Pando

Bill Bishop: The Invisible China Hand

By Hamish McKenzie , written on August 3, 2012

From The News Desk

When a popular Beijing-based media blog recently referred to Bill Bishop – a lone American armed with just a Twitter account and an email newsletter – as more influential than Hong Kong’s once-venerated South China Morning Post newspaper, it at first seemed like hyperbole. Writing on Danwei in June, editor Jeremy Goldkorn said Bishop “has more influence on global ‘diplomats, businessmen and others’ than the poor old Post, with its doomed business model, absence from the open Internet, and reliance on the patronage of the Kuok family [which owns the newspaper].”

It read as flippant. How could one expat in Beijing have as much sway as a broadsheet with hundreds of staffers, experienced reporters long ensconced on the Mainland, and a history of intrepid reporting on China? But with extra thought, it started to make sense. The Post has taken steps backwards from its heydays of the 1980s and 1990s, when it was unnervingly critical of China and could reach a global audience through its paper pages. Today, its paywalled Web site has limited its international reach, and recently it has come under fire for a series of management and editorial decisions that appear to have weakened its resilience to influence from Beijing – a political and business advantage it had otherwise enjoyed for decades.

But equally as significant as the Post’s “slide into irrelevance” was that Goldkorn was highlighting a shift in media dynamics for international reporting on China that has in recent years swung strongly to the Web. And Bishop, a two-time Internet entrepreneur who has survived both the dotcom crash and the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square, is right at the centre of it. Where the Foreign Correspondent was once the most important conduit through which most of the outside world learned of news from the Middle Kingdom, today Bishop is proving that social media can be just as influential, have more immediate impact, and can help shape stories before they hit the newsstands, virtual or otherwise.

With his relentless tweeting, constant scouring of Sina Weibo, and a daily newsletter, Sinocism, in which he compiles and comments on the most important China-related news of the day in both English and Chinese, Bishop has fashioned himself as a kind of uber-aggregator, but one who moves beyond just link harvesting and helps outsiders make sense of China, which with all its complexities and contradictions is one of the world’s most confounding stories.

In previous interviews, Bishop has expressed a belief that social media should “supplement and improve” journalism, which is exactly what he does. “The old days of a handful of editors determining the news agenda, especially about China, are gone,” he told expat business magazine Agenda Beijing. “[T]he challenge for consumers is to figure out who to trust.” People I’ve talked to during my two months in China suggest Bishop himself, recently included on a list of Foreign Policy’s Twitterati 100, is a good man to trust.

Bishop’s media peers in China are quick to praise him. Goldkorn, whose blog Danwei this year hailed Bishop as a “Model Worker” for his Twitter exploits, says Bishop’s feeds are “indispensable” for China news junkies. “Many foreign correspondents in China get story leads from him and call him up for his take on Chinese current affairs, the Internet business, investing, politics and the intersections of all of those things,” says Goldkorn, a South African who has been living in China since 1995.

Bishop was first with the news in English about the scandal that brought the potential downfall of Chongqing boss Bo Xilai

Goldkorn believes that Bishop, via Twitter, was the first person to break the scandalous Wang Lijun story in English. Wang is the former Chongqing vice-mayor who reported now disgraced Chongqing Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai and his wife for their alleged involvement in the murder of a British citizen that precipitated China’s biggest political story of the year.

Evan Osnos, the China correspondent for the New Yorker, describes Bishop as “the China Hand’s China Hand”. “He’s the guy that you don’t even really know about when you get to China and start reporting on it,” says Osnos, who arrived in China in 2005 as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. “In most cases it takes you a couple of layers before you figure out that he’s somebody you have to be reading.”

Because Bishop can read Chinese voluminously and fast – “a rarer quality than you’d think” – he is able to draw connections between news events and trends, and identify things other people haven’t seen, says Osnos.

