Tencent and other big Chinese tech firms are often victims of biased journalism. Photo: AFP

First, a question. When is the last time you read a news story in the international press about a Chinese technology company that was not overwhelmingly negative, pessimistic, or downright terrifying?

To any objective observer of China-related media coverage, the volume of flawed and disputed reporting has seen a dramatic surge in recent years. Discussions around China have become increasingly negative as political rivalry and technological competition between China and the West intensifies.

In particular, we are alarmed to witness a barrage of biased and substandard media reports on Chinese tech companies, which has undermined global confidence in technology governance and, in turn, further exacerbated technology decoupling and vicious confrontation. 

In the last few years, international media have published many stories and analyses about where Chinese tech companies are headed under the new regulatory environment. Some unsubstantiated and irrational speculations, unfortunately, have caused unnecessary panic and volatility in the financial markets.

For example, foreign media have reported that, according to “people familiar with the matter,” Tencent could face enormous fines for alleged money-laundering violations after the Chinese government tightened regulations on fintech platforms. Such unsubstantiated and spurious reports have made recurring appearances from time to time for about two years, causing disruptions in the financial markets and panic among Internet users and overseas investors.

Similarly, other major Chinese Internet firms have fallen victim to unscrupulous media reports: that ByteDance was to be banned from operating in the US, and Alibaba to be acquired by Chinese state capital.

Even though such reports have met with swift and fact-based rebuttals, they have left long-lasting damage to the companies’ reputations, investor confidence, and stock prices. 

To the discerning reader, these unreliable “news” stories often carry telltale patterns, including:

  • They often come with sensational, misleading and over-simplifying headlines;
  • They are centered on uncertain and ambivalent claims, with plenty of terms like “suspected,” “alleged,” purported,” “possible” and so on; 
  • Such claims are often supplied by large numbers of, sometimes exclusively, anonymous sources; in particular, unnamed Western government and intelligence officials are given an unusually high level of credence; 
  • Most of these articles are concerned with China’s “regulation” and “control” issues and speculation about China’s internal politics, with a clear ideological bias.

Some recent examples of problematic reporting on Chinese tech can be found in a new book, Influence Empire: The Story of Tencent and China’s Tech Ambition. Written by Lulu Yilun Chen, a senior technology reporter for Bloomberg, this book claims to reveal many inside scoops on Tencent’s spectacular rise, including, according to Chen, how WeChat became “China’s most beloved (and feared) surveillance tool.”

However, a cursory read quickly turns up some disappointing factual errors. For example, the book identifies Pony Ma Huateng’s wife as Wang Danting, which was in fact based on chatroom gossip that has been circulating for years but was was publicly debunked by Ma himself in a 2018 WeChat post. The highly private Ma didn’t divulge his wife’s real name in the post but clearly identified several popular gossip versions, including “Wang Danting,” as pure fabrication. 

One may also find fault with sourcing and crediting, as many key facts, anecdotes, and quotes throughout the book were clearly based on exclusive reporting in the Chinese-language book Tengxun Zhuan by celebrated financial journalist and best-selling author Wu Xiaobo, but Wu was given credit only a few times in Chapters 1 and 2, while similar “quotes” in other parts of the book were not given clear and proper credit, potentially misleading readers into taking them as Chen’s own reporting. 

Chen appears to have also misrepresented certain facts and descriptions from Wu’s book. For example, on Pony Ma’s first meeting with Mark Ren Yuxin, who was to become Tencent’s chief operating officer, Wu wrote that Ren, then a programmer at Huawei, visited Ma’s office in 2000 with a friend in order to help him sell a computer game the latter had written to the then-nascent Tencent. Chen’s book identified Ren as the author of the game. 

In that same chapter, Wu quoted Ren as telling Ma that Huawei programmers “were never allowed to sit at their desks” but were kept busy on their feet. Chen in her book mis-paraphrased Ren as saying “programmers were chained to their desks at work, and it was impossible for people to brainstorm ideas.”

For a senior technology journalist who has covered Tencent closely for almost a decade, Chen’s book leaves much to be desired, and also raises many questions over the standards of Western media coverage on Chinese companies. 

These may be only minor instances of substandard journalism in the prevailing Western media narratives on China and Chinese businesses, but they are clearly symptoms of a much larger malaise, and, if unchecked and unaddressed, they threaten to muddy the water further and cloud the judgment of Western academics, professionals and policymakers. 

Big-power rivalry

With the Covid-19 pandemic still raging in most parts of the world, international journalists face continued difficulty coming to China and reporting first-hand on Chinese companies through field trips, face-to-face interviews and on-site investigations. Instead, many resort to second-hand sources and conventional wisdom, even popular sentiments.

As major-power competition heats up and the media industry itself becomes increasingly polarized in many countries, this unhealthy tendency drives some journalists and media outlets to conform to, even play up, certain stereotypes and biases among their existing readership. The picture of China, including Chinese technology and business, they present to their audience becomes increasingly one-dimensional and un-nuanced. 

According to a Pew Research Center survey released in 2020, 73% of US adults have an unfavorable view of China. If the two countries are to avoid full-on confrontation and attempt to live with each other in an already much-troubled world, the current media environment, among other things, needs urgent change.

Fear-mongering, click-baiting and crowd-pleasing not only harms Western media’s own bottom line in the long run, they risk engendering more misunderstanding, prejudice and hate. 

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, former prime minister of France, has said that in order to understand China, one must accept its differences. Countless China-related academics, scientists, journalists, businesspeople and other professionals around the world have achieved career success and made huge differences by keeping an open mind on China and focusing on the basics of their profession.

The confluence of technology, wealth and politics is perhaps the most exciting trend in our lifetime, and technology journalists covering China would be doing a great service to their own profession and the world by focusing on the technology itself and acknowledging the diversity and complexity of Chinese tech companies. 

Chen Dingding

Chen Dingding is president of the Intellisia Institute, an independent think-tank in Guangzhou, Guangdong, focused on international affairs and China.