Author: Fang Kecheng

Fang Kecheng (方可成) is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Chinese University of Hong Kong. Fang was formerly a journalist with Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly newspaper.

Positive Connections: Confronting Complexity Through Nonfiction Writing

Fang Kecheng: Hello, Zeng Ming. We’re old colleagues from Southern Weekly, and we both left around the same time. I was 2013 and you were 2014. I went to the U.S. for my Ph.D., taking the academic route, and you’ve stayed in journalism. Could you start by telling us why you left Southern Weekly and what you’ve been doing since you left?

Zeng Ming: After I left Southern Weekly in 2014, I worked at The Beijing News for four or five months, and then went to the Chinese edition of GQ in October 2014, and stayed there for six years. At first, I was a reporter. Actually, the title was “lead writer.” Then I started managing the whole reporting team. In 2018 I became editor-in-chief.

Fang Kecheng: What was your reason for leaving Southern Weekly? Were there some things you weren’t satisfied with at the time? If so, how did you fare at The Beijing News and GQ?

Zeng Ming: Some reasons for my departure at that time were coincidental. But there were also some very deep-seated reasons. I recall that the last piece I wrote for Southern Weekly was “April’s Traitors,” a piece about a nationalist website called “April Media.” I worked on the article for more than a month, and lots of colleagues were really surprised. Why did it take Zeng Ming such a long time to write an article? At that time, it was really rare to spend more than a month on a topic. But for me, I felt more and more that it really wasn’t enough to spend a week writing, or sometimes even less than a week .

Screenshot of a 2013 report by Zeng Ming for Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly.

Sometimes [as you’re working on an in-depth article] you don’t know the way forward. You probably know you need more time, more editorial support. You might need someone to provide a lot of emotional support and reassurance when you’re stuck in a bottleneck like that. But with Southern Weekly in a state of survival at that time, that kind of support was really hard to come by.

I thought about leaving and going to Beijing. But I had no idea where to go. One friend said to me, look, you’ll have to go to Beijing in the end anyway because Guangzhou won’t be a center for the media much longer. Since you’ll have to go to Beijing sooner or later, you might as well just go now. I thought this was good advice, so I moved on to The Beijing News.

One friend said to me, look, you’ll have to go to Beijing in the end anyway because Guangzhou won’t be a center for the media much longer.

About four or five months after that, I was on a business trip and chatting with a friend about the different story topics people were working on, and he mentioned another journalist, Lin Shanshan (林珊珊), who focused on feature articles. “Lin Shanshan has gone over to Esquire,” he said. Huh, I thought, why would she switch over to fashion and lifestyle? But he said it was because Esquire allowed a lot more time to work on stories, and my thought was, well, I need to find a place like that. It so happened that I was approached by the deputy editor of GQ at the time, and after talking with them I thought the arrangement was good, so I went. I never expected I would become editor-in-chief there.

The Decline of Market-Oriented Media in Guangzhou

Fang Kecheng: Listening to your story, it occurs to me that there are huge structural changes behind the scenes. One change, of course, is that Guangzhou is no longer the center of Chinese journalism. It had been the center of market-oriented journalism in China, probably since the late 1990s, with the Nanfang Media Group as the major anchor. But with the decline of market-oriented media [in China], and especially of the Nanfang Media Group – which has been under great political and economic pressure – Guangzhou has gradually faded as the center of Chinese media. It can’t compare with Beijing or even Shanghai.

Another structural change is the decline of market-oriented media. Doing in-depth reporting takes a lot of money and a huge investment of time. Who has resources like that anymore? In the golden age of market-oriented media, the Nanfang Media Group did have the resources. But resources diminished with time. And then it was lifestyle media, which had long been overlooked by the news industry, that offered opportunities.

Zeng Ming: You’re right. If you want to talk about structural factors, in the United States, GQ and Esquire have always been important places for New Journalism (新新闻主义) and non-fiction reporting. But even with so many editions of GQ around the world, it’s really only the U.S. and Chinese editions that go for nonfiction stories like this.

Fang Kecheng: Why is that?

Zeng Ming: Well, one reason is that China and the United States are rich in potential news stories. So many things are happening, things that are completely unprecedented. But another factor had to do with people. My last editor-in-chief, Wang Feng (王锋), who was actually from Lifeweek, was always really passionate about journalism and non-fiction writing. And then there was Li Haipeng (李海鹏), who worked as the head of feature topics at GQ. [NOTE: Li is one of the most recognized non-fiction journalists in China, and he helped to pioneer the unique style of feature writing at Southern Weekly.]

Fang Kecheng: The role individuals play within the media can definitely be important. So, for a fashion and lifestyle magazine, would you say your [feature story] content has a positive effect on advertising and sales?

Zeng Ming: Why can we say that Condé Nast is the most successful magazine group in the world? Because they produce premium brands. How do you achieve premium positioning? It depends on the overall quality of your magazine, on your degree of authority. You have to say that the content is good. But this is something that is difficult to quantify. There isn’t concrete data to tell us how much non-fiction stories add to the magazine. But there’s no question that it brings prestige. That’s a very important reason why a lot of people look at GQ differently.

The Cost of Getting It Right

Fang Kecheng: Why did you leave GQ?

Zeng Ming: During my six years at GQ, I was dissatisfied a lot of the time. At the start, I thought my job at GQ was really easy. A fashion magazine, it’s all just fanciful stuff, right? We come from the Southern Weekly background, so it’s got to be pretty easy to handle, right?

After I got there, I realized this wasn’t the case at all. I had the impression when I was at Southern Weekly that if I had to submit my article on Wednesday, I could pull an all-nighter on Tuesday and get it written. But at GQ it seemed like I was pulling all-weekers, and sometimes there were two-week stretches of constant work.  

Fang Kecheng: Was it that hard?

Zeng Ming: Yes. The first piece I did for GQ was about Bitcoin. I was doing interviews for almost 2 months and writing for almost a month. I went to six different cities, including Hong Kong, Ordos in Inner Mongolia (which had the largest bitcoin mine in Asia at the time), Shanghai, Shenzhen, Changsha, and Beijing. I found all the important people you can name that were relevant to the development of bitcoin in China.

Zeng Ming’s first non-fiction story for GQ, about Bitcoin mining in China.

Fang Kecheng: Was this something demanded by your editor-in-chief at the time, or did you choose to do it yourself?

Zeng Ming: Actually, I didn’t communicate much with the editor at the time. That was mainly because, for the first time, I had time and space. You could go anywhere. You had the budget and there weren’t time pressures. After almost two full weeks of interviews, Wang Feng called me and asked me if the article was ready, and I said it would be difficult [to make the deadline], so he just said, Okay, next month then. I was like: Is this place really that relaxed? Just like that, you got an extra month. And of course, that’s a month you consider very valuable. I just kept thinking, where else could I go, where else should I go? And whenever I interviewed someone, they would introduce me to another source, and then another.

If you had asked me right after I left Southern Weekly, I would have said that two months was like infinity. So I wondered how far could I take the reporting, and how far I could take the writing? I found it was a totally different standard from that at Southern Weekly. I would say GQ was probably one or two levels higher. You have to write about all the important aspects, and you need to find connections between all the characters. And you have to write the article in a way that is as story-like as possible. It’s both an investigative piece and a feature piece. At Southern Weekly, and most other media outlets, investigative stories and feature stories are two separate things.

Fang Kecheng: I don’t know if it’s more about your character, or if it’s just like that when a journalist is given so much freedom in terms of time and space and layout.

Zeng Ming: I’m not sure. But I did find a lot of journalists later who were closer to my working style. If you give them three or four months, you can rest assured that they won’t be slacking off. They really will devote most of their time to interviewing and writing. Of course, it’s impossible to guarantee that they will be writing every day because they’ll hit an obstacle and need to depressurize.

After my last piece at GQ, “Li Xiaofeng, the Loser” (失败者李晓峰), I was left feeling really dissatisfied once it was finished. My deadline was January 1, 2016, and I sent it to Wang Feng at 11:59:57 p.m on December 31, 2015. Why did I take up all that time? Because sometimes you just can’t feel satisfied with it, and there isn’t enough time to finish it properly. You always feel that you can do a little better here and a little better there.

Fang Kecheng: You said a moment ago that after working for GQ for a few years, you were still unsatisfied. I thought you were going to say that you were dissatisfied with the magazine or the media environment. But it turns out that you were dissatisfied with your own work.

Zeng Ming: You could think of it this way . . . . Imagine you’re a person who loves learning. You need to at least graduate from high school, and if you can you want to finish college. But at GQ, we were maybe at the fourth-grade level. That’s definitely not good enough, right? We need to continue to work and improve ourselves. But the costs are greater and greater. When you set your sights that much higher, you need to invest more energy and resources.

This is a fundamental contradiction. To realize my ideas and plans, the hope is that at a certain point I can feel that the article sent out is something I don’t need to be ashamed about, but that makes me truly happy. That could take five years, or it might take 10 years, or even longer. Or it may take several groups of journalists who are capable writers, journalists who are promoted and become editors, who really improve at what they do – so that incoming writers get better support starting out, develop, become editors themselves, and so on and so forth. It might take several rounds of that to get to that level. But you would need to set very long-term goals, and your editorial culture and operational model would have to match it. But I can’t be too hard on an organization like GQ China with all these demands. It’s just too much. The pressure to control the production costs of GQ is very high.

To put it bluntly, it’s not a mission or goal of GQ [in China]. It’s probably is a mission of the American edition of GQ, which is to be the best magazine in America, to go for Pulitzer Prizes and National Magazine Awards. But frankly, in China, this is not what the magazine considers to be most important. So that’s why I say it’s a fundamental contradiction.

Just to give you a clear example, at Positive Connections the first two articles we published took nearly five months to complete. The total costs were nearly 200,000 yuan (31,000 US dollars) when you factor in salaries for reporters and editors, photography and travel. Frankly speaking, I don’t think even the American edition of GQ would provide that much financial support. I can’t reasonably expect that level of support from any media organizations in China.

The Attractions of the Subscription Model

Fang Kecheng: So, it sounds like you decided to form a team of your own to shoot for a higher standard.

Zeng Ming: In fact, I am not a very plan-oriented person. I just felt this was something I had to do, so I did it. As for what the costs would be, or where things would go, I didn’t really give it much thought. I knew on the other hand that GQ was a great platform, and I couldn’t imagine that kind of support somewhere else. So I had to go and do it  myself.

So that’s when I started seeking investment. In fact, I haven’t been very diligent in seeking out investors. Maybe I talked to three or four people. But after you talk to three or four, you know talking with three or four hundred will be the same. First, they look at your business plan, your profitability, and so on. Some investors may want you to break even in the first two years and be profitable after that. But that’s something that’s almost impossible to guarantee. Interestingly, every [potential] investor I met with said they had great respect for GQ’s content, that they were loyal readers, that the articles are great. The message was, look, I’m very, very supportive, but I can’t invest. That wasn’t what they said directly, of course, but it’s essentially what they meant.

Finally, in October last year, with the connection provided by a former intern, we found an investment firm called Zhixin Capital. I briefly explained my whole plan to the founder, Li Shujun, over the phone. I sent him four or five manuscripts, each more than 10,000 characters in length. By the end of the night, he had read all of the drafts. After some back and forth, we started the process of working together. By February [2021], the first payment arrived. We started in March and prepared for about half a year. By the start of September we were online.

Fang Kecheng: It makes a lot of sense that the initial investment came from Zhixin Capital, because they’ve invested in a lot of so-called passion projects. They’re not so much in the pursuit of high returns, but care more about cultural value. Projects like “One Way Street Library” (单向街书店), [the social networking service] Douban (豆瓣), Goukr.com (果壳) [a web-based community for science and technology education], and Qyer.com (穷游网) [a website for travel enthusiasts].

Zeng Ming: When I talked to my friends, everyone said the company was a really responsible, professional, and meaningful organization. I felt that since all of my trusted friends said so, there was no need for me, with my limited financial know-how, to continue searching for investors.

Fang Ke Cheng: I’m curious, what kind of business plan did you give them? Your content is so cost-intensive, it seems really hard to make money.

Zeng Ming: In fact, I think it’s definitely workable. The model is subscription. I think subscription is the only attractive profit model in the new media era, and the only commercial model that can be a virtuous circle. The attractiveness comes in the fact that with subscription the costs are the same whether you sell to one person or to a thousand people.

I can explain how this positive cycle works. In the past, nearly all media outlets were dependent on distribution channels to survive. They sold content for free or close to free to readers, first building up influence and then going out and selling that influence to advertisers. Advertisers were the real bread and butter. A lot of media have been short-sighted [as a result of this model], resting on their laurels after they’ve developed their content to a certain level. Why? Because the most important thing is their distribution channel. There’s no incentive to improve the content. As Steve Jobs once said, if your sales department outgrows production, research and development and design, then your company is in real danger.

I think subscription is the only attractive profit model in the new media era, and the only commercial model that can be a virtuous circle.

In the media it’s [advertising] sales that brings in the money, and making content costs money. So if your articles are written to the 70-point level, that’s good enough. There’s no incentive to write to the 71-point level, much less to the 170-point level. For such [media], the respect of readers matters little if it doesn’t bring in more money. So it’s not the most important thing, nor is it something they’ll think about  on a daily basis.

I remember my last year at GQ, I saw a corporate report showing that from 2019 to June 2020, The New Yorker had the fastest revenue growth because they had 2 million paying subscribers. Each person pays an average of about 50 dollars, which works out to around 100 million dollars [in revenue]. This is sustainable, and there’s a lot of room for growth. The better the magazine’s articles are written, the more people will subscribe – and as a result, more resources can be devoted to content. That’s a perfect, positive cycle.

Fang Kecheng: I understand. When you say paid model, I think it’s totally reliable. I’ve been doing a little subscription project myself for five years now – the subscription newsletter of News Lab (新闻实验室). It worked for my personally for this small project. And following new changes in the global media industry, one very clear signal in recent years is that the subscription model is a workable method for supporting the production of quality content.

So right now all of your articles are free. But later on, you will move to a subscription model. Is that right?

Zeng Ming: I think the process of moving from free to subscription is a long one, taking maybe five to eight years? Why? One of the primary issues, one we are powerless to really do anything about, is [technical] infrastructure [for accepting payments, etc.]. It requires really convenient platforms and software, and this is likely something that the big internet companies will need to provide.

Fang Kecheng: Yeah, there aren’t any decent platforms and tools yet. There’s the international company Stripe, but few Chinese people have credit cards, so this model can’t be applied directly. Credit cards can generate a very stable cash flow by enabling regular monthly payments.

Zeng Ming: Yes, I think it must be more user-friendly than what you’re talking about. But what exactly that way is, we may not know until it is built. For example, the payment amount could fluctuate, maybe having to do with how often you read content, or with your level of satisfaction, which would make it more in line with the positive correlation between content quality and payment. The whole set of payment systems, reading interfaces, copyright protection and so on are beyond our capacity. But you have to believe that this highway will be built to your doorstep one day.

The second issue is that everyone needs to be willing and in the habit of paying.

Fang Kecheng: Do you think we’re not there yet? A few days ago, for example, one of our former colleagues, Shou Ye (兽爷), wrote a paid article on his public WeChat account and made a lot of money.

Zeng Ming: If he makes a hundred million yuan, I’ll think that’s a lot of money. Or it needs to be a very dependable generation of income, not just the occasional [successful] story.

For us, in addition to the above two issues, there is the question of how often you update [with new content]. This is a very serious issue. We work on stories for around five months, and that means we can update our content on a weekly basis. To make daily updates, we would have to multiply the size of our staff by a factor of five. This is impossible because you can’t find enough people in China capable of writing this type of story – not to mention people capable of editing them, which is even rarer. This isn’t a problem that can be solved simply by having money. It requires training.

Of course, I’m confident that I’m gradually developing people. When I was at GQ, many of my writers hadn’t written features or non-fiction pieces before they started. There used to be this stereotype that GQ is the last stop for feature reporters, and I resented that, because there seemed something foolish about it – like you had to have it before you had it. It all seemed very rigid. Was it not possible to arrive as a fresh graduate?

I remember at that time, Yang Mei (杨眉) was the second writer I hired. She had just graduated, but before long I was assigning her the most difficult story topics. Everyone thought this wouldn’t work, and they urged me against it. But she wrote very well in the end. I think that with a good supportive environment, and with good editors, writers can develop very quickly. Of course, in the fastest cases, it may still take a year or two.

When you start out, your team is small and your capacity for training has limits, as each person’s time and energy is limited, but you still you have to work with them to rewrite the draft. You need to explain to them why this part is written this way, and not written that way. When they disagree, you have to listen to their viewpoint. After you publish it, you have to inspire in them the confidence to look at the longer-term possibilities for growth. So, I think it may take five to eight years before we have an editorial team of 50 to 70 people.

Fang Kecheng: So your investor is willing to give you that much time?