Gady Epstein, one of the China correspondents for The Economist, says Bishop is a valuable resource and provocative in a way that challenges journalists reporting on the country. “He’s not a journalist so he gets away with things a journalist couldn’t,” says Epstein, who was formerly Asia bureau chief for Forbes. “He says whatever's on his mind.”

Bishop recently demonstrated that forthrightness when he tweeted his thoughts about Chinese Internet doyen Kaifu Lee posting the contact information of US swim coach John Leonard on Sina Weibo for all his 15 million followers to see. Leonard had suggested to media that the world record-breaking 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen had taken performance-enhancing drugs, angering Lee. “Very depressed by Kaifu Lee's jingoistic Weibo rabble-rousing,” Bishop tweeted. “He is better than this, and we all need to be better than this.”

A Dotcom IPO and Tiananmen Square

Even though I have been reporting this story from Beijing and Shanghai, I have been doing it without ever having met Bishop in person. While I, too, have found him an enormously helpful resource – both in personal communications and through Twitter and his newsletter – we have never managed to be in the same place at the same time. I first encountered Bishop (over the phone) five years ago while covering Asia’s digital marketing industry for a magazine in Hong Kong. I hoped to meet him in the flesh on this trip, but we managed to get our timing exactly wrong.

Just as I arrived in China at the start of June, Bishop went with his twin 6-year-old daughters to Maryland – his home state, and my current home – where his mother lives. He won’t return to China until after I leave at the end of this week. Instead, we’re doing our interview for this profile over Skype. I’ve always found it difficult to take adequate notes while interviewing Bishop, because he pours so much information into scattershot sentences that he spits out at warp speed – a sign, perhaps, of a mouth struggling to keep up with the brain’s hectic pace. At the end of our 90-minute conversation, I come away mentally exhausted, even though I feel like I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of his story.

Bishop first found Internet success as co-founder of the financial news site Marketwatch. Having earned a postgraduate degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and spending some time in China in the early 1990s (more on that later), Bishop found himself working at a small Silicon Valley financial broadcasting company called Data Broadcasting Corporation.

Bishop's Marketwatch co-founder, Larry Kramer, now the publisher of USA Today

At that time, the world was beginning to wake up to the potential of the Internet. The company had an internal Web site that gave away free stock quotes and one of Bishop’s colleagues, Larry Kramer, had the idea to build it into a news service. (In May, Kramer was named president and publisher of USA Today.) Bishop was charged with writing a business plan. In 1997, the two – along with founding editor Thom Calandra (who later struck trouble with the SEC) – launched the site and cut a equity-for-promotion deal with CBS.

CBS Marketwatch took off. Despite paying upwards of $10 million to both Yahoo and AOL for content partnerships over the years, it became a very profitable business. In January 1999, Marketwatch went public, one of the first Internet companies of the year to do so. Bishop took on the responsibility of building it into an international business, with an eye on Asia and especially China. Then one day, the bottom fell out of the market. He was sitting in a London hotel room, having just launched a joint venture with the Financial Times, when he first got wind of the beginnings of the dotcom crash.

Very quickly, it became clear that Marketwatch’s international plans would have to be stripped back. The company decided to focus squarely on the US, and Bishop eventually went on to run the commercial side of the business. In 2004, the founders sold the company to Dow Jones for $18 a share, which was a pretty good result. By that point, though, Bishop had already decided it would be a good time to go back to China.

He had been there before, and at a memorable time in the country’s history. Bishop first went to China in 1989, during a junior semester-abroad program while studying Chinese at Vermont’s Middlebury College. His study path wasn’t part of any grand plan. “I didn’t want to do Russian because it looked too hard and Russia was too cold,” he explains, “and the Japanese class was too crowded. So I decided to do Chinese.”

The timing, however, proved significant and would change the course of Bishop’s life. President George HW Bush was to visit China in February, and CBS News hired Bishop and some of his classmates from Peking University as “fixers,” helping the television station’s journalists with their reporting. But in the third week of April, something more newsworthy happened: democracy protesters started gathering at Tiananmen Square.

