Telum Talks To Phate Zhang, Founder, CnTechPost / CnEVPost
With the belief that staying neutral is the basis for media outlet's long-term growth, Phate Zhang, Founder of CnTechPost and CnEVPost, shared with Telum Media the reasons behind setting up the new China-oriented technology and electric car-focused websites, his passion for telling China's tech stories to English readers, as well as his insights into China's tech industry.
Before launching CnTechPost and CnEVPost, you had worked for China Daily, Reuters and Wallstreetcn.com in the past ten years. What made you decide to set up CnTechPost？
Setting up CnTechPost came from a very random decision. One day in 2019, while browsing my favourite tech news, I saw a cloud server provider marketing their product at a very low price of just CNY 79 ($12) a year. It was the equivalent of what I spent on food each day, so I bought the service for a year. I knew a bit about building websites myself and soon built my own blog.
At first, the blog was in Chinese, posting tips on using some consumer electronics like cell phones and network-attached storage (NAS) devices. After running it for about two months, the content did not gain much readership, although I sacrificed a lot of time off work and weekends. This forced me to think about the reasons behind it, and I realised that there was simply too much similar content. Although I thought it was valuable, the content I provided didn't really help others much because all the tips were available through search engines.
At the same time, a question that had previously puzzled me often came to my mind. While developments in the US tech industry can be seen in almost real-time in Chinese reports, why isn't the English-language media focusing on the Chinese tech industry in this way? The Chinese media are extremely attentive to US tech companies. Still, a lot of interesting content related to Chinese tech companies is not searchable in the English coverage.
Being in China myself, I was able to get first-hand exposure to what was happening here. Also, I was able to report in English, which made me think I could try to build an English website. And so CnTechPost was born, with the mission of spreading the word about Chinese tech companies and industry dynamics to an English-speaking audience. And the Chinese blog was discontinued.
What's the reason behind launching CnEVPost a year later?
I initially used almost all of my spare time, including commuting on the subway, to write articles that could be published in CnTechPost. My focus includes technology products from Chinese companies, Chinese technology breakthroughs, and important developments in US-listed Chinese companies, many of which are underreported in the English-language media.
Because I'm in China, I can see what's happening first and get that information to English readers in a timely manner. Much of this content is not covered by the wider English-language media, and it provides me with the opportunity to do so. CnTechPost continues to grow in views and followers on Twitter, and many of them are happy to communicate with me about what I'm posting, and they're very active in discussing it. Although there was no revenue at all at the beginning, a steady stream of readers emailed or tweeted me thanking me for what I was doing and saying how valuable the content was to them.
In particular, one reader emailed me saying that what I was doing didn't necessarily make me famous or rich, but that it was valuable to native English speakers like him. This kind of encouragement has helped me to continue this work and believe that it is valuable. After about a year of updating CnTechPost in this way, the growth of the electric vehicle industry in China accelerated. We published more and more content about the industry, often going behind the technology side of things.
This made me start to worry about the positioning of CnTechPost. Many of our followers follow us for our tech coverage, and with more and more EV-related content, I was concerned that this might distract us from our focus and turn CnTechPost into, in effect, CnEVPost. So I decided to create CnEVPost to be dedicated to all Chinese EV and related technology developments.
Can you tell us a bit more about CnTechPost and CnEVPost?
CnTechPost and CnEVPost are two separate websites from each other, but they are more like two different channels under one project. If an article is tech-related, then it will be posted on CnTechPost and EV related on CnEVPost. Doing this is very time-consuming, and I've hardly ever had free time to take a nice break on my own since I set up CnTechPost in late 2019. My time with my now 4-year-old son and my not-yet-1-year-old daughter has also been extremely curtailed. Even at the hospital when my daughter was born last year, I was still finding time to write and publish.
