Photos: by courtesy of Steven Irvine and Mei Zhang
The idea of producing a magazine targeted at helping global audience to better understand China first occurred to Steven Irvine more than a decade ago when he and his Chinese wife talked casually over dinner. “My wife has been an important influence. She often talked about what was happening in China based on what she read in local Chinese media and the internet,” the Hong Kong-based writer and CEO of e-magazine Week in China told Sino-US.com in a phone interview. Back in 2006, it dawned on Irvine that many of the most interesting business stories happening in China were not being reported by mainstream international media. That's when he developed the idea of a magazine like Week in China (WiC).
“China is such a big country but the western media were missing many important stories and especially back then only focused on a very narrow range of topics like the outsourcing of jobs to China, military spending or human rights. I felt this offered an incomplete picture of the dynamism of the Chinese economy. It’s not like the stories were inaccurate, it’s just that readers of western media would be given a high ratio of negative China stories versus positive ones and naturally that selection process colored people's views. I came to the conclusion this oversimplified China,” said the British writer and editor who holds a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature from the University of Cambridge and 20+ years of career in business journalism.
Soon, Irvine left his former magazine FinanceAsia which he had joined at the very beginning and helped turn into a leading regional financial publication in 9 years. “I took some time off and then I actually approached HSBC with these ideas and the bank thought it was a good idea to let people outside China to have a broader understanding of China business,” said Irvine. WiC then gained the exclusive sponsorship from HSBC, and the global bank began to distribute WiC to its clients and staff.
Week in China was launched in February 2009, with the goal to “tell China’s story to global executives”. Irvine elaborated, “What I want to do is to focus primarily on business stories in order for people living in places like Europe and the US to get more context on how different China can be as a market.” Irvine and his team also brief their readership on key social and cultural trends, showing “how the issues are shaping the debate on the country’s new direction.”
China: more a shade of gray
WiC is published in English every Friday as an 18-page digital magazine and delivered by email. It can also be read via iPad and Android apps. Its password-protected website, [ www.weekinchina.com ]( http://www.weekinchina.com/ ), contains the most recent and all the back issues, making it an important place to go for anyone who wants to understand China better."
Irvine told Sino-US.com that understanding China in his view is more about shades of gray rather than black and white. “China and the US are very similar—they are both very large continental economies and very dynamic. That means that every week there are 'good things' and 'bad things' happening simultaneously. Neither are simple to understand but historically the US got far more media coverage so was probably better understood.”
Steven Irvine travels in the Pingyao Ancient City, central Shanxi Province in 2016.
Irvine said Week in China doesn’t have an agenda or a goal for painting China in a good or bad way. Instead WiC attempts to present a balanced blend of stories about China. “We write a lot of stories about China’s environment, for example, how industrial development has had malign outcomes; and we've featured many articles about corruption problems. But we have also written much about Chinese innovation and its entrepreneurial success stories as well as the transformative influence major infrastructure like high speed rail has had. Longtime readers of WiC probably share my conclusion that China is possibly the hardest and the most complex country in the world to govern.”
The editor-in-chief noted HSBC financially supports Week in China through sponsorship and advertising, but it has no input into the articles or editorial contents they produce. “We try to be as fair a publication as possible and we have total editorial independence.”
In a brochure put together by Irvine and his team at the beginning of the year, it is mentioned that WiC articles tend to be written in an easy-to-read style that’s designed to appeal to busy corporate leaders. Readers are often intrigued by the elements of Chinese history that are used to give the articles more depth - a style that's both informative and engaging. “I basically want to hire writers who have very strong sense of Chinese history, because you need to put things happen in China in the perspective of history considering the country has a civilization of over 5,000 years.”
Irvine says he’s lucky to have assembled a high quality team. His business partner William Pirie, who holds an M.A. in history from the University of Oxford, plus a M.Sc. in international politics from the University of Leeds, has worked in Asia for most of the last 20 years within the corporate world. “The other team members were quite attracted to write for the product as they saw its editorial quality grow,” Irvine said, adding most of them are bilingual.
Irvine says his key role as editor is to select and judge which types of stories coming out of China would be of interest to WiC's readership of primarily corporate executives and investors. “WiC intends to work as an information butler, a one-stop shop where our readers could spend just half an hour to one hour to stay abreast of the key stories of the week, with intelligent and digestible analysis of the trends shaping Chinese business,” he said. One bit of feedback from a fund manager subscriber read: “I find WiC an enormously valuable resource, as it explains a lot to me about the companies and people who are important, and it saves me from having to root around five newspapers and figure out the truth.”