Zeng Ming: I may not have explained it to him with this level of detail.

Fang Kecheng: Oh my. We can’t let him overhear that!

Zeng Ming: It doesn’t matter if he hears. Of course, he understands that there isn’t magic in this world. Reading is easy, you either spend money or spend time. You spend money to make sure you’re reading quality content. Spending time you may read a hundred pieces of garbage before you stumble across something decent. With [building] a team it’s the same – you either spend money or time. It is useless to spend money if you don’t also spend the time, and this is the fastest way.

I’m sure a lot of companies are flush with cash, but even with the money they spend, I don’t believe they’ll be able to build strong editorial departments that are capable of producing very good content anytime soon.  After we’ve been going for five to eight years, I think we’ll have more systematic standards, and that will be an important milestone for us.

Fang Kecheng: Meaning in the coming years, it will still be free, right?

Zeng Ming: Yeah. I think that’s the case unless you can deliver one or two very good pieces of content every day. Not that they would have to be very long, of course, but they would have to be very good. Right now we have 10 and 20,000-word stories that are doing well, but it’s still not enough.

For a good product, you need to have diverse content. For many readers, it’s enough to read a long piece once a month or once a week, as they can take a long time to finish. So, you need to have shorter pieces, short articles of three to five thousand words, special columns, and other new media offerings like short videos, podcasts, comics and so on. You have to use fresh language, and fresh forms of expression to share interesting content. Once you have full-fledged content to offer, then [your product is] worth paying for.

Fang Kecheng: So in the meantime, will you try other business models, such as selling rights?

Zeng Ming: Actually, we will. Two of our first three stories actually caught the attention of six or seven film and television companies. They talked about adaptations for film and TV. If that happens, great. If it doesn’t that’s fine too.

Once our operations stabilize a bit, we’ll also consider advertising. It’s still a relatively stable profit model. With advertising, you’ll be able to recruit more people and maintain a larger team. That will give your writers more time and space to work on more topics without distractions. Frankly speaking, the pressure on our editors is very high right now.

Fang Kecheng: It sounds pretty exciting. To use a word that is a little bit overused by many people nowadays, it’s long-termism (长期主义). I think this project of yours is very long-termist.

Zeng Ming: I remember one time talking with a group of people (I think we were still in school) and saying that we did these things not to change the world or to make something of ourselves, but because this is who we are. But once you start on your path, you start reflecting. You tell yourself one thing is vital and extremely important, and that’s responsibility. You need to be accountable to your partners and employees. You have a responsibility to your investors. And eventually you will have customers, and you’ll have to be responsible to them as well. Most importantly, you have a responsibility to your readers.

Pushing the Boundaries, Grappling With Complexity

Fang Kecheng: I understand. So let’s talk about the articles you’ve published. Among the first few articles, which one do you think is most representative? And why did you choose to publish the one about Hengshui Middle School first? What was your thinking there? [NOTE: The Hengshui Middle School article is a first-person reflection by the author on their time in high school at one of the country’s most competitive college prep institutions].

Zeng Ming: In fact, all three articles were completed around the same time. I thought they were all quite good, each having their own strengths. We considered all three for our launch. Why did we end up choosing the piece on Hengshui High School? That was on the advice of others. We actually spoke with people at [platforms like] Tencent (腾讯), Toutiao (今日头条) and others, and they all agreed that Hengshui High School was the best choice.

I’m very happy with the Hengshui piece myself. I’ve always emphasized the importance of exploring, breaking boundaries, and experimenting. To be honest, there aren’t many manuscripts out there like the Hengshui High School story. So this was pretty experimental.

Fang Kecheng: Is that because it uses the individual perspective of the journalist and a personal narrative style?

Zeng Ming: Well, that’s one of the reasons. It’s also important to note that a lot of people have written about Hengshui Middle School. But they’ve written about it as a public issue. About how teaching to the test is bad, that it dehumanizes students as if they are products on an assembly line. These voices existed before these pieces came out, and it’s a very clear and valid voice. If you echo such voices, you are just merging into a cacophony. That’s certainly a perfectly valid and responsible choice, but I don’t think it’s creative. I don’t think it’s something new.

But what is it actually like to attend school there? No one has talked about that. It just so happens one of our reporters, Du Meng (杜萌), graduated from Hengshui Middle School. So I talked to her about it and learned that she wrote her college graduation thesis about this.

The first time we chatted, we talked about a lot of things, such as the smell of Hengshui Middle School. She said they would often skip classes. But they didn’t go off to play – they went off to study. So why did they skip classes in the first place? It was because the classroom stank. As soon as I heard it, I thought: Yes, this is what I want, the feeling of really being inside.

This was nothing like the previous articles. She went on to talk about music. She used to listen to [Wang Feng’s] “Life in Full Bloom” (怒放的生命) after she woke [in the mornings], but she could never listen to the entire chorus through those years, because listening to all of it would have meant being late for school. I think these impressions are so real, so sincere, so accurate, and you have to be someone who lived it to be able to accurately describe such things.

People sometimes ask what criteria we have for our pieces, and often it’s just two things. The first is complexity. The second is accuracy. I think there are three dimensions to accuracy. There is factual accuracy. There is contextual accuracy. You can’t take things out of context, and you have to look at a person’s statements in their fullest context. And the most important thing, I think, is atmospheric accuracy, or the accuracy of the emotion.

This piece by Du Meng is the same. Having read so much, she would obviously understand that the educational system was wrong in its judgment of people and their worth. But she had lived there [at the school] for more than three years, and there was no way she could simply put her own life and the lives of her classmates on trial. She couldn’t do that. What she could do is very organically write about her memories. The emotion and the atmosphere of it all is what’s critical.

Because the topic had been covered sufficiently earlier, people were able to accept her very sharp and ruthless reflections on high school life. People could feel that she was not criticizing for the sake of criticism, not talking about the topic, not converging with a loud voice that already existed – but that she was expressing the voices of those who could not speak out. She was naming feelings and pains that had no name. This was something I looked forward to reading. I think cheap reflection is meaningless. If the reflection is not based on the person’s genuine emotion and thinking, then I think it is meaningless. It’s just air.

Fang Kecheng: What you’re saying here is very inspiring. As I was listening to you, I thought of the name of your publication, “Positive Connections.” Had it occurred to you that this name also conveys a sense of genuine connection, of confronting complexity?

Zeng Ming: In fact, our first thought was just to use the single word “Positive” as the name. But the WeChat public account for “positive” was registered. We contacted the person to buy it, because he had only posted three articles introducing himself, with only 20 people reading his posts. I asked him if he would sell it to us for 600 yuan? He jumped out with one million. Then I asked him, what about 1,000? No, one million, he said. We had no choice but to think of a new name.

The word “positive” is not a good word to be followed by anything. Calling it something like “Positive Story,” right? That’s so corny. Later, we thought about it and finally thought of the name “Connections.” Because society is so fragmented. We could act as a bridge, or like glue, enabling us to see one another, and to see more than just one side of things, so that we can connect. This is really what we’re about.

Fang Kecheng: I think “connection” is very good. Why did you choose the word “positive” in the first place?

Zeng Ming: Because we’ve been doing so-called “negative reporting” (负面报道). But I think the negative reports have a positive meaning, and so what we do are positive reports in that sense. I’ll show you the positive side.

Another meaning is that when we face things, we have to face them head-on, not in a roundabout way. It’s the most difficult thing, but I think it’s the most direct and most effective. We’re not going to do something just to consume and tug at your emotions – doing commentaries, rooting around in the baggage. When we do something, we are going to positively break through it, face it, and write it out.

The new media era has offered everyone all sorts of tools and possibilities. You now have 10 million ways to avoid things. You can do things more graciously, humorously, cost-effectively and profitably. But we hope to use this very basic way to speak positively about things. Of course, we don’t reject new ways of presenting things, but the core thing is to confront them head-on.

Kecheng Fang: If someone wants to join your team, to be trained by you and become a qualified team member, what sort of abilities do you want to see? What kind of people are the most capable in your eyes?

Zeng Ming: I think there are two things. One is curiosity. Does a person have a real, uncorrupted, instinctive curiosity? You can tell when you talk to them and read their words whether or not they have that kind of curiosity. The second is to be able to suffer. Many people will say that they can suffer, but many people misinterpret the true sense of suffering. Suffering is not about how many hours you can commit in a day.

Suffering is, first and foremost, is about accepting your shortcomings. You have to accept that you write badly, which is very painful, and you have to be able to change that. In other words, no matter what foundation you start with, you want to advance to the fifth and sixth grades instead of staying in the fourth grade forever. Mechanically spending a lot of effort, that’s not what you want.

Suffering is, first and foremost, is about accepting your shortcomings. You have to accept that you write badly, which is very painful, and you have to be able to change that.

Fang Kecheng: When you first described your experience at GQ, you said that people were always dissatisfied and there was a lot of criticism of each other’s articles. I wonder if this is also the case within your current team. Or to use your chosen keyword, “atmosphere,” what do you think the work atmosphere in your office is like?

Zeng Ming: We have a lot of young people, most of them post-90s, so it’s the usual post-90s atmosphere, which is very relaxed. But for the articles, the expectations are definitely a bit more rigorous. I have a friend who used to say that there are some jobs you can do sitting alone in a room, there are some jobs where you have to work shoulder to shoulder together, and then there are those jobs where you really need to work heart to heart together. In our work, we need to be connected heart to heart. We are like a big family.

Fang Kecheng: How many people do you have on your team?

Zeng Ming: There are about 10 people, and others are starting soon. One is on operations, and the others are all doing content.

Fang Kecheng: If your long-form articles take five months to produce, what exactly is the time and process in between like?

Zeng Ming: Each topic selection is different, but it starts, of course, with the pitching of ideas. When we started each person had to pitch at least three topics a week. But then we found it really difficult to find three workable topics, so not long ago we adjusted this to two. If you can find one that is workable, and you’ve contacted the relevant people before the [story] selection meeting, then you’ve done your homework and just one is enough.

Fang Kecheng: If a reporter is already working on a feature, do they still need to present a new topic each week?

Zeng Ming: It’s crucial. Because we feel you still need to maintain communication and connection with the world. You can’t be completely closed off.

Before interviews start, the editor and the writer discuss the topic and make anticipatory comments. While working on the piece, depending on the specific article, they may communicate daily. Every two or three days they’ll have at least one long phone conversation – anywhere from 40 minutes to two hours. I started this routine on my first day as an editor at GQ. We would talk on the phone. What did you get today? What did you see? What did you hear? How have you revised our previous expectations and themes? What are the breakthroughs we need next? What are some of the difficulties, and how should we overcome them?

Unexpected situations always come up in the draft process. For some interviews, you have to go back a second time. For example, in our second piece, about a father and his teenage son who committed suicide (两个世界:父亲与自杀的少年), we believed most of what the father told us when we made our first trip to Zhengzhou. But then we kept feeling the more we thought about it that something wasn’t right.

We eventually went back because we wanted to film, and we did more extensive interviews. We made it a point to track down the son’s class teacher. Why hadn’t we spoken with the teacher the first time round? Because the father hadn’t yet publicized his son’s suicide. If we did make contact with the teacher, we had to make sure we were respectful of all people concerned. 

It was during the second interview that all sorts of issue came up, which meant many important aspects of the son’s life had to be taken into account. At that point a lot of good friends of mine, including some very experienced non-fiction writers, said we should stop. Just think, they said, this father has just lost his child and you’re going to accuse him of lying. What would people on the internet think of that? The internet can eat you up. But since I hadn’t actively used Weibo for about five years I wasn’t so in touch with the environment. “Would it be that serious?” I asked. He gave me a few examples of just how serious it would be.

But I’m always of a mind that things can be solved. When we were in post-production, another editor made an important comment, saying that the version we had at the time felt like we were challenging the father. It wasn’t wrong to challenge him, but we had to consider first that this was a father who had lost his child. Then I got this editor more involved in the editing process.

We spent a lot of time going through previous drafts, and we went to great lengths to ask the author what the father was like when he said this, or where he said it. Did he cry? How did he cry? These seemed like tiny, insignificant details, and he didn’t necessarily add them all. But he kept on making adjustments. The first was to present the story from the father’s point of view.

The second long-form piece published by Positive Connections was the story of a father and his teenage son who committed suicide.

Another structural adjustment was to end the article with a section where we dealt with the image of the father, talking about what he said that was wrong and untrue. We also related some of his previous experiences and his emotions about his son.

Just think, they said, this father has just lost his child and you’re going to accuse him of lying. What would people on the internet think of that? The internet can eat you up.

Finally, we asked a lot of people before we published it whether they felt we were offending the father in any way. We wanted to make sure we weren’t scandalizing or attacking him. Almost everyone said no, and I was relieved. In fact, the whole article hadn’t been changed significantly, it was just that there had been some changes to the mood and atmosphere, and some re-balancing. But this probably took us a month or two.

Fang Kecheng: I also felt that the overall feeling was compassion when I read it. So I don’t think it triggered online violence afterward, right?

Zeng Ming: None. Later, after the father read the article, he said the writer was a welcome guest in their home anytime.

Fang Kecheng: I think every one of your articles is wonderful. There are a lot of interesting things behind each one to talk about, I think we could do a podcast about these behind-the-scenes stories.

Zeng Ming: We’re also considering having videos. Recently we started looking for professional people to see if it’s possible.

Translation and editing by Sara M. Yurich.

The Chinese podcast of Fang Kecheng’s interview can be found here

Checking In on Fact-Checking in China

A Flood of False Information

Fang Kecheng: Mr. Wei, I know your experience in the media runs deep. Could first briefly talk about your previous experience and the origin of this project, China Fact Check?

Wei Xing: Sure. I’ve been working in media field since 2001, and I’ve experienced all sorts of changes in China’s media – from my earliest time in newspaper journalism (at the Oriental Morning Post), then transitioning to online media (The Paper). Somewhere in there I also worked for a while in the English-language media (Sixth Tone). After that I worked in the area of short video media (Pear Video). All told, I’ve been working in the media for 20 years.

It was last year that I started working on a fact-checking project called “China Fact Check.” The idea for the project started in March or April of 2020. At that time the epidemic in China was relatively under control, but the virus had already started spreading to the rest of the world. Along with this came the spread of a lot of false information.

It would have been around August of 2020, almost exactly one year ago now, that we started doing this project more formally. We have published about 200 fact-check pieces this year. Our pattern of work is sort of unique because we don’t have a real solid entity. Instead, we rely on voluntary networked collaboration, with a group of volunteer fact-checkers operating the whole project.

Currently we have a WeChat public account. Our content is also distributed through a number of other Chinese social media platforms. At the same time, we have a website that for the moment serves primarily as a means of aggregating materials.

We also try to organize activities to raise media literacy. For example, we have worked with a middle school in Shanghai, because we believe media literacy can be developed gradually from the teenage years. So we’ve also tried more diverse approaches.

The official China Fact Check logo.

Fang Kecheng: I see. Well, we can get into the details of the verification process in a bit. But you mentioned just now that this idea started in March or April of 2020. I would guess, though, that your awareness of the importance of fact-checking came much earlier than that?

Wei Xing: Yes. It was during the US presidential election in 2016 that the concept of fact-checking came into the spotlight and became more prevalent. Since that time, fact-checking departments at news media have sprung up as well as independent third-party fact-checking services. Everyone has suddenly realized that the spread of mis/disinformation has reached alarming levels.

Actually, it’s my personal view that not only is the phenomenon [of mis/disinformation] not improving, but in fact is likely to grow worse – and the actors involved are likely to become more and more diverse. As concerns about the pandemic, about vaccines and about international affairs persist, the production and distribution of disinformation remains very active.

Actually, it’s my personal view that not only is the phenomenon [of mis/disinformation] not improving, but in fact is likely to grow worse – and the actors involved are likely to become more and more diverse.

Fang Kecheng: Yes, I’m very much in agreement on this. But if you were aware of the need for fact-checking five years ago, why was it that you started work in this area only last year?

Wei Xing: Mainly it was because of the shift in mindset that happened in these intervening years.

Five years ago, I felt – and I’m guessing you probably feel this way too – that the most important thing about being a good journalist or editor was to do better, more exclusive interviews, and to provide the most in-depth analysis. I thought that by doing that I could make people understand the world better. I think that’s the goal that people working in the media share.

Over the past few years, though, a real problem has emerged. You notice as you’re going about your business in journalism upholding these ideas that the people around you, and even some of the people who are really key, like your friends, your classmates and your family members . . . . You find that the things they are reading are really different from the stuff you’re trying to do. Maybe in the past you felt a lot of pride in a really great exclusive interview you did, and you expected a lot of people were going to read it. But you realize now that people really don’t care that much. Or maybe they don’t even see it at all, or aren’t willing to read it.

