomi’s Xia credits an experience early in his career as a key turning point for him. As a young journalist, he wrote a piece critical of a company that just happened to be one of the magazine’s sponsors. Upset, representatives from the sponsor company phoned the magazine’s editor in chief, requesting that the article be taken down—a common occurrence in China even for firms that have no financial ties to the media outlet they’re pestering and one that often ends with the article being removed. “[The editor in chief] called me into his office, and I thought I was in trouble,” Xia said. “He asked me if I was sure about what I wrote in that article. I replied that I could stand behind every word. He said, ‘OK then, we can ignore those guys. The article will stay up.’”

To Xia, this was a vote of confidence in his work and helped instill a sense of principles that has guided him since. “I always wanted to write the best articles, to do the best work. I had to have belief that if I kept doing that, short-term problems may arise, but my long-term reputation and credibility would endure,” he said.

Just as Li draws the comparison between investing and reporting, Xia doesn’t see much of a difference between good product design and management and good journalism. “In each case, I acquire as much information as possible in a short time. Then I digest it in my mind, let it sink in. Then I find the critical points, the key takeaways, and use my influence to persuade and convince others of what I have learned. These are both processes of good executives and journalists.” To Xia, the principle-focused approach he learned early on remains. “People might be upset with you about an article you write, but if you’re consistent and honest, it will pay off in the long run. In my current work, I know that there will be ups and downs, but if you’re making a product that the users enjoy, things will usually work as well.”

All this should be taken with a pinch of salt. Both journalists and executives are, in essence, storytellers and know how to portray themselves in ways that enhance their most appealing attributes. In China’s cutthroat tech and business world, no one is a saint, and more often than not, idealism takes a back seat to the pragmatic realities of running a business.

But when you get to know these individuals, and the products and businesses that they have created, there is a remarkably characteristic set of principles that seems to guide their approaches. This at least partly explains why it is fair to say that a Mobike is more thoughtfully designed, more durable, and more pleasant to ride than its small yellow counterpart from Ofo; why Zhihu has tended to avoid clickbait in favor of substantive knowledge sharing; and why Xiaomi seems to be establishing an ecosystem that, unlike the Samsungs, Huaweis, and Lenovos of the world, makes it more than simply a hardware company.

Ultimately, journalists have little more than their credibility to stand behind them. If they chase clicks, sensationalism, or sell their names out to the highest bidder, their reputations are undermined. This, essentially, is what it means to build a brand: to have an identity, a set of principles that can be relied on to endure beyond the next quarterly earnings report. The most promising young brands of China’s tech and internet economy have at least in part grown from the seeds of journalism.

Elliott Zaagman is a corporate trainer, executive coach, and writer who splits his time between Bangkok and Beijing. He focuses on Chinese companies and how they relate to their employees, customers, and the public.

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