Bishop worked with CBS covering the protests, and therefore bore witness to one of the most notorious chapters in capitalist China’s history. Towards the end of the protests, he was based in the Beijing Hotel. “Whenever there was gunfire, I had to pick up the huge mobile phone and call CBS Radio in New York, tell them to roll tape, and then crawl out on the balcony and hold the phone off the balcony so they could pick up the gun shots. And also [after the massacre], we would crawl out on the balcony and film, because they had a good view of Tiananmen Square and all the troops there.”

Once the crew had finished filming, he would walk the video tape to another hotel down the street and hand it to someone who would ferry it out to the airport. Because the satellite feeds had been cut, CBS had to rely on couriers to fly the tapes to Tokyo or Hong Kong, where they could be uploaded and edited.

“The night of the massacre [June 4], I was actually up in the Shangri-La Hotel on the west side of the third ring road,” he recalls. “I went up to Peking University the next day and you could see some burned out cars, and some burned out troop transports. I didn’t actually see any of the shooting that day.”

Tiananmen Square, site of the 1989 "incident," and Bishop's brief detainment

Bishop is grateful that he wasn’t around when the shootings happened. “I guess it would have made good stories for friends, but I’m glad I didn’t see it.” Government troops killed hundreds of people in the military crackdown that ended the protests.

A couple of weeks later, he and a Filipino camera crew got detained for violating martial law. It was 6am and there were no cars on the road, so the crew just stuck a camera out the window while driving near Tiananmen Square. Soon, a troop from the People’s Liberation Army was pointing an AK47 at them and telling them to pull over. The crew was driven into a garrison just inside the Forbidden City – right underneath a giant portrait of a disapproving Mao Zedong – and forced to write apology notes. “Somewhere there’s my two-paragraph self-criticism I wrote apologizing for violating martial law and promising to never do it again,” says Bishop. The interrogators said next time they would just shoot them.

The experience had a profound effect on Bishop. He returned to the US determined to learn Chinese properly and take his studies more seriously. “It was a pretty stark juxtaposition between hanging out and partying at a fun school in the US versus people my age who were willing to protest, and some get killed, because they didn’t have a whole bunch of things that we took for granted.”

Red Mushroom Cloud

After graduating from Middlebury in 1990, Bishop went to Taiwan and studied Chinese in an intensive language program, before returning to China in 1991 to work as a translator at a publishing house. He was paid RMB1,100 per month (now US$172, but that’s not a very useful comparison because of the economic changes in the intervening years) and provided with housing in a Soviet-built dormitory. “That was a lot of money back then,” says Bishop with a laugh. “Life was good!”

Thirteen years on – after Johns Hopkins and after Marketwatch – Bishop would again return to China. This time he decided to get into gaming. He invested some of his Marketwatch cash in a Beijing-based startup called Red Mushroom, started by an American-Chinese friend who in the late ’90s had sold his previous gaming startup to a Taiwanese operation. Bishop came on board as co-CEO and Red Mushroom set to work on massively multiplayer online games, first with a derivative of popular Korean game Lineage, which they had to shelve after not being able to secure the right licenses for distribution, and then with a virtual world for kids.

Bishop jokes today that he embodies the title of Sarah Lacy’s first book, “Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good”. But, he says, he has so far been snagged on the first half. Red Mushroom failed. There were lots of reasons for that, he says, from issues with execution, to product issues, and misjudging the market. Because they were building 3D client-based games for PC, Red Mushroom also missed the turn in the market to Flash-based games.

“It was definitely a failure and it was a very expensive failure,” says Bishop. “I like to think you learn a lot of failure and it makes you stronger. I’m certainly not dead. It didn’t kill me, but I would certainly rather learn from success.” Later, he adds that it was even worse that he lost friends’ and family’s money in the ordeal. “It really does suck losing other people’s money.”