So, you have this odd contrast emerging – that you’re busy building this tall building level by level, when actually the foundation has already collapsed, and people aren’t reading what you expect them to read. I would be talking to my colleagues and bosses on the one hand about the amazing stories and great coverage we were doing, while on the other hand many people just didn’t care at all about these things. Instead, they are reading things you might not even have imagined before. Not just things with viewpoints that you couldn’t have imagined, but more importantly things that are entirely untrue.

I’m not suggesting this phenomenon only emerged in the past year. But my personal feeling is that the problem has grown far more serious since the pandemic began. So, during that time I wondered if there wasn’t something we could do about it.

Fang Kecheng: I understand the feeling you’re describing. Journalists are busy making high-quality content but failing to reach sufficient audiences. This owes partly to the logic of social media communication, where high quality content may not be recommended by algorithms to the people who should see it. But it also has to do with this mindset people have, that they only want to see the content they want, content they think is accurate. Their horizons have narrowed.

Wei Xing: I think you can understand it that way. In fact, these two factors you mention are intertwined. And the second factor, I think, has been more prevalent since the pandemic. Because we face a very unique environment, in which for all sorts of complicated reasons – domestic politics, regional politics, ideology and so on – a whole host of problems aren’t limited anymore to just China, but are shared across the world. And on social media people’s views are more polarized, more split. The pandemic has changed so many things in the world, and the production and consumption of mis/disinformation has increased geometrically compared to years past.

Fang Kecheng: Yes. This is why it’s become so much more necessary to do fact checking.

International News: The Hardest Hit By Chinese Disinformation

Fang Kecheng: Could you give us an overview of your working model at China Fact Check?

Wei Xing: As mentioned earlier, China Fact Check is a collaborative network based on the principle of voluntary work. Mis/disinformation is so widespread that it’s really difficult to deal with using traditional methods – for example, by setting up an editorial department as you might do at traditional media. Your capacity is limited, not just in terms of energy, but in terms of your ability to find and identify suspicious information (for us to verify). So, for example, we might have five people on our team, but the capacity of these people to read information is always going to be limited, and we may read from similar viewpoints so that the content we come into contact with is actually similar. This may actually mean we are isolated from certain arenas of mis/disinformation. But if we are an open system, and each person can approach the work from their unique standpoint, then they can be exposed to a greater diversity of information.

There is another very practical reason, owing to the fact that we are operating in mainland China, and are engaged in fact checking. To be frank, this field remains a rather sensitive one. And this means, first of all, that we have no way of formally registering. Regardless of whether it’s as a company or as a non-profit organization, registration is something that’s very difficult and that entails various risks. Secondly, our project isn’t likely to have very strong prospects in terms of profitability. When all is said and done, we’re definitely an organization providing a public service. Moreover, we don’t want to invite commercial intervention, which might give people the impression you’ve lost your public service orientation.

For all of these reasons, we believe it’s better, at least for the time being, for everyone to maintain a relatively flexible and resilient (but still not overly loose) collaborative approach. This is probably the most optimal approach for now.

At present, we are the only fact-checking project in mainland China that can claim independence. When I say “independent,” I mean only that we are not affiliated with any media, government department, university, company or internet platform. But if we were to really solely on an open internet-based model, our productivity would be limited. So, we have adopted a hybrid model. We also try our best to maintain some cooperation with university journalism schools. This is because fact checking is actually a skill that should be included as a module in formal journalism studies. In the past, such training was included at journalism schools in mainland China, but there was not sufficient practical training involved. We’re really grateful to have the support of teachers who can involve students in exploring a wide range of fact-checking practices.

Fang Kecheng: So students can earn credit from such training programs?

Wei Xing: It would be nice of course if they could earn credit. But through this process they can at least take away something valuable. At the same time, [such cooperation] means our project gains valuable human resources and valuable work. This is the basic model we use to operate.

Fang Kecheng: How do you choose what to verify, and do you have a clear internal process?

Wei Xing: In terms of the sourcing of topics, things are very diverse at the moment.

First of all, there are the trending hot topics. From the standpoint of communication theory, it is better that we fact-check for popular events versus those that are relatively less discussed. Recently, for example, [hot topics included] the Taliban and events in Afghanistan. Earlier in the summer, the Olympic Games, and before that the issue of vaccinations and the pandemic. Back in May, the Israel-Palestine crisis was a hot topic, and so on. Whenever something happens, especially when there are hot topics of greater concern to China, we try to identify and sort out mis/disinformation appearing around these events, and we also pay attention to relevant top search threads on Weibo and related rankings. These are top priorities for selection.

Next, there are our volunteers, who will search for possible topics through their own channels.

Finally, because our project is now almost a year old, our influence has grown to some extent, at least relative to where we began. We are pleased to find that more and more readers leave messages on our WeChat public account to ask us whether certain information is true or not. On the one hand, this provides us with some sense that our work is getting recognition. On the other hand, it can clue us in to various different topics. We may not be able to turn all such inquiries into fact-checking articles, but they often provide us with story ideas. So far, we’ve had a relatively diverse selection of sources for topics.

So that means that from what we’ve seen so far, we’ve still got a relatively diverse selection of sources.

Fang Kecheng: With so many topics to choose from, how do you decide which topics to focus on?

Wei Xing: First of all, the most important thing naturally is to determine whether an issue is something that people really care about. In other words, whether it is a matter of public interest (公众利益). Issues concerning vaccines and the pandemic, for example, or other hot topics. In August, to provide another example, there was a lot of discussion in Chinese of the Taliban. This is one of the most important considerations.

The next thing we consider is verifiability. For some content, before we actually decide whether to do fact-checking, we will definitely start with some basic research. If after doing basic research we find that something is true, then we generally won’t pursue it, because there isn’t a lot of significance to verifying something that’s true. But if we find that something is false, or that it’s partly false, then we’ll consider going for it.

There is also of course the issue of risk, also a very important factor to consider. We might judge that something is an issue of great concern to everyone, and we might determine that it is false, but if we see strong risk [in writing about it] then we unfortunately we have to drop it.

Fang Kecheng: How do you determine whether there is risk involved?

Wei Xing: My years of experience in the media field give me a lot of insight into where the red lines potentially are.

Fang Kecheng: Are you the one who makes the final judgement in this process, on whether or not a topic can be done or not?

Wei Xing: Most of these decisions fall to me. We also have a quality review committee (质量审定委员会), not too large, that includes people with media experience. Their chief role is to provide training for newcomers. But they are also involved in the fact-checking process. After fact-checkers finish the first draft of an article it is sent to senior editors on the committee, depending on who is available, and they edit verify it. The sources cited in the initial draft are double-checked by colleagues on the committee, who will confirm the reliability of the fact-checking process and also edit the text to ensure it meets our standards for publication. They may also make determinations about risk. I’m the final gatekeeper, of course. In fact, in this respect, the way we operate is not unlike the old classic media model. We certainly can’t afford to have one of our fact-checks prove false. That would have fatal consequences.

My years of experience in the media field give me a lot of insight into where the red lines potentially are.

The fact-checking process has to go through many hands. It can’t be done by just one person. For a fact-checking operation, credibility is probably the most important thing.

Fang Kecheng: Have any of your articles been deleted before?

Wei Xing: No. There were only a few times when our articles were collateral damage. I mean that content we fact-checked and demonstrated to be false resulted in the deletion of related mis/disinformation from the [WeChat] platform, and because the deletion mechanism is automated our fact-checking articles were deleted along with the original articles. But our articles were eventually restored after we communicated with the platform.

Fang Kecheng: That’s amazing, and it shows how the strategies you are using are having a real effect.

Wei Xing: I’m sorry to say, though, that this means we self-censor again and again [to avoid treading in these sensitive areas]. When it comes to both topic selection and to the wording we use in writing about certain topics, we tend to be very careful.

Fang Kecheng: I’m still curious about this question of topic selection. You just mentioned a few criteria, and I wonder whether there are certain topics you might tackle, like for example health and wellness. Tencent’s “fact.qq.com” (较真) does a lot of stories like this, and then there are platforms like Guokr (果壳) and DXY.cn (丁香园) that will also cover this sort of content on their fact-checking columns. But this seems like a content area you’re not really pursuing. Another area is entertainment gossip. If, for example, netizens asked you to verify certain news about [celebrities like] Kris Wu (吴亦凡) or [teen influencer] Du Meizhu (都美竹), would you select such topics?

Wei Xing: That’s a really good question. Actually, we are positioning “China Fact Check” right now as a service for fact checking international news. In other words, we fact check only international topics that appear on media and social networks in simplified Chinese. So we don’t cover domestic content on areas such as health, wellness, entertainment, sports and so on. There are several reasons for this.

The primary issue is risk. As everyone knows, in a regulatory environment such as we have right now, it’s best for us to do our best to avoid touching domestic topics. Next is the question of resources. This is about differing degrees of openness about information in different places. For news overseas, you can go through open channels, such as the internet, to obtain reliable materials to an extent you just can’t for domestic news. Of course, progress is still being made here at home.

The third point is a really interesting one. In the process of fact checking, we’ve often found that producers and disseminators of misinformation actually share our concerns. Just imagine, if I produce mis/disinformation. Am I at greater risk if I concoct some news story about Beijing or Henan, or if I concoct a story about the US or Europe? I think the answer to this question goes without saying. And so you’ll find that in fact, on the simplified Chinese internet – aside from information dealing with wellness – disinformation about overseas matters far surpasses disinformation about domestic affairs. This means that on the question of risk, they [the producers of disinformation] share an understanding with us. They know that they can concoct something about the US, or about other countries, and it is both safe and likely to get more views.  So why not, right?

So, to return to your question, we plan for the time being to position ourselves for international news fact-checking. But it’s not like we are absolutely not doing sports and entertainment as you said. Take the Tokyo Olympics, for example. We actually did a bunch of fact checking on information about the Olympics. On the surface, it looks like this is all sports-related. But as I am sure you noticed as well, sports topics during the Olympics have not been purely about sports.

It’s true our project has seldom dealt with entertainment content. There was an interesting example of this some time ago. A number of readers left us comments requesting that we fact-check a piece of information, and it was not purely entertainment related. [Actor] Satomi Ishihara was a torchbearer at the Tokyo Olympics, and on August 6 she did an interview with Japanese media, which happened to also be the anniversary of the dropping of an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. In China, there were people on the internet saying that she had defended Japan’s defeat, that she was good friends with people on Japan’s far right and so on. We received a lot of messages asking whether we could fact-check these claims.

Fang Kecheng: So did you do fact checking on this topic?

Wei Xing: Unfortunately, we didn’t do it. We were very focused at the time on Afghanistan. It was difficult to devote energy to multiple threads. So, we didn’t offer fact checking publicly. But we did do simple fact checking on the basis of people’s messages. We didn’t do something in a fixed format like that for our published articles. But I did to some basic research, which I offered to them with all of the sources in one-to-one responses.

Coming Up Empty-Handed

Fang Kecheng: What is the process like once you’ve decided on a topic?

Once we settle on a topic, we ask among our volunteers to see who is available and who might have expertise in this particular area. For example, if the topic we’re fact checking involves a particular language, we might give preference to students who know that language. For the Tokyo Olympics, for example, we might seek out students or colleagues who can speak Japanese. For Afghanistan, if we were able to find someone who knew Pashto or Dari, that would help a great deal.

Eventually, we identify a volunteer who does the first step in the fact-checking process. They will go and do the research. If they encounter problems in the process, we can discuss these together. If they feel they’ve already found quite solid evidence, they’ll then complete the whole process according to our standards. It will then go back through the gate-keeping process I mentioned earlier.

The fact-checking standards we follow are largely informed by the principles developed by Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). First and foremost, it is facts that matter, not opinions. We don’t rely on media reports if we can find the original sources. We try to follow the criteria they have outlined for the fact-checking process, including the identification of various sources and their links, and so on.  

First and foremost, it is facts that matter, not opinions. We don’t rely on media reports if we can find the original sources.

We have also repeatedly stressed that in our fact-checking process, as well as in our final product, we are not permitted to reveal our own positions and opinions. We think this is very important. There are two reasons for this, in fact. The first is that everyone has feelings and makes their own value judgements – but if these are involved in fact-checking then this goes against the original intention of the process itself. Second, this is also a matter of survival for us. Because, as I mentioned a moment ago, people rip everything to shreds these days. And if you accidentally say something wrong, you might be reported by netizens (被网民举报). It may seem sometimes that we are cold and take no position whatsoever. But in fact, this may be one of the most important reasons we have survived up to now.

Fang Kecheng: I imagine that you must actually use a lot of different tools as you produce your content, including reverse image searches, or tools for analysing the source of videos, or possibly even some databases. Do you have an internal resource list, or an internal training manual of some kind?

Wei Xing: Yes, we do have a list of tools for common use. For example, when it comes to retrieving information, how to make good use of Google is actually an important skill. We also employ reverse image searches as you just mentioned, which is a very reliable tool in determining whether certain images have been tampered with. And there may also be certain mysterious websites [that can be searched], the owners of which might be certain people from certain countries.

There are also some tools that can be embedded in your browser, enabling you to conveniently used multiple [search and other] tools to check a target all with one click. There are also databases, including databases compiled by colleagues who study the media and can offer data on the biases of certain media. We can also use reliability ratings for certain media as a point of reference. These may not actually be used in our final product in the end, but they can provide us with many sources. All of these tools are constantly being updated. Developers in China and overseas are continually developing new tools like this. Our toolkit is constantly being refined. When a new volunteer joins us, we send these resources to them and do some basic training. But the most important thing is to actually put them into practice.

Fang Kecheng: How long does the fact-checking process generally take?

Wei Xing: The time required is different [in every case]. Some fact checks are very simple. You may only need to conduct a simple reverse search to discover that something is wrong. Unfortunately, fake photos or videos still spread far and wide, because not everyone bothers to do fact-checking.

At other times fact-checking can take a long time. And then there are those times that you invest a lot of time and come up with no results.

In fact, I recently came across two cases that took quite a long time to fact-check. Two days ago, we did a story related to the situation in Afghanistan. There was a video posted by a “Big V” account on Weibo showing a person of apparent importance arriving at an airport. A group of people greeted him, and there was this car waiting for him on the tarmac. And the car was a Red Flag. there was a car on the tarmac. Waiting for him to get in the car, it was a red flag car. According to the “Big V” account, a core member of the Taliban had arrived as the airport in Kabul, and that it was actually a Chinese-made Red Flag sedan that greeted them.

Deng Xiaoping rides atop a Red Flag sedan during a military parade in 1984. For generations, Red Flag automobiles, manufactured since 1958, have been closely associated with the culture of the Chinese Communist Party.

As soon as we saw the video, we felt it was suspicious. First of all, the Kabul airport, as everyone knows, had been controlled by the US military during this time, and it was difficult to imagine a core member of the Taliban arriving openly at the airport in Kabul in this way. Actually, there was another news story making the rounds the day the video was posted, reporting that [Mullah] Baradar (巴拉达尔), the number-two figure in the Taliban, had returned to Afghanistan. But he didn’t pass through Kabul, but arrived instead at the airport in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, transported from Qatar by a military aircraft.

The second suspicious point was that a small Afghan flag appeared under the video. If this was a video taken by the Taliban or by Taliban supporters, it seems unlikely that they would place the national flag of Afghanistan on the video.

Because the video was picked up from TikTok and had a watermark on it, we conducted an image search and located a TikTok user. Indeed, he had posted this video on that day, and it was later taken by the “Big V” on Weibo. But we used various other methods, including reverse image searches and keyword searches, but there were really no clues to indicate when or where this video was made, and we had no idea who the person in the video was.

Naturally, we felt a bit desperate, but we kept watching the video over and over. Later, we had our first turning point. This TikTok user was someone who really loved to discover videos, and they had posted so many. As we looked back, page after page, through all the past videos posted by this person, we found that he had actually posted the same video back in 2020. So the video he had recently posted was in fact a re-posting of an older video, which confirmed on one point at least that this video definitely wasn’t something current, and it had nothing to do with the situation in Afghanistan. Of course, we could also prove that the post made to Weibo was false.

But we still thought, if we could dig out further evidence, and if we could reveal the real identity of this so-called core leader who was wearing a mask in the video, then we could be even more convincing, right? On this question, though, we could find very few resources. As I just said, the same video could not be found through other channels.

Finally, I went back to the TikTok user. We looked again, step by step, through his videos, and especially at the comments under his videos. But few comments under his videos were actually in English. More often they were in Pashto and Dari. We also consulted a lot of people, and finally found that a TikTok user had left a message saying that the person might be [the Afghan diplomat and politician Salahuddin] Rabbani. We conducted another search on the basis of this name and found that he was indeed likely to have been active at the airport during the same time [in 2020], leaving Kabul for northeastern Afghanistan. As an ethnic Tajik, he was likely to return to his hometown to commemorate the 9th anniversary of the assassination of his father, Burhandin Rabbani, the former president of Afghanistan, who was killed by the Taliban. We made more comparisons and found that during [Rabbani’s] trip to his hometown, some of the details, including clothing, of Rabbani and his escort were all highly consistent with the video appearing on Weibo. So, we could conclude that that person [in the video] was not in fact a core member of the Taliban, but rather a person opposed to the Taliban. From start to finish, this whole process actually took two days, a pretty time-consuming verification process.