By the end of 2020, before CnEVPost was established, CnTechPost traffic had been able to generate some Google AdSense ad revenue. It wasn't a huge amount, but it showed me the potential it had. So I offered my resignation at that time, intending to devote myself to CnTechPost full-time. But the team at my former employer was also facing a human resource crunch, so we took a compromise - I worked for them every morning, and the afternoon time was my own. This lasted for three months, and I left completely at the beginning of April to start working full-time on my own websites. Starting this year, I hired two part-time workers to allow us to cover a wider range of things happening in our field.
How do you source stories for CnTechPost and CnEVPost?
I myself monitor dozens of websites, and a large number of Weibo and Twitter accounts every day to get leads on what we need to write about. Some Twitter followers will also give me leads for my reference. I will confirm all the leads and finally write my own story based on the source of that lead - maybe the company's announcement, Weibo content and video content.
We try to use the simplest possible expressions in our stories, because English is not my native language and because I want to make them understandable to everyone. We avoid expressing our emotions in our stories and want to communicate the interesting things we see in as neutral a tone and stance as possible.
In fact, after ten years in the media industry, it becomes clear that such neutral reporting does not spread nearly as widely as reporting with emotion. But I have always believed that this is the basis for long-term growth as a media outlet, so I will stick to my principles and resist the temptation to exaggerate.
From what you've observed, what are the trends of China's tech industry?
We are committed to covering as much of the development of China's technology sector as possible, and there are some very clear signals from this.
First, China is putting more emphasis on basic science research and finding technology solutions at the root. Many large companies used to rely on foreign technology. After all, it was the most efficient path to development with a clear international division of labour. But now they are waking up to the fact that a business empire built on foreign technology has no solid foundation, so they must be determined to seek change.
Second, the increasing openness of Chinese society has allowed the technology sector to breed a wealth of opportunities that no one previously thought would arise. China is already encouraging the entry of private capital in many areas that were not previously open to them, including aerospace. As a result, we are starting to see many private companies begin to develop and launch rockets. In January of this year, iSpace, a privately owned Chinese launch vehicle company, completed a series of important tests for its reusable launch vehicle. As the general aviation market becomes more open, we are also starting to see companies, including XPeng Motors, continue to develop flying cars.
Third, China is showing more ability to innovate in business models as well as some modern technologies. Ten years ago, there was a lot of talk about "copying to China", bringing some innovative foreign business models to China. In recent years, it has become clear that many Chinese technology companies are leading innovation. Many business models are only available in China, and some companies are using their innovations to greatly improve society's efficiency. Many companies, including Baidu Apollo and Huawei, have shown the ability to outperform Tesla in self-driving technology, which has been a red-hot topic in China.
Fourth, China's capital markets are also maturing at an accelerated pace, providing the necessary conditions for more technology companies to raise capital. Previously, the preferred location for Chinese tech companies to go public was the US, mainly because it was easier to list there and convenient for investors to exit. Now China is working to optimise listing conditions in the A-share market, including the launch of a Nasdaq-style sci-tech innovation board, also known as the STAR market, in 2019, in the hope that more tech companies will have the option to list domestically.
Do your websites cover other topics besides China's tech and electric vehicles?
There's a lot of exciting things happening every day in China's technology and electric vehicle industries, especially in the latter. These two areas already provide us with enough content, and we will only cover them for now. But I've often wondered, since many of the companies we cover are publicly traded, how the macroeconomy affects them is also quite important. So, in the future, I don't rule out that we will also start covering the Chinese economy, which is something I myself have been doing every day for the past five years of my career.
Any editorial plans for this year?
We are just getting started, and I myself only started devoting full time to both sites in April. This year's focus will be to start building the team and finding the right talent, in addition to completing the daily news coverage.
What kinds of PRs do you like to collaborate with?
My favourite PRs are the kind that is willing to respect journalists and know exactly how news is delivered. Over the past two years, I've been fortunate to have met many of these PRs, and they've helped me a lot with my reporting.
This article was first published on Telum Media.