When the economic crisis did hit, Bishop “went under a desk and hid” for a while. In 2009, he looked into starting a TechCrunch-style news site for China but ultimately decided there wasn’t a strong enough business case to be made for it. But there was a silver lining: he now dedicates more time to his “family startup,” raising his twin daughters. Meanwhile, his partner, an entrepreneur who had sold an internet advertising company she started in New York, embarked on a new venture: a high-end cake business. On the side, Bishop set himself up as a consultant, working with a handful of American Internet companies and institutional investors. He's also an angel investor in StockTwits.

Sinocism is another side project. The daily newsletter is the ultimate compendium of China-focused news coverage, with Bishop typically listing links to the biggest stories of the day and adding pithy commentary to add context and draw connections that readers might otherwise have missed. Today, it has more than 2,000 subscribers. But he can’t figure out how to make money from it. A recent fundraising drive fell flat. “It’s too bad I don’t have a passion that has a business model,” he remarks wryly.

Bishop doesn’t know how long he’ll be in China. He has the usual expat concerns – lung-threatening air pollution, the quality of education for his kids, and an apparent negative shift in attitudes towards Westerners – but much of it comes down to career. “China has been pretty much a professional black hole for me,” he says, “and at some point I have to figure out whether or not it really makes sense for me to stay here.”

“Not that you want to quote me on this,” he says suddenly, “but have you looked at feng shui at all?” He’s referring to the quasi-mystical belief system of fortune telling and geomancy to which many Chinese subscribe. “There’s a school of thought that some people are not suited to pursuing careers outside of their home areas,” he says. “I certainly have got more than one person who has said, ‘Oh, China is not where you’re going to do really well professionally’.”

Superstition aside, Bishop remains a first-rate Internet analyst and is one of the few industry watchers who can bridge the Chinese and American cultures. So what does he think are the big Internet stories to come out China in the current era?

For a start, he wishes that Twitter would just clone Sina Weibo. From a product design perspective, he says, it’s a much superior product. “Each post you make on Weibo, you can see if it’s been retweeted or forwarded, or if it has been commented on,” he says. “I’ve had Weibos where you’ll pull it up and there’ll be like 3,000 comments on the Weibo and you can actually go through and read the comments. Whereas on Twitter, good luck finding a place where it’s all centralized and you can read it. Each individual message you post on Weibo has potential to become its own full-on conversation between thousands of people.”

Bishop thinks Tencent can challenge Facebook in emerging markets

He also thinks that Tencent is under-covered by the world’s press, especially given that it is one of the top five Internet companies in the world by market capitalization. “Those guys have a very serious and credible expansion plan,” he says, picking out mobile messaging app Weixin (the English version of which is called WeChat) for special praise. “They are going to give Facebook a run for their money in the emerging markets.”

But he saves his biggest prediction for last, and what he calls the “One World, Two Internets” phenomenon. There are more than 500 million people on the Chinese Internet, but because of language and cultural barriers it is impenetrable to most outsiders, he says. That leads to a lot of misunderstanding. “A lot of people do think ‘Oh, the poor Chinese, the Internet is blocked, and it’s stifling innovation because they can’t go on Facebook. When in fact, you’ve got this incredibly vibrant, actually pretty fast internet inside China. But it really is its own world.”

That dichotomy can’t last forever. As more Chinese travel to other parts of the world, foreign companies will have to figure out ways to talk to them. More importantly, asks Bishop, will these travelers come back to China after experiencing uncensored Internet services such as Twitter and Facebook and be a force for crumbling the Great Firewall?

“I actually think that the current status quo with the two Internets situation in China is going to last not nearly as long as people think,” he says, echoing similar sentiments uttered by Eric Schmidt recently. “It’s increasingly untenable because so many Chinese people are now very clear about the regulatory and censorship issues, and I don’t think it will continue for that many years.”

He lets that hang in the air for a while, before finally adding: “Call me crazy. Maybe I’m just hopeful.”