There is another case, in fact, that is more unfortunate than this one. From the night of August 15 to August 16, a photo circulated on Chinese social media that showed two people hugging. Everyone said that this was Afghan President [Ashraf] Ghani hugging his Taliban negotiators before his flight from the presidential palace. No other information is available in the picture, and the person Ghani is embracing is facing away from the camera, so we don’t know anything about his appearance. On the basis of this photo, however, many people were saying that Ghani had productive talks with Taliban representatives. This information spread not only in China but also abroad. Even the well-known international relations scholar Ian Bremmer, [though not explicitly saying the figures were from the Taliban], posted this photo on Twitter [suggesting that it was a current image].

Photo of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, posted by IR expert Ian Bremmer on August 15, embracing an unidentified figure who on Chinese social media was widely referred to as a Taliban negotiator. In fact, the photo dates back to February 2020.

But we really felt the photo was suspicious, because there was no public information showing that Ghani had met with the Taliban before leaving the presidential palace. Later, Ghani emerged to take a Facebook video in which he said that he had left in a hurry and had been unable to take even his books with him, not to mention gold and valuables, that he had taken along only a change of clothes and so on. How was it possible, then, that he had been involved with these negotiations Taliban representatives, and even had embraced them? It wasn’t enough, however, to say that the photo was fake based on this sort of information, because it is actually just conjecture. Wasn’t it possible, say, that negotiations had happened secretly? So, the evidence in this case wasn’t so strong.

We spent so much time trying to track the photo’s origin down, and we couldn’t find it in the end. We did see that the photo circulating on the internet bore the insignia of the Presidential Palace of Afghanistan in the upper right-hand corner. So, it did seem that the photo might have been released by an Afghan government office. The media office of the Presidential Palace of Afghanistan has an account on Facebook, and in the past was very active posting photos, running into the tens of thousands. We spent three days combing through these but found nothing. You can now find posts from other fact checkers suggesting this photo actually dates back to 2020, or even 2019. But unfortunately, we dropped the topic in the end because there was little solid evidence about the image’s origin.

The image of Ghani identified on many social media accounts in August 2021 as showing him hugging Taliban negotiators appears on a Facebook account in March 2020, suggesting the image dates back at least to that time.

In cases like this, we don’t feel that the time and effort spent are in vain. Because in the process you gain a lot of experience.

Laying a Good Foundation

Fang Kecheng: Indeed, fact-checking can consume a lot of time and energy. And this naturally leads, I think, to another question. What thoughts do you have on the impact of your fact-checked information against the amount of energy and time you invest? Not just in China but in other countries, like the United States, content that is fact-checked often spreads much less than mis/disinformation itself. If this is the case, do you still feel satisfied with this work? Or do you feel frustrated by this dilemma?

Wei Xing: This is a good question, and one that I think really gets to the heart of the matter. Yes, false information is almost always disseminated more effectively than fact-checked information. I personally think this may be an unsolvable problem in the long run. This is just a reality. The difficulties and challenges we face in the process [of our work] are about not just quantity, but also a question of audience. Which is to say, it may be difficult or even impossible for us to reach those who consume mis/disinformation with our fact-checked content. Very often, we are in two parallel worlds.

Many of our fans are people who pay more attention to mis/disinformation, who pay attention to checking facts and the quality of the information they consume. Their actual consumption habits are already pretty good, you could say, and this is why they support us from a conceptual standpoint. But when it comes, for example, to my own family members or former classmates, while they may occasionally tune in to our stuff in the spirit of friendship, they’re not the main group of people consuming our content. Sometimes I’ll notice that in a certain chat group people are spreading something that is fake. We’ll do a fact-check and share it with them, and they’ll say, “Okay, I get it, thanks.” But then the next day you’ll see that something really similar, or even the same piece of information, is making the rounds again. So, this is a huge problem – how to break through the circle of transmission.

What’s more, you’ll find that the dissemination of some mis/disinformation is so widespread because it has certain of what you might call “technical” advantages. For example, the choices made in terms of title and language are particularly eye-catching. It may be delivered in short sentences, which can be emotionally evocative. For these reasons, information like this may spread very quickly. The dilemma for fact-checkers is that if you employ similar methods purely for the sake of communication – making the headlines more exciting, or including little jokes and being more playful – these can be effective in terms of transmission, but they are in conflict with the core of what fact checking is about. The main point of fact-checking is to let the facts speak for themselves. Of course, you can speak really clearly about something, and offer evidence. But then there is another problem. You may be cool and collected, sitting upright. But others are going to say: “We read this information to have a bit of fun, so why are you being so serious about everything?”

So, this is the predicament you find yourself in. Personally, I feel there isn’t a particularly good solution.

Fang Kecheng: So you’ll continue to do things the same way you have up to now, is that right?

Wei Xing: That’s right. On the one hand, it’s of course about spreading true information. On the other hand, it’s also about playing an important role in training. As I said earlier, many of our volunteers may still be college students. We hope to lay a solid foundation at the beginning, through rigorous training, or even a little old-fashioned training. This is a way of laying a good foundation. In the future, even if you are not engaged in fact-checking work or journalistic work, the ability to gather information and remain sceptical definitely be useful regardless of what you’re doing.

Fang Kecheng: Do you think internet platforms should play a more important role in promoting the dissemination of fact-checking?

Wei Xing: Definitely. Compared with their foreign counterparts, these domestic internet platforms, especially content platforms, actually face much less pressure from the government, legislators, the public, NGOs, and the media in dealing with false information. Since 2016, many large technology companies abroad such as Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter have been under increasing pressure in this regard. So either actively or passively, they’ll take certain actions – cooperating with third-party fact-checking agencies, or with the media, and so on. The question of effectiveness aside, at least they make these efforts.

In China, for reasons that are well known, these internet platforms prioritize dispelling rumours from government agencies. For other content that needs fact-checking, like a lot of the content we’ve addressed, they aren’t very proactive. The reasons for this are basically the ones we just talked about. First of all, such content is relatively safe, because it is about foreign countries. Secondly, it drives traffic, which is really important to the platforms, and encourages more people to continue visiting.

In China, for reasons that are well known, these internet platforms prioritize dispelling rumours from government agencies. For other content that needs fact-checking, like a lot of the content we’ve addressed, they aren’t very proactive.

I personally think Chinese domestic internet companies could do more in this area. Compared with the situation in foreign countries, the sources of information available to domestic users in China are more concentrated on just a few platforms. There are really very few people who access information through independent websites or media apps. Most people access content through WeChat groups, or WeChat Moments, or through [ByteDance’s] Toutiao. In theory these platforms should bear a greater responsibility. Unfortunately, though, they are not doing enough in this regard.

Fang Kecheng: You have cooperated with media, but have platforms not sought you out for cooperation?

Wei Xing: Only relatively shallow cooperation. For example, some platforms will invite us to be hosted there – which means basically to become a distribution channel [for our content].

Fang Kecheng: But they are generally less likely to actively recommend your content.

Wei Xing: Sometimes they will promote it. For example, when you’re addressing something that is a hot topic. But at many major internet companies in China, the content department is in a relatively weak position. Even at Tencent, which among all internet companies in China has done a relatively good job of fact checking, with its own branded fact-checking product, “fact.qq.com,” [fact checking] is mostly directed at the Tencent news app, and hasn’t yet been extended to the mighty WeChat.

So far, the only time we’ve had a relationship with WeChat, which couldn’t be characterized as cooperation, was when our content was selected by them, back in June this year. There was a public account at the time called “Xin Lingnan Observation” (新岭南观察) that specialized in disinformation about international affairs. The account posted an article saying that Italy’s Prime Minister had confessed that the Covid-19 epidemic had started earlier in Italy than in China. It said he had made these remarks during an interview with Italian national media. We quickly fact checked this, and the impact of our post was pretty great, because it had managed to address a trending topic.

Later, the Embassy of the Republic of Italy in China also issued a statement on its official Weibo account, which basically said that they had noticed this information circulating on social media and that no such thing had happened. Afterward our verification article was included as an example in this small WeChat program called “Rumour-Busting Assistant” (辟谣小助手).

Commercial Incentives for Falsehood

Fang Kecheng: Having fact-checked so many things now, I suppose you must be quite familiar with how creators of fake content generally work, right? What kind of people are they? What are their main patterns in creating disinformation?

Wei Xing: The sources of disinformation are actually quite diverse, but I personally think that most of these producers in China are out for commercial interests. The so-called “commercial account” (营销号) is a typical example. Their goal is to earn traffic that can turn into advertising revenue. Of course, there are some specific groups. During the US election, for example, there were some Trump supporters on Chinese-language social networks, and they translated and spread false information released by Trump supporters in the United States.

There are a lot of methods they use. Every time a hot topic crops up, for example, disinformation abounds, and of course this is about capitalizing on hot topics to get traffic. Also, whatever type of content can stir emotions, that is something they will use.

Doing video is actually quite expensive, and it requires relatively sophisticated technology, so generally is more a matter of “flower and tree removal” (移花接木型), basically taking something from the past and repositioning it in the present.

Another method is to exploit the language gap between the vast majority of Chinese and foreigners. Most people actually don’t understand English, let alone other languages. So you’ll find a lot of disinformation is accompanied by screenshots, and the screenshots are full of foreign language. This seems to add a certain degree of legitimacy to the information and it will be more readily accepted by ordinary people. The implication here is, “Look, this isn’t something I said, but rather it’s from foreign media, or from someone in a foreign country.” The assumption is that what foreigners say is more credible when it comes to foreign countries.

Fang Kecheng: China Fact Check deals mostly with verification of international news. And many people today believe we’re now in an era of de-globalization and anti-globalization. Owing to the pandemic and other reasons, countries in the world have become more and more divided, and the antagonism among the people of various countries is growing more severe. Given such an atmosphere, do you sometimes feel as you come to the work of fact checking international news that there are so many things you can potentially do, and that the burden is immense? Or do you sometimes just feel discouraged, like you’re swimming against the current and there’s no way to change the general trend? Do either of those state of minds fit with how you and your team feel?

Wei Xing: In fact, I think we’re mixed. On the one hand, on social networks, compared to a few years ago, let alone more than ten years ago, you will definitely see more extreme and lacerating comments. You’ll come across many remarks you could not have imagined years ago, but now they march out without any sense of shame. They are regarded as normal or taken for granted by many people. When you see these things, of course you feel really depressed.

But what comes after the depression? You can complain, of course. Or you can choose just not to look at it, putting it out of sight and out of mind. But if there’s something you can do about it, then do it. Surely, it’s better to do a little something than to do nothing. Doing a little fact-checking project like China Fact Check, we at least tell ourselves: We don’t need to be too ambitious; we just need to try to do something. This has been an important source of encouragement and motivation for us to continue this year.

If you have grand ambitions, then you’ll think that you have to have real results, that you need to reduce mis/disinformation by five percent, or something like that. If we did that, we would be setting impossible tasks, and before long we’d lose interest and confidence. Looking at it another way, if right now we can do a little something, then that’s something. And these are things that we are personally interested in. Isn’t that a better way? It’s this concept that has allowed us to get to where we are.

Right now, too, we have a pretty rigid requirement for ourselves: No matter what, we must have at least one new bit of fact-checked information every working day. Sometimes, we might have topics that aren’t great. But we insist on achieving output every day.

So, persistence is victory.

Fang Kecheng: That’s a very good point. I’ve done some projects myself with this sort of mindset. Thank you so much for you time, Mr. Wei.

Reaching China’s Gen Z Media Consumers

A Game Publisher Becomes an Information Provider

Fang Kecheng: About a year ago I started noticing the stuff “All Now” was putting out. But few people out there in the world may know about your team yet. Could you start by telling us the basic process of how this project developed?

Lu Hui: Our project is incubated by [the online game publisher] Perfect World Group, and we’ve defined ourselves as a quality information portal for global youth. We got started in early 2020, and the team was assembled from February 2020.

Fang Kecheng: At just the time when the epidemic was at its worst in China?

Lu Hui: Right. In fact, when we started planning there was no epidemic. In the beginning, our content was first published through another Perfect World project called “All History” (全历史), a platform dedicated to historical knowledge. We published our content through an information channel there. From July 2020, we had our own independent content channels. First came our WeChat public account. Then, in mid-October, we launched our own independent app.

The headquarters of the Perfect World Group in Beijing. Image courtesy of Lu Jun.

We don’t just have one public account, but seven or eight different ones, which we refer to as our “matrix” (矩阵). At the same time, we’ve opened accounts on Weibo, Toutiao (今日头条), Netease, Phoenix and other mainstream platforms. We also have audio and video now. We have audio programs on Himalaya (喜马拉雅) and Netease Cloud Music (网易云音乐). And our video is mainly distributed through WeChat Video (微信视频号). We also have some content out there on [the question-and-answer service] Zhihu and [the video-sharing platform] Bilibili (B站).

Fang Kecheng: Were you in charge of the project from the very beginning?

Lu Hui: Yes. In early 2020, I left the “Our Video” section at The Beijing News and came over to do this on my own. It took me more than half a year to assemble the main team, which at our height was more than 100 people. It’s shrunk down a bit now.

Fang Kecheng: Perfect World is a game company. When you first made contact with them, did it strike you as strange that they wanted to do this?

Lu Hui: When I was recruiting, basically everyone who came to interview asked me that question. Perfect World’s business straddles the three major fields of gaming, film and television. It’s also listed on the A-share market. So why would it want to run “All Now”? Because the company has always wanted to expand and diversify its business. For example, it has created a product for vocabulary memorization. It’s tried social networking, e-commerce, and a life information service called “All Future” (全未来). With “All History,” “All Now” and “All Future,” everything is basically accounted for.

As “All Now” is an information platform catering to young people, we hope to create a strong connection with Perfect World’s original business, particularly in education, so it can be seen as the development of our own line of business.

Fang Kecheng: Will Perfect World expect this project to make money?

Lu Hui: Of course I hope our project can be profitable. As a company, we definitely need to consider income from our commercial activities. But from the very beginning, it was clear that a project like ours could not earn big profits and high returns. We can’t be as profitable as the game business. And for Perfect World, there is an interest in expanding the company’s influence and gaining intangible assets in branding and communication.

An advertisement for the “All Now” app appearing on the platform’s official Weibo account, with the motto: “Big News / New Knowledge / In-depth / Interesting.”

Fang Kecheng: Yes, it’s surely a challenge to make a lot of money with information projects (资讯类的项目), and in the beginning it’s definitely all about input, right?

Lu Hui: Yes, we are definitely prepared for long-term investment, and we aren’t looking for immediate profitability within a year or two. Perfect World will allow us a relatively long incubation period.

It should be said that Perfect World is not an angel investor for us, so we are not a venture-backed startup but a project incubation. That means we are now a subsidiary of Perfect World, and can be regarded as a new business unit of Perfect World. In the case of angel investment, investors may not put in additional money after the initial funds are used up. But we are similar to a new division formed within Perfect World, with a designated annual budget. That means we may not have the same freedom angel investment projects have, but the continuity of our funding is more secure.

Fang Kecheng: I see. So when you chose to sign on, were you also considering this relative long-term stability?

Lu Hui: Yes. It means greater stability for me personally and for our team. We won’t face strong pressures on profitability right away. Instead, we can pursue content better suited to our ideas and to the media logic (新闻传播的规律).

Fang Kecheng: Just now you mentioned that Perfect World hopes this new business will be profitable. But we also know that content can come with risks. I wonder how the company handles the question of risk?

Lu Hui: Yes, of course the question of risk is something they have always raised. From the company’s point of view, they naturally want to avoid such risks as much as possible. That’s why our position from the beginning is to not be a news media, but rather a youth information platform. In terms of content, we try not to become too involved in current affairs, disaster reporting, crimes or other relatively sensitive areas. What we do is still focused on topics of interest to youth.

In this process we are constantly adjusting and balancing risks. Fortunately, the company offers us a high degree of freedom and basically does not interfere with our content.

Fang Kecheng: Does the company worry about not having a license to publish original news content (新闻资质)?

Lu Hui: They do worry. We also explained the situation to the company at the beginning. Of course, we can’t just wait for the problem to be resolved. We know that most of the new media projects on the market now are unlicensed (没有牌照的), which is a common problem we all face and is always a sword hanging over our heads.

In a messy information environment, the demand for original and high-quality information is on the rise.

Fang Kecheng: As a media professional with deep experience in the field, what drew you to join “All Now”? What do you hope to achieve here?

