Beyond China Blogging
Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Aug. 6 – In light of various blog articles recently commenting on the demise of English language blogs about China as a whole, I note we’ve been mentioned in dispatches a few times. I rarely comment on blogs, however to throw my own personal views into the mix and explain at least where China Briefing and this site fits into the equation, it seemed churlish not to react. The synopsis of the death of English language blogging in China came from this original piece by Jeremy Goldkorn, one of the pioneers of blogging in China through his (now blocked by the Great China Firewall) Danwei site, along with blogmeisters Kaiser Kuo and Will Moss. Lamenting the loss of several blogs, they wonder what has or is becoming of the form.
Essentially, they miss one important element. Blogging about China, in English, is a limited market. The rise of China as a subject for mainstream media however coincided with the advent of blogging, and the free form of the internet meant that anyone who could write about China suddenly had an audience. While that was initially a brave new world, human nature crept in and soon familiar misbehavior such as flaming, general abuse and comments bordering libel, if not downright scurrilous were bandied about as if the absolute truth. The concept of “free speech” became lost in the naive days of internet freedoms in China, and mutated into “I’ll say anything I damn well please” regardless of the consequences and with little thought or care towards the people they were targeting. Blogging at that point degenerated to the bottom of the pile in terms of journalistic credibility. There were too many people posing under pseudonyms, and using proxy servers to cover their tracks. The most basic human right of all, the right to be heard truthfully, was subverted by the inherent freedom of the web.
At China Briefing, we watched all this with some bemusement. Publishing a free print magazine since 1999, we were tardy arrivals in getting into the blog scene, realizing a little late that not having such an outlet was damaging our marketing capabilities in the United States in particular. This online content you now read derived from that evolution, and this site was originally promoted as the “China Briefing Blog.” In terms of interacting with other blogs however we encountered a world of suspicion, ego and a total lack of transparency, and sometimes often outright hostility. Re-branding the site as “China Briefing News” and dropping our blog roll, we removed ourselves from the blogosphere to some extent, wanting to be rather more up-market in content and positioning. Although commentary is still very much part of China Briefing, and thus fits into the blog definition, we realized that the concept of blogging was not really going to fly as an outlet in its own right. And to some extent, that’s proven to be the case. Blogs by default, especially in a country with a high percentage turnover of expatriates such as China, tend to be impermanent. There is no money in it, and people quickly tend to run out of things to say, or lose interest. Inexpensive to set up, they require hard work and attention to detail to maintain. In other words, blogs tend to have a built in obsolescence in the gap between the low cost of set up and the high cost of sustainability.
Without doubt there are of course some very good blogs about China out there – especially in Chinese! But of those that are in English, the form has tended to morph into a commercial enterprise, typically being part of a marketing strategy for a business, or an individual’s career. That’s fine, but still takes investment, either in time or in infrastructure to support. Prior to the arrival of the blogs as a means of marketing, we were content to produce China Briefing Magazine for free and distribute it around China. With the website version appearing, that morphed into an online version, again for free. However, although that was fine as a marketing tool, in order to get the quality levels maintained in terms of content, costs began to rise. That meant that the concept of China Briefing as a free source of information, both online and in print, had to change.
In order to fund the costs of staff, researchers and editors, we had to generate income. That was achieved through the publication of our first book, the inaugural edition of our China Briefing Business Guide to Shanghai and The Yangtze River Delta. Coming in at over 362 pages, in full color, and with a price tag of US$85, the launch event of that was held at the Shanghai Intercontinental Hotel and attracted a capacity 350 people in the ballroom. We followed that with other large tomes about Beijing and South China, and then branched out into technical guides, supported by the intellect and experience of the firm supporting the venture, Dezan Shira & Associates. That has now evolved to a growing library of titles and has also spread beyond the borders of China and into India, Vietnam, Russia and emerging Asia.
Moving on a few years, we completed the final change in commercializing China Briefing just at the end of 2009, when finally the previously free magazine changed to online pay for view. Instead of being free downloads and educating a lot of our competitors, people now have to pay US$10 a month for each issue. While the numbers of web hits to those particular pages (where you have to actually pay for magazine content) dropped by some 75 percent, the way we have positioned this site, its content and the methodology we use to direct traffic to it means that overall we haven’t actually lost any volume of readership. If anything, the quality of readers improved; important when we are, after all, promoting products (book sales and professional services). We replaced the people wanting free information online with people prepared to pay for it, and at the same time managed to maintain (in fact slightly increase) readership of our free pages such as this.
None of this would have been possible without the emergence of blogging, and of English language blogging about China in particular. The China Briefing site and its book and magazine sales are now a major financial contributor to the Asia Briefing business we set up as part of a reorganization of our marketing activities in response to the rise of China blogs. What was our own blog has been successfully spun away from the firm where previously it was a drain on resources. In short, blogging for us proved to be a stepping stone to a more sustainable business model, and one that now generates income.
To answer the question then posed in the original debate, the answer is that of course most blogs have a built in life span and the majority will eventually fade away, their owners hopefully having gravitated towards a better way to promote themselves or their careers. Of the rest, many are cheap online marketing outlets dispensing free advice as a way to reach out to their target audience and promote the business behind it. A very few have gone on, beyond blogging, to establish themselves as bona fide businesses in their own right. Blogging therefore, is usually a transitory platform and will always have a large number of sites fall by the wayside.
As regards China, I am often asked what blogs I read. For me, to have credibility, a blog needs to be written in the country they are about, and not from several thousand miles away. So discounting those, and also mentioning that I don’t have huge amounts of time to read blogs, the ones that I do turn to every week on a consistent basis, and that live, work and play in China, the blogs that truly walk the walk in China for me are as follows:
All Roads Lead to China
Rich Bubaker’s take on logistics, transport and operational activities in China, with analysis and well considered commentary. Based in Shanghai.
Silk Road International
The site for China sourcing, written with case studies and dos and don’ts from David Dayton, a purchasing manager based in Shenzhen, the heart of China’s export industry.
Commentary on legal cases and the evolution of China law with a twist of irony and satire from Stan Abrams, a lawyer based in Beijing.
China culture, history, social commentary and travel exposes written by American wit Ernie Diaz from Beijing.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the principal of Dezan Shira & Associates and the publisher of China Briefing. He established China Briefing, now part of the Asia Briefing stable of titles, in 1999. Comments on this article will be strictly monitored.
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