From pan-Asian journalist to China expert
During his 20+ years of career, Irvine has interviewed leaders like Wang Qishan (王岐山), a current member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, prime ministers of the UK and Singapore, a president of the Philippines, finance ministers of India and Indonesia, as well as central bank governors, heads of international banks, top global investors and business tycoons from China and around the region. When asked what values or qualifications make a successful business journalist, he believes objectivity and integrity are essential. “They are keys to winning the trust of senior business leaders; only with these will a journalist get access to the best information.”
When Irvine moved to Hong Kong in 1997 as Asia Editor of Euromoney Magazine (where he worked from 1993 to 1998), he found out it was much better being a business reporter in Asia than in Europe or the US. “You got access to a lot of interesting companies, and a lot of really interesting stories. All these economies (in Asia) were developing so fast. So business reporting offered far more opportunities.” He initially had a pan-Asia focus but around 2003, Irvine sensed that the economies of Asia were becoming more and more different and more country specific focus was required. He became convinced at the same time that the most important economic and business stories of his lifetime were emerging from China. From then on, he started to become much more focused on China.
Steven Irvine travels in the Pingyao Ancient City, central Shanxi Province in 2016.
That said, as far back as 1997 Irvine interviewed Wang Qishan (王岐山), then Chairman of China Construction Bank which had launched a joint venture with Morgan Stanley called CICC. “We talked for about an hour, mostly about financial topics. He certainly was one of the most impressive people I’ve ever interviewed,” the journalist recalled, noting Wang left a particularly strong impression because he answered even difficult questions about the banking sector very directly.
A three-week trip to Western China’s Chengdu back in 1998 also left strong impressions. It was the first time he went somewhere other than Beijing and Shanghai. “We flew into Chengdu and when I looked out the window after we landed, the baggage collectors rode out to the plane on bicycles. That was a pretty unforgettable sight,” he recalled. During that trip, Irvine interviewed two of the brothers from the renowned Hope Group. “They were dressed so casually that it didn’t occur to me at the time they would become two of China’s richest people.” The two top business leaders were asked to take the interview by the local government which was then keen on getting foreign investment as part of the Go West campaign.
“They were both extremely modest individuals. Funnily enough, I later used a photo I took of the brothers on a cover of FinanceAsia for an article I wrote titled A Nation Without Brothers, which looked at the potential business consequences of the One-Child Policy i.e. what it might mean for the formation of family businesses in the future—that is to say, would it lead to less of them. The idea for this article was not mine, but that of a senior Hong Kong Chinese banker who mused about it over lunch, saying that family was so key in China because of the trust element, so what would happen when you had no brothers or sisters. In the past decade and a half private sector business formation has flourished, suggesting it may not have been a problem, but perhaps the real test of the hypothesis will come over the next 10 years,” Irvine said.
Chengdu and western China have changed beyond recognition since that trip and Irvine said that is one of the challenges for anyone who wants to write a book about China – it just changes so fast that the danger is a business book about China has a fairly short shelf life. “I’d like to think we are writing a book that keeps on going every week—one new chapter per week.”
Steven and Mei Irvine travels in the Pingyao Ancient City, central Shanxi Province.
During the phone interview, the seasoned journalist emphasized several times that his Chinese wife has helped with the publication WiC since the very beginning. Irvine’s wife Mei Zhang even contributes a special WiC column titled Ask Mei. Having grown up in northeast China’s Shenyang, she studied journalism in Beijing before going to the US to do further studies.
Mei Zhang contributes a special WiC column titled Ask Mei.
After working for CNN in Atlanta and Hong Kong for five years, Mei switched to corporate communications and government relations at investment banks Citigroup and Goldman Sachs in Asia. Her Ask Mei column responds to reader questions as well as broader themes. “In the latter category, for example, she polled her many Chinese friends in the US on whether they would support Clinton or Trump. It turned out to be a good predictive indicator, as 75% said they would vote for Trump and he obviously won!”
Changes in Hong Kong
WiC is headquartered in Hong Kong and 21%--the biggest percentage of its subscribers comes from the special administrative region of China. Since 1997 when Irvine first arrived, the foreign reporter has been living in Hong Kong for nearly two decades.
Irvine says much has changed since he arrived. “I think the main change has been it’s become more an unequal society and a more politicized city. Property prices now in Hong Kong are unaffordable for middle class people,” he said, “given property is so important to the Hong Kong mindset, that has created enormous amounts of frustration. We’ve seen that frustration been channeled into all kinds of protests.”
Although Beijing has largely taken a hands-off approach to Hong Kong, Irvine says many Hong Kong people, especially the young, blame mainland China for their economic woes, because they see many high-end properties bought by rich mainland Chinese and many good jobs were taken up by overseas educated mainlanders.
“No one talked much about politics when I arrived. The conversations tended to be largely about business. If you go to a restaurant today and have dinner with a big group, there are different points of view about the direction of Hong Kong.”
Steven Irvine is with his daughter on Tiananmen Square in 2005