Lu Hui: Actually, my thinking wasn’t too complicated. One day I just realized looking all around that there was nothing particularly good on the news and information app front. Traditional media haven’t really done a good job [in this area], and the major internet portals that we habitually used in the past, like Netease, Tencent and Phoenix – what about their news clients? I found that they were all Toutiao-ified [imitating the Toutiao app, which generates tailored news feeds for users based on algorithm models], or you could say they were “self-mediazed” (自媒体化), meaning that they adopt a lot of content from self-publishing media. In fact, traditional media content has now become drowned out in the sea of self-published media.

Self-published media don’t follow the reporting norms of traditional media. They often stir up emotions, and they don’t separate facts from opinions. Open up these news apps and you find that every single day they contain sensational and vulgar content. In fact, this owes to the influence of Toutiao, which led the transformation in this direction.

An app download add from “All Now,” reading: “See a different world!”

The emergence of Toutiao has led to a broad change in the media ecology (媒体生态), and this has been a troubling turn of events for people who have relatively high expectations in terms of information quality. It’s not just me. My peers in the media, and those who are more culturally informed, all generally feel that the whole field of news and information is in decline.

Of course, this decline is not entirely a bad thing. It allows more people to access information more easily. But those who do have higher expectations and want quality information just can’t find a suitable news and information app on the market.

Fang Kecheng: That’s a very interesting observation. Do you think this change in the media ecology is unprecedented?

Lu Hui: Yes. More than 10 years ago, when portals were dominant, they actually did not constitute a major blow to traditional media. In one sense, even, portals helped traditional media expand their influence. For example, the Southern Metropolis Daily or The Beijing News, which were local media, were able to gain national influence through portals like Sina. [Editor’s Note: Internet portals, which had national reach, typically republished content from Chinese newspapers and magazines, but were prohibited from conducting news reporting themselves.]

The launch of Toutiao, together with WeChat public accounts, made a dent in the traditional media, suddenly stripping traditional media of their authority. You basically don’t see publications like Southern Weekly, Southern Metropolis Daily or The Beijing News setting the agenda anymore.

Now, the traditional media themselves moving in the direction of self-media, and they are creating more and more content in the self-publishing style. So you’ll find that traditional media are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from self-published media. On the whole, you can say that there is quite a strong trend of anti-intellectualism in the information landscape.

Fang Kecheng: Yes, there seems to be less and less quality content.

Lu Hui: I think more and more users, especially more discriminating users (高端用户), are dissatisfied with this situation, and even have a strong sense of disgust. Even at the lower end of the market, with information becoming more and more abundant, more users are now demanding more quality information. With the massive decline of traditional media, however, in-depth and professional information is growing ever scarcer.

One of the trends we’ve noticed over the years is that the demand for in-depth articles is now on the rise on WeChat public accounts. Fragmented information tends to be ignored in this WeChat public account market, while reader demand for more in-depth information increases. So, that demand drove my original intention to make “All Now” happen at the time. In the game of publishing quality and original information, there are virtually no players.

Fang Kecheng: So, when Perfect World sought you out, you had this idea in mind to define the direction “All Now” would take.  

Lu Hui: That’s right. Once I pitched it, it was approved by Perfect World. At the time, we proposed that our target users would be young people who were inquisitive and curious about the world, who were tired of fragmented information and tired of short videos. So, I positioned “All Now” from the beginning to serve a niche market for quality, serving a small group of people.

Fang Kecheng: Do you have an estimate of how many people there are for such a market?

Lu Hui: It can be estimated, but not very accurately. I would say about 10 million or so. If you think about it, Toutiao has about 800 million users, and we may be able to reach one to two percent of that.

Fang Kecheng: Is it possible for you to reveal your reach right now?

Lu Hui: We are still very far from that. We have only a few hundred thousand users. About ten million is the ultimate goal we hope to reach.

Fang Kecheng: Is Perfect World likely to find this figure too small?

Lu Hui: No. Actually, it is not all about the number of users, but also the commercial value of users and about [audience] precision. For example, there is some niche content in vertical fields (垂直领域的小众内容) with relatively strong commercial value.

The concerns of young people are different from those a decade ago.

Fang Kecheng: How do you break into the business of providing original and high-quality information for young people?

Lu Hui: At the start, we wanted to focus on the topic of “globalization,” so we built a relatively large team for international news. But then the situation changed drastically, along with the Covid-19 pandemic and an intensified anti-globalization sentiment around the world, including calls for the decoupling of China and the United States and so on.

So afterward we adjusted our approach and started to focus only on “Generation Z,” what we call the post-95 and post-00 groups, and the issues they face. We found that this generation of young people is a very anxious generation. They live in the so-called “involution era” (内卷时代). [Editor’s Note: This is a reference to the idea that young people today work in a highly competitive environment with few prospects for real advancement, and become more and more exhausted in the process.]. While the post-80s and even the post-90s youth grew up in a period of rapid economic development and accelerating global integration, Generation Z is living in an era of slowing growth and even stagnation. Globalization is receding, and isolationism is becoming more prevalent, which makes young people feel greater competitive pressure and see fewer prospects for upward mobility.

China’s younger generation, though digitally connected, feels increasingly detached from the competitive environment that surrounds them. Image by Gauthier Delacroix available at Flickr.com under CC license.

We can observe the trajectory of mentality among young people today. In the beginning, young people remained idealistic. Then they turned to the concept of “little happiness” (小确幸), [the idea that contentment could be found in the small things], but they found that even “little happiness” could not be sustained. So then they tried to become “Buddha-like” (佛系), [living with a sense of indifference]. Once they gave up being “Buddha-like,” then became “sang” (丧), [which describes a state of discouragement]. Finally, as even the culture of “sang” no longer seems to work, they have turned to the idea of “lying flat” (躺平) and “freeganism” (不消费主义).

This is a downward spiral. And so our content is aimed at the anxiety that youth feel in the era of “involution,” making a record of their demands and the real life conditions that they face. You could say this is our new character design.

Fang Kecheng: Specifically, how do you choose topics concerning this concept?

Lu Hui: I found that some of the topics that we paid most attention to as media people 10 or 15 years ago, like disaster reporting, mining accidents, explosions, fires, earthquakes, cases of injustice and so on, are not of particular concern to young people today. Young people pay more attention now to a number of other topics, such as gender and questions of fairness. You people today, I think, are more sensitive to fairness than our generation. Related to these issues, there are some topics like the “996” work culture [the idea that workers should expect to work from 9AM to 9PM six days a week]. In addition, there are new lifestyle choices such as freeganism. We’ve increased our coverage of these areas and found that the click rates were higher.

Fang Kecheng: How do you personally know what young people are thinking and what they care about?

Lu Hui: I still have a pretty youthful mentality. In fact, I’m a pretty typical anime, comics and games (ACG) geek, and in that sense I’m not quite like other traditional media people who like to get together for drinks. I think we can no longer use the approach of enlightenment (启蒙) or instruction (教导) to communicate with young people. The times have changed. Young people these days are actually very conscious, and they have many sources of information. Their capacity to act is really strong too. They don’t need or want someone to enlighten them in a condescending way.

On the other hand, though, there is a problem of “youth worship” (青年崇拜), exemplified by Bilibili’s [May 2020] viral video “Rising Waves” (后浪), which praised everything about young people today. This isn’t right either. My approach is to try to give everyone more room to explore freely. You shouldn’t tie your hands with old experiences from the newspaper era already past, thinking that you know best.

An emotive viral video on the Bilibili platform in 2020 portrays young people in China today as having infinite opportunities in a newly strong China.

Fang Kecheng: How much of the traditional media experience is still worth inheriting, and what should be discarded?

Lu Hui: I think that some things at the core of journalistic professionalism, such as truth-seeking and balance, are definitely still necessary. However, many of the formal rules, like rules of style and writing, require new exploration and breakthrough in this generation. This process of exploration and breakthrough, though, hasn’t yet resulted in a consensus on rules, so right now things seem really chaotic.

Fang Kecheng: Like what kind of breakthroughs? Do you means things like allowing for a first-person narrative in writing and more self-expression?

Lu Hui: I think so. Some self-published articles are hard to classify according to the traditional news style, but they contain good exclusive reporting (独家报道). Our colleagues often feel a sense of frustration, that the pieces they really invest themselves in writing aren’t read by users at all, while some of the stuff they write quite casually gets higher click rates. To put it plainly, a consensus and rules have not yet formed.

Perhaps articles can abandon some of the boundaries about objectivity and start from the writer’s own experience. The writer has to become an observer, and the observer has to take a stand. It can’t be the purely objective and impartial (客观公正) stance that we used to talk about. In fact, that is not necessarily being objective and impartial either.

Fang Kecheng: It’s more the pretense of objectivity and impartiality.

Lu Hui: Right. The direction of change now may be that I have my perspective, but I can explain to the users really clearly what that perspective is. The user can accept information from the perspectives of numerous observers and in the process arrive at more comprehensive information.

Kecheng Fang: I couldn’t agree more. I remember one general trend in American press circles last year was that several influential journalists left the New York Times or other reputable media outlets to write their own newsletters, and there were plenty of people who paid to subscribe. People seem to be more willing to follow an individual rather than large news organizations.

Lu Hui: The trend for media organizations is to become personalized (人格化). Institutionalized media often give people a feeling of coldness. But now readers prefer media with personality. We used to call it market positioning, but now we refer to it as “character development” (人设). Each WeChat public account needs to have its own personality.

Fang Kecheng: What kind of content is most popular among your readers right now?

Lu Hui: Looking at the data, the more upbeat articles, like the “Internet Surfers Weekly Topic Handbook,” which is a collection of the past week’s hot topics and new ideas on the internet. This column has the most clicks. So I think users are sometimes conflicted. On the one hand, they want in-depth stuff, and on the other hand they click on more fragmented and entertaining stuff. But I think it’s okay. We want to provide both kinds of content. In fact, a person can be more refined in their spiritual pursuits, and want to read more philosophy books, but also watch variety shows, funny short videos and so on. These two needs are symbiotic.

Expanding brand influence with the help of external platforms

Fang Kecheng: What is the internal structure of the “All Now” team and how does it work? Is it very different from traditional media?

Lu Hui: In terms of content production, the atmosphere is still relatively similar to that of traditional media. We are divided organizationally into five sections according to content: international, finance, culture and entertainment, city, and technology. In addition to the content team, of course, we also have a relatively strong technical team and product team.

Fang Kecheng: I see. So is there deeper integration between the technical team and the content team?

Lu Hui: To be honest, we are still relatively separate and have not integrated extensively yet. However, we are experimenting with ideas such as introducing automated writing, and later we may also add more interactive content as well as community-based content.

Fang Kecheng: Those sound quite promising. Though, as far as I know, automated writing solutions can still only write short messages that are more structured.

Lu Hui: Yes, they are relatively simple articles, but they can complement our fully original content at present. Right now we don’t have a lot of information. While we do have an app, it’s more like a larger public account, so automated writing could help us supplement in terms of volume.

Fang Kecheng: You put out content on a lot of platforms. For you which platforms are most important right now?  Is it still the most important to have your own app?

Lu Hui: Yeah, we are definitely still focusing on our own app, but its growth is still relatively slow. Our content is distinctive, but in terms of functionality what we are doing is providing articles for reading. The next step will be to add new features, but at this stage, it’s still purely articles. For this reason, user growth for our app has not been very rapid, and we need to use external platforms to expand our brand influence first.

Among external platforms, the one we prioritize the most by far is still WeChat and our public accounts there. We find that it still has the highest commercial value. Although our readership is not huge, an article does well if it is read more than 10,000 times. When you compare other platforms it’s clear that a read on a WeChat public account has the greatest impact.

On the audio side we’re not producing a lot in terms of quantity right now, but there’s a lot of growth. For example, we are growing quite well on the “Himalaya” audio app, and are gradually becoming recognized. The audio medium might appeal to young people more, the popularity of “Clubhouse” being a prime example.

Fang Kecheng: Audio is very personalized.

Lu Hui: Yeah, we will progressively strengthen our investment in audio and video.

Fang Kecheng: I take it you don’t have any plans right now to expand commercially?

Lu Hui: That’s right. When I set up the team at the beginning I didn’t set up any sales positions. And now I am basically sitting at home, and many people are reaching out to us to invest. They were probably drawn to our tone and our growth potential, which makes them willing to take the initiative in coming to us. Soon we’ll begin to set up a commercial team and start to bring in some revenue, but it is unlikely that we will be able to turn a profit right away in the short term.

Finding a Niche With Innovative Stories

From Southern Weekly to Jiemian: Tangled Interests and the Decline of Print Media

Fang Kecheng: It’s been a long time. It was years ago that we were colleagues at Southern Weekly. I left the newspaper in 2013? And you?

Shou Ye: I joined Southern Weekly in 2010, and left in May 2014. Even though I no longer wanted to stay with print media, I still was really interested in journalism. At that time, preparations were just underway for “Jiemian News,” a new media experiment in the Shanghai newspaper market. So I went to Jiemian, because I was really interested in new media. When I went to Jiemian, the team was just 30 people. Now there are more than 1,000.

In those early days at Jiemian, everyone actually had few ideas about the future. But everyone believed that the whole environment had already undergone major change. The print media were finished, and even if you stayed on somewhere you were only managing your way through its death. Everyone could see where things were heading. 

Do you remember when Deng Ke (邓科), who was on the editorial board of Southern Weekly and head of the Beijing news desk, left for his own entrepreneurial venture?  Before he left he brought a number of us together at a café for a meeting. He said that print media were like the horse and cart industry at the end of the 19th century, and that it would slowly vanish. As soon as Deng said that we further lost our confidence in the print media.

I was on the economics desk at Southern Weekly, and actually I was quite bored at the time. Around 2015 there was this intern that put together these materials about which articles over the past four years had been removed (被和谐) from the Southern Weekly website, and mine were at the top of the list.

Fang Kecheng: So what did you decide then?

Shou Ye: So I went to Jiemian to lead the real estate team. There were maybe 10 of us. Later on, actually, it went beyond just real estate. We also did some more investigative reports. That was the best team they had at Jiemian at the time. Jiemian had been live for one year at that point, and most of the stuff that got the most traffic was stuff we contributed. And in China, the most core advertising revenues come from real estate and from the auto industry.

Later on, I left Jiemian for my own reasons.

Innovating to Make Financial Journalism “Cool”

Fang Kecheng: After you resigned from Jiemian, how did you begin your own new media venture?

Shou Ye: It was during the first half of 2017 that I resigned from Jiemian, and after that I took a break for about half a year. There were two other reporters who left Jiemian along with me, and they had been with me since they were interns. They waited for me, wanting to do something together. I said, OK, then let’s open a few public accounts [on WeChat] and rent ourselves an office. Let’s keep doing what we did before.

“Shou Lou Chu” (兽楼处) was actually a WeChat public account that I had registered in 2016, and in 2017 I started writing a bit for it, maybe one piece or so a month. Then, from the end of 2017 and into 2018, we started updating it on a regular basis. [NOTE: “Shou Lou Chu” here is a homophone of the word for “property sales office” (售楼处)].

Toward the end of 2017 we had two articles in particular that had a major impact. At that time the “Shou Lou Chu” fan base was only around 200,000. In November we finished writing an article about the campaign in Beijing to clean out the “low-end population” (低端人口). That one was called, “Beijing Finally Collapses” (北京终于折叠). Suddenly our fans doubled from 200,000 to 400,000, but afterward our account was blocked for a month.

I had another account called “Free Shipping Zone” (包邮区). The second piece, which was published on “Free Shipping Zone,” was called, “Wang Jianlin’s Waterloo” (王健林的滑铁卢). That piece had a huge impact, and our fans shot up to 300,000. This piece [which looked at Dalian Wanda Group’s widespread sale of assets] was probably for Wang Jianlin at the time a really bone-crushing piece, and it was really stressful for us at the time. But our [professional] position in the entire industry was immediately established.

In March 2018, we rented our first office, this really small 60 square meter space. At the time we had just the two public accounts in our hands, with around 700,000 fans. The three of us continued writing things as we always had, using pretty much exactly the same methods we had at Southern Weekly and at Jiemian. But we packaged our stories more nicely.

When we were at Jiemian, in fact, there were certain things  that vexed us. Because the team I led wrote  really decent articles —  the best in the business, you might even say. We involved ourselves in all of the major stories in the real estate sector at that time, from the listing of Wanda to the dispute between Vanke and the Baoneng Group. And our reports were really the best in the industry. But you find that its impossible to compete with the self-media (自媒体) [on platforms like WeChat]. They change the headline around [on your report], slightly change things, and then their readers go through the roof.

Image of Chinese real estate mogul Wang Jianlin run with the report “Wang Jianlin’s Waterloo.”

The clearest example of this was during the default of the [Shenzhen-based] Kaisa Group [on its US-dollar denominated bonds in 2015], when our report actually influenced the way things developed. The crux was that our exposé put an end to the planned acquisition of a controlling stake by Sunac. At that time PricewaterhouseCoopers was preparing to report Kaisa, and report [Sunac chairman] Sun Hongbin (孙宏斌). As soon as we reported this, Sun Hongbin ended his buyout plans, and there was no way that the purchase of the controlling stake in Kaisa was going to succeed.  

After we finished our report, we had around 10,000 hits on the story on our own website. Other self-media, though, would just sit and wait for our stuff to come out, and then they’d immediately change the headline and re-run it. There were two self-media accounts that would wait on us every day, and would get around 100,000 reads [on their re-posts of  our stuff], while on our own WeChat public account [for Jiemian] we would get maybe 5,000 reads.

At the time I spoke to our leaders at Jiemian and said we definitely had to change the way we wrote. Our way of writing was entirely no good, already so outdated. Our writing was from the last century. It was the writing style of the 21st Century Business Herald, of China Business News, or even you could say the writing style of The Wall Street Journal. This style of writing was completely unsuited to the times. I spoke to the boss twice about this. I said that our style needed to be innovated, and that if we didn’t no one would read our stuff. No way, the boss said. This was too risky.

Fang Kecheng: Why risky?

Shou Ye: Well, first of all, the language would be too lively, too sharp. Our sponsoring institution (主管部门) would probably not have agreed. Secondly, a more innovative stylistic approach might have mean an even bigger impact on the companies about which we were reporting, and the exposure to risk would therefore be greater.

Fang Kecheng: If you think about it, using a “Shou Lou Chu” style of writing at an institutional media outlet does seem pretty unlikely.

Shou Ye: We made a proposal at the time, that we register a public account and use the public account as a way to innovate the way we wrote – not putting it on the official website.

Fang Kecheng: The same way that the People’s Daily public account tries to be down-to-earth, with content that differs quite a bit from the newspaper.

Shou Ye: But later on I dropped this proposal. After I resigned, I started doing it this way myself. I thought for perhaps six months about resigning, because in 2017 I felt that the whole self-media industry might have peaked, and that there wouldn’t be any opportunities to break new ground.

On March 8, 2018, we rented that first office. And on March 9, I called a meeting there and said three things. First, we had only a one-year window to get this thing off the ground, and if we managed to seize the opportunity then we could make it work. We had a definite foundation with our two public accounts, which had some influence within the real estate and financial circles even if our fan base wasn’t huge. With this foundation, if we could seize on the first year to get things going, then I felt there wouldn’t be too many problems.

Second, there was the question of our core competitiveness. We had all been in the media before, and in the traditional media we had excelled above others. In the self-media era we could also innovate stylistically (文本创新), and our articles would be better than others’.

Fang Kecheng: How did you arrive at this stylistic innovation? What was your method?

Shou Ye: By dint of our own efforts, I guess. Actually, there was no point of reference. The core value was really about everyone feeling after reading something that it was cool (爽). We were using a “cool style” (爽文) of writing to approach financial reporting. Coolness is also a value, an if the information is there then it will have a huge impact in the market. I think maybe this also came from having in the past read online novels in the “cool-style” (爽文类).

Fang Kecheng: Do you feel that if the writing of financial journalism borrows from online novels this will in any way compromise quality?

Shou Ye: There is no compromise on quality. Actually, you take the reports themselves and the core content is basically the Southern Weekly report. It’s only that in order to create a sense of excitement in the reading there might be stylistic changes to different parts. The informative core has not changed. It’s still the Southern Weekly style of reporting.

Fang Kecheng: Do you think there is any change in the way people receive the information?

Shou Ye: First of all, they really enjoy it. It’s really clear that people love reading this kind of stuff. In terms of information, our reports are generally pretty dense. In the past, at Southern Weekly, the core problem was that of the page. You definitely had to fill the page, so you wanted 3,000 characters, or 5,000, otherwise you’d have blank space (开天窗). But now we can just get rid of all the crap and ensure that there is enough information. If there’s not enough information, and there are too many rhetorical flourishes, then people just won’t keep reading.

Fang Kecheng: But in the pursuit of “cool writing” is there a danger that you’ll have more emotive language and a stronger subjectivity creep in? This would be in conflict with the general sense we have of journalistic practice.

Shou Ye: To be honest, what we do does not really resemble news journalism so much. Owing to policy reasons, we can’t really go and do news reporting anyhow. So all along we’ve been experimenting with a “de-newsing” (去新闻化) approach. At its heart this is about offering a statement of opinion as we provide everyone with information, and this judgement is really based in consensus. Those things that may seem counterintuitive, we definitely want to go ahead and say them.

“The Vaccine King” Puts the Platform on Ice

Shou Ye: During the first year, I really wrote a lot of articles. I wrote about things all across the industry, and in a lot of cases had an impact. This includes “The Vaccine King,” which I wrote in July that year. There was immense pressure on us after I wrote it, but two days later the premier [Li Keqiang] added his written comments on it, and after the General Secretary [Xi Jinping] added written comments on day three then there was no longer any danger for us.

Fang Kecheng: Why in the first place did you want to write about vaccines on a public account chiefly dedicated to real estate?

Shou Ye: That goes back to an announcement released by the  China Food and Drug Administration in mid-July. It was on a Sunday that I spotted it. We discussed the matter in the group after we read it, and during the discussion, we felt that the vaccine issue was quite serious — more serious than the melamine incident [back in 2008]. But this was something we couldn’t write about. It should be something for Southern Weekly, or for Caijing magazine, or for Caixin. I said, let’s wait and see. Let’s wait for them to report it.

On Monday I went back home and looked through our vaccination record, and I found that our child’s diphtheria vaccine had been manufactured by Changchun Changsheng (长春长生), the very same company. The announcement from the CFDA said that 100s of thousands of doses of Changchun Changsheng’s rabies vaccine had been found to be sub-standard. So I felt even more that this situation was really serious.

Two days after the notice, on the third day, there were media reports, but they had little impact. The fourth day was a Thursday, and we had a planning meeting that afternoon. We felt that if we didn’t write anything about this, the story was just going to pass right by. So, we thought, why not just try?

Another colleague Bao Shu (包叔) and I started doing our homework. He did the core of the writing. I edited the story that Saturday. The gist of it was that as we pored through all of this company’s share prospectuses (招股书) and annual reports, we found a litany of misdeeds. Moreover, this company was linked to several other companies that all themselves had long lists of misdeeds. So we wrote it all up. Once it was written that morning, all of us knew this was going to be a big deal, and also that it was likely to result in a lawsuit.

Around 10AM I had finished editing it, and at 11AM I sent it to our lawyer, who looked it over and changed a few things, because two of the vaccine companies had actually sued media before. Not only had they sued media, but they had sued individual reporters and in three cases had won. We prepared ourselves for a lawsuit. It was around noon that it was finished and we posted it. By afternoon everything exploded.

I fell asleep on the sofa that afternoon, and the whole time the phone kept ringing. That night a friend of mine was having his birthday, and around 8PM I went over to his place for dinner. Sometime after 8, this friend said to me: Your article has been deleted. The next day, Premier [Li] added his written comments, and then the day after that the General Secretary [Xi] added his written comments. Such a thing had probably never happened before within the financial industry – that is, something having such a huge impact, with the premier and general secretary commenting and then eventually a Vaccine Administration Law and China Association of Vaccines being born as a result. In the past, Southern Weekly reported on vaccines, and Caijing magazine reported on vaccines, but nothing had brought change to the industry before.

Once “The Vaccine King” was out, I thought about things for a couple of days. After the premier issued his written comments, I called a meeting with colleagues, because the vaccine story was likely to have a huge impact not just on us but on the entire self-media sector.

Awards received by Shou Ye for his reporting on vaccines.

Fang Kecheng: So on the one hand the written comments were a good thing for this particular article of yours, but on the other hand you felt this would also mean that the industry would face more oversight.

Shou Ye: At the end of 2018 a lot of public accounts were shut down. The first thing to be targeted was unscrupulousness within the real estate industry self-media. In early 2019, Mi Meng’s (咪蒙) [public account] was shut down, and for self-media it would be a year of reshuffling of deck. It was no longer possible to do things the way they had been done before. So it was really obvious that the time window [was closing].

Fang Kecheng: Speaking of oversight. Let’s say that you were in an environment without any oversight, where everyone could freely post content. Do you think that in such an environment content like Mi Meng’s, [on fashion, lifestyle and consumerism], would ultimately win out?

Shou Ye: I think there would be a period of relative chaos, but as to what might follow this chaotic period I’m actually not so sure. It might be like the United States in the 19th century, with its period of yellow journalism (黄色新闻的时代).

Fang Kecheng: Yes, and then the gradual emergence of journalistic professionalism. Do you think that the self-media industry could undergo such a transformation?

Shou Ye: I think there would be a period of self-correction, but whether or not this process of self-correction would lead to a full repair, I really don’t know. There is the capacity for self-correction [in the media and new media], but now is not a time when there is an opportunity for such experiments.

Compared to Mi Meng and others of her ilk, our team is trying to do things better. We actually do our best to do what we feel is right. The values of our entire team are the same as those of traditional journalists in the past, and they are proving to be marketable. But now the government has intervened directly to accelerate the process [of correction], so that certain media of dubious values have been shut down five or ten years earlier than they otherwise might have been. There was one account, for example, that taught people how best to poison dogs. From this vantage point, you can say that certainly regulators have done some good.

Fang Kecheng: Recently your article about Phoenix Tree Holdings has gotten around quite a bit.

Shou Ye: That one is Chicken Soup for the Soul. It’s basically about my experiences in the past living in a basement apartment (地下室).

Fang Kecheng: Do you involve first-hand interviews in the writing process? Or is it all second-hand analysis of information?

Shou Ye: We don’t call it interviewing. It’s actually conversation. Often I just need to send off a WeChat message to get information. For us, it’s not too difficult to locate people [to comment on a story]. Because in real estate, finance or internet circles, we can usually reach the core people within 10 minutes. Our core information is all exclusive, and all first-hand.

Fang Kecheng: As you observe the self-media industry, what do you see as the difference between those who have been in the media industry before, and those who do not come from media backgrounds? Of course Mi Meng also could be considered someone coming from a media background, but the nature of what she is doing is very different from what you are doing?

Shou Ye: Actually, for someone like me who has come from a professional [media] institution, and from a clean background in writing, I find that the articles written by those who didn’t have this background are unreadable. We know what it means for something to be good, and what makes something bad. In fact, most of the people on Mi Meng’s team do not come from a media background.

Fang Kecheng: But is that content we find it impossible to stomach actually more competitive in the marketplace?

Shou Ye: Most definitely. They speak to some of the darkest aspects of people. And the headlines are so successful that basically when you share the article within your circle of friends, the headline is the whole point of view. You only need to share the headline, and there’s no need for people to click in and read at all. They know what kind of person you are, what you want to say and who you want to say it to.

The In-Between Space of Social Media Vlogging for Institutional Media

Chen Di’s program, “Chen Di Says” (陈迪说), just five minutes in length, is one of the successful results of traditional media transformation in China, and Chen’s experiences between institutional media and social media can be regarded as a model for others working in the media today. In 2019, Chen Di was named by China’s New Weekly (新周刊) magazine as a “Knower of the Year” (年度知道分子). The magazine said of Chen: “He excels at cool analysis, his discourse refined by a range of disciplines, from political science and sociology to communication. . . . Throughout, he uses his own voice to convey a sense of goodwill and justice to the world.”

The Decline of Institutional Media Power

Fang Kecheng: Greetings, Chen Di. While you’re a well-known media personality, I know this wasn’t your background in terms of training. You didn’t study journalism and communication. Is that right?

Chen Di: Yes, that’s right. Originally, I studied political science at Sun Yat-sen University. After that I went to Johns Hopkins, where again I studied policy – something that has always been a subject of interest to me. After graduation, though, I felt I was a bit short on real-world experience. So I came back to China one year after I graduated in the US. As I went out looking for work, I really wasn’t prepared. My family thought since I had been on the debate team as an undergraduate, and since my presentation was pretty good, maybe I could look into working for a TV station. My family is from Guangzhou, and I was thinking about proximity. So I set my sights on Shenzhen TV. Among the 30 or so satellite TV stations in China, Shenzhen TV was in the top-ten. I was determined to make it there. That was the second half of 2014.

The environment in the Chinese TV industry is really different from what you find in the US and other international media. There’s something really Chinese about it. What I mean is that those who deliver the content and those who actually produce the content are completely separate. You just don’t have one person serving both roles. Which means the person you see on TV can read the script but they can’t do anything else, and the people behind the camera writing things will never appear on screen. So it’s really not what you might imagine.

I was in the news section at that time, and they set up this “commentator” (评论员) role. Actually, it was a really niche role. They never formally hired for a commentator. This, actually, was how leaders at public institutions (事业单位) generally tried to carve out a tiny bit of innovative space in a really rigid system, trying to find a bit of wiggle room. They might feel a certain young person has a lot of ideas, presents themselves well, works on camera, and so they’ll give them an opportunity. In my case, I had been behind the scenes for six months when suddenly, in early 2015, they stuck me in front of the camera when there was no other commentator available. That’s how it started.

Fang Kecheng: Did commentators write their own scripts?

Chen Di: That’s right. The producers might give the commentators ideas, but they wouldn’t write the scripts. News releases, on the other hand, were all written by the editors for the anchors.

Chen Di at Shenzhen TV.

Fang Kecheng: I see. Was it back then, during your time at the station, that you started exploring social media?

Chen Di: It was maybe six months after that, once I’d become a commentator. Sometime in the second half of 2015, I registered an account on Weibo to see what expressing myself there was like. What I realized at the time was that essentially everyone speaking within China’s traditional media organizations, whether they were on camera or appearing by name as writers or editors, they all lacked real substance once they found themselves in a user-centered evaluation system [like that on social media]. At a seemingly glamorous TV station, the hosts are heavily made up every day. But the reality is, once they’re thrown into an open and competitive market, they really have no influence at all. It’s a strange situation, actually, and probably a reflection of how the power of the media is declining in the public opinion market of our time. 

We used to think that being a reporter on a TV station was such a great opportunity to be seen. There are a lot of people who are on TV, but what they can rely on in the end is only their seniority in the professional community. You might have been doing something somewhere for years and years, but you put your face and your name out in the marketplace and you have no real influence. That’s how 99.99 percent of these people are.

Fang Kecheng: It’s true a lot of senior people in the industry aren’t known to the public. But I think there were still some influential media people on Weibo who were later blocked. Like Wang Zhi’an (王志安), who was at CCTV, for example.

Chen Di: I think there’s definitely several reasons for this phenomenon. It’s true a lot of the people who might contribute the most meaningful voices online have probably been “lost” (消失). On the other hand, if their professional positions actually encouraged people to vote with their feet, if their power in the marketplace was proportional to their professional visibility, then things wouldn’t be how they are now [with relative lack of influence of such media professionals]. So there’s at least one other layer to it, which is that the overall power of institutional media has declined substantially.

As for me, I think when I left Shenzhen TV, a big proportion of my popularity, or influence or whatever, had nothing to do with the television audience. Which is to say most of it came directly from social media, because the conversion rate of influence (影响力转化率) from TV to online is really low. It’s really two fragmented parts now – online users and users of traditional channels.

When we look at those media organizations that have managed to survive, or that have been relatively successful in making the transition to new media, like The Beijing News, they’ve all chosen to choose the way to align themselves with social media. There is no other way. The power is now in the hands of these platforms. It’s not true, though, that any journalist who registers a social media account will be noticed and stand out, that they’ll rise above the others. They have to be able to meet the criteria of social media.

Fang Kecheng: That’s true. When you were in Shenzhen, you didn’t just post to Weibo whatever was broadcast on Shenzhen TV. It was really a completely different type of discourse and way of interacting with people, right?

Chen Di: Sure. By the second half of my time there, I began to realize that actually, when I was working on a script, I was thinking almost entirely about the internet.

With television, basically, because the audience is really unclear, you have to assume your audience doesn’t know anything about an event. Every time, you have to go to considerable length just to walk back through the event. It might be a bit much to call the language used for television “conservative,” but it definitely plays it safe and is more secure.

When you’re facing an internet audience, you won’t know as clearly who these ordinary users are compared to, say, the Big Vs, and you just have to estimate. But you’ll probably have a sense on any particular story of where the general atmosphere is – and your argument strategy is really different [i.e., framing your arguments for the audience through an understanding of the audience.]

The advantages of institutional media identity

Chen Di: The institutional media (机构媒体) are definitely significant and have a real role in China’s content industry and public opinion market, and there are certain ways in which they are irreplaceable. To be perfectly frank, we all know one of the biggest advantages institutional media have, and that is the advantage in terms of qualifications – their licensing advantage.

Strictly speaking, public speech in China still requires a license. Although we now have social media platforms, and it seems that any user has a loud speaker they can use, the truth is that if you don’t have an institutional license any person can take you out at any time at very minimal cost. Let’s say, for example, that you’re a user and post a video that relates to an unfolding situation. Actually, there’s no need even for someone in a [government] agency to set their sights on you. It just takes an ordinary user to issue a complaint using the complaints channel provided by the platform, saying you don’t have the credentials, that you don’t have a license, and that you’re not permitted to post this type of content, and they have the power to remove the content you posted. But if you are licensed, this is another matter entirely. There is still a bureaucratic process involved, and if they want to deal with you the institutional cost is much higher.

Another level, for example, I give an example, Bai Yansong every time he speaks of those things, in fact, from the content of most of the time do not see any breakthrough, bold, innovative, constructive or not. The fact is that his performance itself, this also has its own comment, but why his words will still have weight? Every time even if Bai Yansong sometimes only gives a three-point expression, but his three-point expression still carries a lot of weight. Nowadays, some people like official [media] institutions and others don’t. But official institutions still have a special position in China’s social system, so whether or not your content has that station logo or brand logo in the upper left-hand corner can make a huge difference.

For those who work in China’s institutional media, this can be an insurance policy and a plus – but it can also be a curse, a burden, because no one really thinks you represent only yourself.

An episode of “Chen Di Says” in April 2019 addresses the issue of sexual harassment and consent.

Fang Kecheng: Since you joined The Beijing News, you have been entirely oriented toward the internet and toward social media. Is that fair to say?

Chen Di: The vast majority of viewers are now internet users. You can definitely come closer in accommodating users’ tastes. But as for being completely user-oriented, of course you still have to abide by censorship requirements, and the requirements of your employer, so you can’t say this is being completely user-oriented, because those aspects are persistently opposed to the demands of the users. 

Shenzhen TV is still an official institution tied very closely to local propaganda. The Beijing News gives people the impression of a very market-oriented media. But in fact, when I arrived here it perhaps wasn’t the best time [for the publication], having already been a long time since its launch in 2003, and I could sense that if the newspaper came across something [in the way of resistance], it would immediately back off [of sensitive issues.]

Fang Kecheng: Did you invent the title of “Internet video commentator” (互联网视频评论员) for yourself?

Chen Di: Looking back to when I started in 2015, I couldn’t find anyone doing the same thing as me. But in fact it wasn’t some huge innovation. It was just putting a person in front of the camera for a few minutes to offer a commentary. This kind of thing had been done already in the 2000s at Phoenix TV, and at CCTV. But to do this sort of thing separately, out on the internet, I don’t know who before me did that sort of thing. At the time, anyway, I didn’t see anyone doing it and having an obvious impact on the market. Later, [Global Times editor-in-chief] Hu Xijin also started doing it, but he was definitely later than me.

Fang Kecheng: Compared to traditional commentators in newspapers and TV, what do you think is the main point of advancement in your work?

Chen Di: I never went through the process of inculcation within China’s domestic journalism profession. When I started writing, in fact, I was totally ignorant about the patterns and protocols of the industry. I just wrote according to my understanding of things, and once I had the “OK” from my superior and people appeared to like it, I just kept things going that way.

So now if you throw me into a college journalism classroom and ask me to teach a lesson, talking to students about how I go about writing, I really don’t know what to say to them. I know they’re studying the usual stuff, stuff about which I have zero knowledge. I know what it is I’m not doing, and then I wonder if this isn’t a reason why what I do is different.

Why do I say that? Why does it seem that the vast majority of things written in the commentary pages of traditional media outfits are all the same? The formula is so obvious. Maybe it’s because everyone went through the same formal study.

Fang Kecheng: It might be a matter of mutual imitation, not necessarily something learned in the classroom. Mutual influence at work.

Chen Di: No one is really going to like that stuff at all. I find it really strange. And I’ve wondered whether it might just be stuff they create in the daily grind of work, using a kind of mechanical method to reproduce things. When I read a piece, I can tell really quickly whether it has an original point of view, whether they’ve really gone through a process of chemical reaction to get somewhere. Of course it’s pretty hard for a very long time of continuous production. But of course this is something that is hard to sustain over the long term.

Fang Kecheng: Your overseas background must also be an important factor. On Weibo, of course, there are others like you with a background overseas. But they don’t like you have an institutional media microphone. So I think you might be at a kind of crossroads, having a rather unique position.

Chen Di: I think the fact that I’m still managing to survive on social media is definitely related to the fact that I’m situated at an institutional media outlet.

What level does an internet celebrity need to reach before they become part of the mainstream social order? This is actually a really interesting question. Although the internet landscape has developed for at least 20 years already, and the social media landscape for 15 years, and although internet celebrities command really strong traffic, and that traffic translates into real money and capital, to what extent can they really become part of the mainstream social order offline?

This is a really subtle matter. [The “Lipstick King”] Li Jiaqi (李佳琪) and [shopping host] Wei Ya (薇娅) are definitely able to do this, but move down this list from these places at the top and you find few personalities that are recognized by the state and the public. There are lots of people on the internet who have huge followings but who will never gain status in a system dominated by politics or the market.

But if you have a formal institutional identity, you can quite easily gain social recognition. Status as a “Big V” [celebrity or public figure with a verified account] is more than enough to take part in events on Weibo, because the vast majority of people there are freelancers. But if you want to take part in an event that is more public [outside of social media circles], then being just a “Big V” isn’t enough.

Fang Kecheng: I’m curious what attitude of the leaders of the newspaper organization at The Beijing News is towards you. Do they hope that you gain more and more followers on Weibo, or do they feel this has little to do with the newspaper?

Chen Di: The professional community and the market are still two separate lines. If you are successful in the open market of the internet users, this is still a very scarce thing for a professional community that boasts about being market-oriented. This can become a crossover advantage for you. If you are part of such a professional community circle, your market-oriented success will give you a clear comparative advantage, and then they will “take you seriously.”

In market-oriented circles, under a market-oriented evaluation system, your identity within a professional community might be something that distinguishes you and offers some benefit. But as a matter of personal choice, I was never prepared to climb the ladder in a professional community. For example, the organizations I’ve worked for have suggested that I should also take on other responsibilities, like reviewing films, that might lend themselves to middle management positions. But I’ve rejected these suggestions outright. This could be more about personal choice, but I think my current situation is better. I think the freest state is not to rely on institutions, because if you rely on institutions there is always someone else squeezing your lifeline. If I rely on my own market success, I’m not afraid of them doing anything to me. If something they do upsets me, then if I want to leave this is something I’m also freer to do. So I think this is still quite good.

So I’m more inclined to view my relationship with the institution as one more of cooperation, as a partnership.

An Era Lacking Imagination

Fang Kecheng: What is the production process of your show like? If you have team members, how do you work together?

Chen Di: Ours is a pretty simple case. My team is actually just three people, and actually it could even  be more simplified. I think a lot of things can be done by one person, but of course it takes more time that way.

My own process, first of all, is to choose a topic. My content assistant and I will decide on a topic, write it down, discuss our ideas, and then do background reading. Then I will have some ideas myself about the visuals, such as what images to use for a certain paragraph, a certain sentence. Should we use full-screen materials, half-screen materials, or interactive materials? How should we do the storyboarding? I will draw it out first, and the content assistant may also help, and then the assistant will look for supporting materials. Or there might be times I don’t draw, and the assistant will do the storyboarding work. After the video is editing, we review it. I look at it. My boss looks at it. If things are a bit strict [in terms of content controls], the boss’s boss might review it again and give the go-ahead to send it out.

Fang Kecheng: Do you have a very clear overall direction in terms of content positioning?

Chen Di: I think it’s still important to say what you mean. First of all, the content must be within the bounds of censorship. And then . . . . Actually, I think in recent years there is a lot more resonance between domestic social mood we’re seeing in China and the mood we see overseas. 2020 was another election year in the US, and the things we’ve seen in the US [in terms of identity politics] are things we’ve from Chinese internet users for a longer period of time. In other words, we’ve actually seen for much longer in China’s public opinion landscape the things that have reared their heads in the US since 2016. The US hid these things better before 2016, under the façade of the Obama years. But now that they are exposed, with those on the right and progressives staunchly opposed, we can see that this identity politics is actually something that has existed all along in Chinese society. It’s the same thing. The Trump fans in China [who support social Darwinism, racism and misogyny] are showing these trends that overlap with the values of Trump supporters in the United States, which is a direct backlash against all progressive values. Nowadays, in China’s media or when speaking publicly, there is no room at all for even very restrained complaints against the establishment. What you can oppose and advise against is only directed at this anti-progressive popular sentiment. So a lot of my content later headed in this direction.

Chen Di often talks about progressive ideas such as gender equality.

Fang Kecheng: What is your relationship with the Weibo platform like? Of course they like the traffic you bring, but to a certain extent they must have some concerns in terms of risk, right?

Chen Di: I’ve performed really well on the platform, actually. This might also be because I’m not the sort generally to invite trouble. First off, I have a [media] unit. And I don’t really have the desire to invite trouble. If I can remain within the propaganda lines of the institutional media, operating within their discipline lines, I should be outside the concerns of microblogging platforms.

Fang Kecheng: Is Weibo still the main source of traffic for your videos? Or are you present on other platforms as well?

Chen Di: No, [the short video apps] Douyin and Kuaishou are really not suited to us. There’s too much limitation in what you can do in just one minute. I’m not sure if Bilibili is somewhere we’ll be able to go, owing to our corporate relationship. Because the videos are all from The Beijing News, and they’re produced with money from Tencent, it’s not possible to go to Bilibili [which directly competes with some Tencent products].

Fang Kecheng: What do you think of Weibo as an opinion platform?

Chen Di: I think there has been a visible drop in the amount of content on Weibo recently. It used to be that if I swiped once at noon and then again at 6PM, it would take me a long time to scroll through everything. But now it’s very quick. I can’t even tell you how many people that I follow have stopped updating. It’s really like people are giving up, and those who are even remotely interested in public affairs are no longer vocal. And I’m sure it’s not just the case with Weibo either. Honestly, what’s the point of having more content on Douyin and Kuaishou? This is the shrinking of China’s public sphere and marketplace for ideas. These new short video platforms aren’t really platforms that serve that role.

Fang Kecheng: Do you think it is possible to achieve a happy medium between traffic and quality?

Chen Di: In fact, now I feel like I can say whether or not a video or a piece of writing has the potential to be a hit or not. It’s a basic understanding. Of course, there is still a margin of error. No one can guarantee that every piece of writing will be a hit.

I’m not the kind of person who chases after traffic, like those over at [the post-90s public account] Youth Courtyard (青年大院). Very often the things I write are things I want to say even if the traffic doesn’t come. In my position, I don’t feel the need to chase after traffic.

Fang Kecheng: It’s just like a person who already has the traffic to say the traffic doesn’t matter.

Chen Di: Maybe I seem too Buddha-like about it [i.e., casual and carefree]. And why not? This is just how it is. I see a lot of people with consciences today already becoming very Buddha-like about things, just hoping to continue supporting their own existence. Either they’ve been snuffed out, or they choose to just stop speaking in order not to be snuffed out. Or in some cases they’re just disheartened by the current “base” of internet users, finding it totally meaningless.

Fang Kecheng: You once said in an interview that you were bewildered by the lack of truly competitive products in the market. Is this still the case?

Chen Di: Not really. Now we have Shanghai Observer (观察者网) out there with Observer Video (观视频) trying to do some things.

Fang Kecheng: That’s an entirely different value orientation from you. [Note: Shanghai Observer is generally recognized to be a highly nationalistic media outlet.]

Chen Di: Yes, that’s true. But in terms of form, they are doing what I said back then no-one was doing competitively. Judging from their traffic or heir market response, they are still doing quite well. Of course, I’ll never earn the level of traffic they do.

Fang Kecheng: Do you personally feel disappointed with the Simplified Chinese internet (简体中文互联网)?

Chen Di: I’m really disappointed with the whole world now. It’s probably not just the world of Simplified Chinese that’s really the problem right now.  I think it’s probably a problem shared by the people of these first three decades of the 21st  century. Not just in China, but in many places in the world where we see huge conflicts behind which there is no fresh imagination, or any source to be drawn from in terms of older imaginations that can give direction to their struggle.

What are some of the expectations and aspirations we’ve had for significant social change over the past 10 or 20 years? Actually there are none. This is an era totally lacking in imagination. Even among those who have driven relatively powerful social movements, like Black Lives Matters or MeToo, there is no blueprint for how to achieve the kind of society they want. There are no available sources of ideas they can draw from.

When it comes to that other mass of people who seem so much more powerful in terms of volume and emotion, such as the far-right, and those who oppose identity politics, there is even more [a lack of real ideas]. They have nothing at beyond a return to the so-called “good old days,” to their barbaric old days. There is nothing underneath, and no program for how to get there. Compare the situation to the 20th century and things are so bad. 100 years ago, the period between the two world wars was similar in many respects to the present, at least in terms of the state of the world. Those were very ambitious times, and programs for social change and global change were unfolding in the background. Even taking fascist agendas into account, the times were extremely ambitious, looking forward at least to change, with programs to be realized.

But today it really doesn’t seem there are such programs at all. By that I mean that people today, even if they “struggle” more and more powerfully, or grow more and more reactionary, they really have no idea what the next step is, what direction to go, what [kind of society] to become. There seems to be no bottom. And it’s all very tiring.

I feel quite hollow now. Especially these past few years, when there’s nothing to strive for, which is different from how it was in the past. We used to sincerely believe that we would be the chosen generation, that we would be able to pursue personal experiences, and even participate, becoming an important force for historical change, a generation to be remembered by future generations.

The Power of Empathy

From Hobby to Team Effort

Fang Kecheng: Hello, Aizhe. Actually, I was a very early listener to this podcast of yours. In the beginning it was actually called “Aizhe Radio,” isn’t that right?

Kou Aizhe: That’s right. That was in 2016. You might say that the earliest podcasters were narcissists who liked attaching their own names to their shows.

Fang Kecheng: You were still an assistant for the foreign media at the time?

Kou Aizhe: I was an assistant in the Beijing Bureau of Swedish National Radio, working there for four years. In 2014, I job-hopped to CTV, Canada’s largest private television network, where I was again in the Beijing bureau. There was a period of time when their correspondent in China had resigned and nothing was happening in the office. So it was boredom that really started me doing this podcast.

I’ve always been a fan of podcasts, and I mostly listened to storytelling podcasts from North American or the UK. I kept expecting Chinese to do similar types of storytelling, but no one was doing it, so I decided to try it for myself during this gap period. I made seven episodes.

Fang Kecheng: So after seven episodes Elephant Magazine picked you up?

Ko Aizhe: Yeah. There was this one time I went to their office at Elephant Magazine and introduced my podcast to Huang Zhangjin. He got really excited. He knew a real mix of people, all sorts of people with different stories. He realized that a program like this was probably the best way to get these individual stories out. At the time he was incubating all kinds of programs. So he invited me, saying right out: “Come over to Elephant.”

Praise on social media for Gushi FM: “I came to the courtyard of my apartment compound one night, and as I was searching for my keys I suddenly saw someone from the compound sitting quietly and listening to something. I opened up Gushi FM and listened to one episode, standing there in the courtyard, and I felt the sorrows and joys of people out there in the vast wilderness . . .

Praise on social media for Gushi FM: “I came to the courtyard of my apartment compound one night, and as I was searching for my keys I suddenly saw someone from the compound sitting quietly and listening to something. I opened up Gushi FM and listened to one episode, standing there in the courtyard, and I felt the sorrows and joys of people out there in the vast wilderness . . . “

Because I had done seven shows already, and the podcast was pretty well developed, the format was kept once I went over to Elephant Magazine. After that I started to recruit people – producers, post-production, operations. With eight people including myself we refined our work process little by little.

In foreign countries podcasts like ours are generally released weekly, so at the beginning I also was weekly releases. But Huang Zhangjin at Elephant suggested we increase the frequency, because China didn’t have programs like ours, and people weren’t that familiar with it. So we went to three episodes a week. In the podcasting world you could definitely consider us model workers.

Approaches to Storytelling

Fang Kecheng: Since you mentioned the show’s format, I seem to remember that Aizhe Radio was a bit different from Gushi FM. Perhaps it was because the longer production cycle of Aizhe Radio allowed for more delicacy in the treatment, and the sound elements that could be used for storytelling were richer.

Kou Aizhe: Actually, there are so many different ways of storytelling. It’s just that when I was Aizhe Radio, my thinking was to do more audio documentary, and to sounds of ongoing stories on-the-scene, for example. Definitely the production cycle was longer. And in fact during the early days of Gushi FM this was true too, because we were weekly, and each episode took a long time to polish. So things were a bit more refined. When I started Gushi FM, the slogan I wrote was: “Gushi FM is a podcast that tells real stories. I’m Aizhe, a collector of stories. Here I will use the audio documentary form to take you across the paddy fields and through the hutongs to gather these touchingly true stories.”

These days the program is roughly divided into two types of shows. One is the personal storytelling type (个人口述类), which is the majority of our program format. The other is the audio documentary (声音纪录片). In fact, we are doing both. But the production costs of audio documentary are really high, and it usually takes anywhere from three weeks to a month to produce a single episode. If we want to do three episodes a week, we can’t possibly produce an audio documentary every day. We can only intersperse them.

Our next step is to quickly expand our team. We can definitely do a lot more with the proper team. Aside from audio documentary, we’ve experimented with a lot of different formats. For example, we’ve also done “interviews with regular people” (素人采访), in which we direct some of our listeners in interviewing their own parents or grandparents.

Fang Kecheng: You mentioned that you enjoy listening to storytelling podcasts from North America and the UK. What have you taken away from these shows in the production of Gushi FM?

Kou Aizhe: Yeah, we’ve learned a lot, especially from programs like This American Life and Snap Judgement. We’ve taken a lot of cues from them. Then we placed an emphasis on personal storytelling, which perhaps more references China’s own conditions in terms of consumer habits and market development. This definitely brings the cost down, and gives maximum results.

Actually, from market angle, some of our more intently produced audio documentaries have drawn less interest perhaps than our personal storytelling episodes. I think what our audience values most is that the details of personal expression are particularly rich and moving. Beyond that, they actually don’t care a great deal about production value.

Fang Kecheng: How do you make sure the expression of someone you interview is rich and full of detail? Is that just a matter of their natural gifts?

Kou Aizhe: It definitely can’t  rely on natural gifts, otherwise there would be no way to standardize it. A lot of audience members also ask us how we manage to find so many people who have this amazing way of expressing themselves. It’s actually a big misunderstanding. The impact of their voices depends on our team, how topics are chosen, how we select interviewees, how we conduct the interviews . . . . These things are most critical.

For example, my personal preference is not to rely too much on pre-interviews. I just need to have a rough idea of what the story is about. When the person comes in, I get them into conversation mode as I might with a friend. I don’t use the word “interview.” I’ll say, you’re in a conversation with a friend, and you can speak freely and know we’ll do our utmost to keep you safe. We can make conversations anonymous too, allowing them to be spontaneous.

The most difficult interviews have been with people who were slightly older, or slightly less educated. You need to ask them about all sorts of details, digging out the nuances of the story little by little.

Fang Kecheng: I suppose a lot of these interviewing skills come from your previous media experience.

Kou Aizhe: Yes. In fact, I think it’s quite a coincidence. Whether it’s my previous work experience or my personal hobby of watching movies, it all comes into this work, naturally and logically.

Fang Kecheng: You just said something about when people come in. Does this mean that all of your interviews are done in the recording room?

Kou Aizhe: In the past that happened most of the time, because face-to-face conversations really work best. Since the epidemic, a lot of interviews have moved online, but that means more uncontrollable factors, like poor recording quality, or interviewees that don’t feel relaxed.

Fang Kecheng: You just talked about product standardization. Internally, do you guys have a manual or something like that? Or is this all just in every staff member’s head?

Kou Aizhe: Normally, I will do a simple training for people who are just starting out. Once the training is done, it’s really about trial and error, because we’ll have an audition for each program, and then everyone sits together making suggestions and airing criticisms. Over time you get a clearer idea of what works, what doesn’t, and what you’re missing. These are all pitfalls you have to deal with as they come.

Since the epidemic, a lot of interviews have moved online, but that means more uncontrollable factors, like poor recording quality, or interviewees that don’t feel relaxed.

Fang Kecheng: Could you walk through the specific production process for each episode?

Kou Aizhe: We still work like a traditional media newsroom. Every Monday we have a pitch session. People will make their pitches to me, and then I’ll make approximate judgements about what will work and what won’t. If an idea gets the green light, we start looking for interviewees. I may have more resources on my side, so if people can’t locate the right source I’ll help put them in contact and we’ll arrange interviews. Then the producer steps in.

In fact, the producer is the core of the program. They conduct the interview, make a rough cut, and the team will listen to it together, and everyone will grade it and make comments. In the end, it has to be my decision whether to release it or not, in the interest of ensuring the quality of the program is consistent. If it makes the grade, it’s then handed on to the post-production team to do the fine editing, adding the soundtrack. After that it’s released. That’s roughly the process.

Fang Kecheng: What percentage of the programs are rejected after the team session?

Kou Aifang: It’s not a very consistent thing. Sometimes it can be very high, and sometimes very low. In deciding on topics, actually, I’m pretty loose. I still hope everyone can explore programs and topics we haven’t done before. But if everyone on the team feels after the final production that a program just isn’t working, I definitely won’t release it online.

Fang Kecheng: So I guess there is bound to be a certain level of scrap. 

Kou Aizhe: Yeah, for sure there’s going to be scrap. But I think the process is totally worth it. It’s definitely worth exploring more ways to tell stories.

Fang Kecheng: When you make initial judgements about programs, do you think it’s more a matter of your professional judgment, or are you thinking more about the preferences of the audience? Based on the data you’ve collected over the hundreds of episodes you’ve done, I suppose you can pretty much tell what kind of stories your audience likes.

Kou Aizhe: It’s definitely a balance. Now that I’m more mature in my expectations of the audience, I don’t really think about the audience that much. I always say to the team, you don’t have to anticipate the audience, because we’re all going to sit together and listen, and it’s enough if you can please the whole team. If the team accepts it, it’s a good episode. If our team isn’t pleased with it, it won’t be released.

In fact, in its current format Gushi FM doesn’t have a particular threshold. What I mean is, audiences can listen to it no matter what their level of education is, and regardless of whether they come from a first-tier city, or from small-town and rural markets. But everyone’s going to be different in terms of how they understand a program. So you can’t please everyone. Rather than analyze the market, we just need to look at the opinions within our team.

Fang Kecheng: Based on the data you’ve seen behind your programming, what sort of shows do people prefer?

Kou Aizhe: There are two main directions. The first is the bizarre experience program. The other is the program with strong resonance for people (强共鸣类). In the bizarre experience category, you have stories like someone going to jail in Syria, or someone going to Pakistan to get a wife, or someone serving on a jury in the United States. These are things you don’t ordinarily experience in your life.

As for strong resonance stories, a while back we ran a program in which the mother of a baby complained about the hardships of raising children. Or a program about having a girlfriend who suffers from depression. They can be very common stories that all of us, or those close to us, have experienced. They’re not strange at all, but as you listen to it you feel that it resonates with you.

Fang Kecheng: Do you have your own favorite episode or episodes of the show?

Kou Aizhe: That’s a really hard choice to make. I like most of the shows – otherwise, I wouldn’t have put them on. But in terms of topic selection and interview approaches, I can offer one example. In 2007, there were these two brothers who were buried in a collapse at a small coal mine in Fangshan District outside Beijing. The rescue team came and tried to rescue them for a while. But then the team decided it was pointless, because they must have died. So they left. About a week later, the brothers managed to dig a hole by themselves and crawl out. Again, this was a story from 2007. I’d been thinking about it for a long time, feeling it was perfect for a film.

In 2017, after a bit of research, I tracked down one of the parties involved. So [that year], ten years after the incident, I went to a construction site in Changchun and found him. He was working as a construction worker. So I went back over the whole story again. But you know migrant workers aren’t so well educated, so it was really difficult interview. I had to squeeze out one sentence after another, but the end result was really good.

In fact, I think the golden age of journalism in China was full of really great stories. They may be too old now for journalism, but as stories they are really great, and they’re worth revisiting all these years later.

First the Story, Then the Opinions

Fang Kecheng: What do you think Gushi FM ultimately points to? Or, what is the concern behind it? What do you hope to accomplish by telling these stories?

Kou Aizhe: The result I hoped it could achieve I think it’s achieved already. If you look at the comments from our audience, you see that everyone is pretty unanimous [on the show’s success]. They often say that after listening to our program, they feel they’ve experienced many different paths in life. And that a lot of things they might have thought before were just curiosities are actually ordinary choices people make.

In fact, I think the golden age of journalism in China was full of really great stories. They may be too old now for journalism, but as stories they are really great, and they’re worth revisiting all these years later.

I often say Gushi FM is a podcast about understanding. Because one of the best things storytelling – and especially audio storytelling – is really great at doing is to get people to relate. When you put yourself in another person’s shoes, when you view things from another person’s point of view, and when you think about their situation and their choices, it’s much easier to understand and relate to them. So I think it would be really helpful for people from different camps to have a chance to sit down and listen to one another’s experiences, to understand things from their perspective. Not just from a political point of view, but from the point of view of a really good story. So I think that’s the most meaningful thing.

Fang Kecheng: To reach a point of empathy.

Kou Aizhe: Yeah, you could put it that way.

Fang Kecheng: Over the years, it seems we’ve increasingly seen the disappearance of empathy on social media. People not understanding one another, but rather attacking one another. Do you feel that way?

Kou Aizhe: Of course. I think the reason things are like this in our time is because people are so used to opinions first. If you can first make shows that appeal to people, that don’t dwell on opinions but lead with the facts and focus on the details, the experience, the story – all that before coming to a judgement or a conclusion. I think if you can do that it helps to mend the tear.

Fang Kecheng: Yes, and I think the great thing about you is that you’re not talking about dry facts. You’re talking about things that are “saturated” (湿), things that are warm.

Kou Aizhe: Right. And in that sense I think it’s also in line with the rules of communication on social media.

I think stories are as essential to human beings as air and water. If you work to get people to accept your story as much as possible, then they can come to understand your views and see the reason behind them. I think that’s a bit more valuable.

A Personal Perspective on Public Issues

Fang Kecheng: You mentioned earlier that the more bizarre the story, the more people enjoy hearing it. How do you ensure that a story is true?

Kou Aizhe: This is where you have to get really meticulous. The topics were are selecting right now run in two basic directions. One focusses on public issues. For such programs, you have to confirm all the facts and detail, which means doing research. The other focusses more on personal experiences – for example, stories about their family. You can judge whether they are being truthful by asking follow-up questions, and on the basis of our own experience. Their experiences are very personal, and there may not be other witnesses that make verification by a third party possible. So our own experience is really important.

For example, I went to Weinan, in Shaanxi Province, to interview someone who had worked as a mercenary, and that was a riveting story. In fact, I could confirm that he worked as a mercenary and bodyguard in Africa, that his experiences were authentic, because he had the pictures to prove it. There were videos too, and the details he provided were logically consistent. His subsequent experience, as a drill master in Kokang [in Myanmar, on the border of Yunnan province], I could also confirm because he had posted videos to his WeChat Moments every day, and I could see them too.

But his claim that he had been stationed in the Middle East, and how many people his team had killed and so on, none of that was reliable. Because there are a lot of military enthusiasts who read Elephant Magazine, and I consulted a lot of people to verify that part of his story. The story was wonderful, but in the end I chose not to broadcast it.

Fang Kecheng: So you cut out the part about the Middle East?

Kou Aizhe: The whole episode was never released, because without that part the whole story was not cohesive. We will definitely in the future be doing even more public issue topics, and fact-checking will become even more important.

Fang Kecheng: I saw you recently released an episode on Phoenix Tree Holdings, [the failing real estate company]. What made you decide to do more on public issues?

Kou Aizhe: Actually, there were gaps in the Phoenix Tree episode, for which we didn’t interview the company. Since the episode aired, however, we were contacted by a former Phoenix Tree employee who was willing to speak. Actually, we’re really well positioned to offer personal perspectives on public issues, because we have a lot of resources here, and because our audience enjoys hearing personal perspectives on public issues.

Fang Kecheng: Does your interest in doing public issues have anything to do your original wish to work in journalism?

Kou Aizhe: It certainly had an influence. I’m sure this [intention] influenced everyone who at that time wanted to enter the media profession.

Fang Kecheng: What’s your assessment of the risk involved in what you do?

Kou Aizhe: So far, I think, we are the greatest common denominator, and the personal perspective is relatively safe. In fact, quite a few official government agencies have even reached out to us, hoping to cooperate.

Closing the Professional Gap

Fang Kecheng: You were influenced at Gushi FM by American podcasts and the desire to see similar programs in Chinese. Up to now, though, Chinese podcasts have lagged far behind the US in terms of professionalism. What do you think is the reason for this? Is it because in the United States podcasts are often backed by professional radio stations?

Kou Aizhe: This is actually a huge topic. From a professional point of view, it is true that the traditional radio stations in the American market are very mature, whether in terms of talent or in terms of the market. There is competition across the board.  

In China, you don’t find this level of competition, even in the talent pool. I used to wonder if there was talent in traditional radio in China. Then I discovered, no, there really is no one out there we can draw from. So now our team is really young – basically, all of them have just graduated. I recruited them to take them on myself, and as long as everyone has a sense of aesthetic judgement all around it’s fine.

Fang Kecheng: Why do you think things are this way [in China]?

Kou Aizhe: I once spoke to a radio station director who told me that there problem was that “eating well is cheap” (好吃不贵). In other words, radio frequencies are a monopoly, and there aren’t too many costs associated. Advertising revenue is pretty good. So all they need are a couple of anchors chatting, and there’s decent income at low production input. So they don’t bother to expend energy developing new types of programming.

Fang Kecheng: There’s a lack of market competition.

Kou Aizhe: That’s right. I’ve talked to a lot of established podcasts in the United States and they say, well, they had courses in “audio journalism” when they were in journalism school, and then they had all these years of experience working in radio, and then they’re out there in the market hoping their shows will be picked up by all the local radio stations.

But I believe that the future of podcasts in China is definitely going to get better and better, especially looking at the trends we saw in 2020. In the audio segment, the market for music is almost saturated. What else can you listen to? Are book reviews and crosstalk, [traditional Chinese comic dialogues], your only choices?

We’ve had more than one investor approach us this year, and everyone has said they want to invest in this business. Platforms are also planning to get into long-form audio (布局长音频), which is definitely a content area that’s missing. I think the bottleneck at the moment is that the format is too homogenous. If we hear better content on audio programs in the future, this will definitely attract larger audiences, and the market pick up.

I believe that the future of podcasts in China is definitely going to get better and better, especially looking at the trends we saw in 2020. 

Fang Kecheng: But will the entry of [larger] platforms also mean bringing in more stuff that is garbage? For example, there are decent things on Toutiao and Douyin, of course. But they are often overwhelmed by garbage content.

Kou Aizhe: I see it the other way around, that if things are too clean, this means there aren’t great prospects for the market. It all becomes homogenous.

My favorite model would definitely be to become something like National Public Radio (NPR), which is so cool. I think it would be best to be absolutely neutral and be able to do so much good content without interference. But in China, that’s just not realistic.

Seeking Commercial Success

Fang Kecheng: How does your audience data look right now?

Kou Aizhe: Right now have about one million subscribers across all platforms, and each episode draws about 800,000 listeners.

Fang Kecheng: That’s a pretty high rate of people who tune in.

Kou Aizhe: Yeah. The biggest advantage of podcasts is their stickiness. Most people who subscribe to podcasts tune in a lot. But of course the volume overall doesn’t compare to video right now.

Fang Kecheng: What is your main [business] model right now?

Kou Aizhe: What we do the most right now is customized advertising – a bit like the advertorials you find on WeChat public accounts, which are more about the brand image. For example, Xiaomi once approached us to offer sponsorship. It was their corporate social responsibility department. We produced a show about a Xiaomi office in Shanghai that hired a bunch of blind people to do data labeling for their AI, to help train the AI. As you know, blind people have limited employment opportunities in China, so it was a good story. Even if it’s for an advertisement, we also want to make sure that it’s a true story, and that it’s interesting. That way our listeners won’t have any objection to us accepting this kind of advertising.

Fang Kecheng: Have you tried paid membership?

Kou Aizhe: Our next direction may be down that road. But my hope is that we can do it later on, once we’ve increased our frequency. We release three episodes per week now, so if we all of a sudden started charging for our shows, our listeners would be pretty upset. But if I could release one additional episode each week, and that episode was paid, I think our audience could accept that.

Fang Kecheng: Has Elephant Magazine managed to profit from incubating your program?

Kou Aizhe: Earning money is still not in the picture, because in fact we’ve not really made an effort up to now to commercialize. We’ve focused on increasing the quantity [of programming], and then will come the commercial part. So it’s not been so urgent.

Fang Kecheng: Finally, I wanted to touch on the whole “We Media” industry. I’ve found that many people involved in “We Media,” including those operating WeChat public accounts, podcasts or video [channels], but especially those within the industry who take content seriously, are former journalists. Have you noticed this phenomenon?

Kou Aizhe: Right. And I think this makes sense, because media people have the resources and the experience to explore these new forms of content, and they’re the ones who find it most accessible. And besides, people who have a background in traditional media still generally maintain their bottom line [in terms of professionalism], and they know what sort of people they want to reach. They’re not just chasing after big numbers and accommodating the market.