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China's Rise: An In-Depth Conversation with David Barboza

Former NY Times journalist and co-founder of The Wire China & WireScreen discusses the economic and technological changes that have redefined the global balance of power.
David Barboza (right) with CASI student leader Ryan Zepeda (left).

In recent years, the complex economic and geopolitical relationship between the United States and China has become the focus of intense analysis and speculation. On January 18, David Barboza, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist with a career spanning reporting and entrepreneurship, shared invaluable insights on the dynamics between the two growing competitors at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. The CASI-hosted event was moderated by student leader Ryan Zepeda (MBA ’24) and examined the challenges and opportunities that have emerged from China's unprecedented economic and technological ascent.

Barboza began the discussion by sharing insights from his time reporting in China, which began in 2004 when China's economy was relatively small compared to today. At that time, the focus was on China's integration into the global economy, issues like copyright infringement, and the outsourcing of manufacturing. China was not yet a technological or manufacturing powerhouse.

“Fast forward and everything has changed in that two decades,” he said. “and I would say, way faster than anyone expected.”

As Barboza explained, China developed its own technology companies and made significant advances in areas like electric vehicles (EVs) and artificial intelligence (AI). The number of Chinese students studying in the US has also increased substantially. 

China's rapid development and global presence have led to significant changes in the geopolitical landscape. Barboza said China now possesses the technology, economic strength, and global influence to challenge the US on multiple fronts. 

“Whether you're from China or the US, the landscape has changed dramatically and that means everyone needs to think about this differently.”

This transformation, he said, has raised concerns about the risks and consequences of economic decoupling between the two nations. The US worries about Chinese companies competing with American firms, as well as potential national security implications, in sectors such as telecommunications and semiconductors.

Zepeda asked Barboza about the escalating tensions in US-China relations, particularly since the National Security Strategy was created under the Trump administration in 2017. A similar policy has continued under the Biden administration.

Barboza explained that as China emerged as a strong global competitor, questions arose about how this would affect various industries. He pointed to the 2018 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada, who was detained at the request of the US government on fraud charges. The incident fueled concerns about Chinese companies operating abroad, leading the US to impose economic controls for national security reasons. China argued that the US was using national security as an excuse to hinder Chinese competition, while also acknowledging that some Chinese companies may receive subsidies, just as some American companies do in China.

Barboza highlighted China’s lead in producing electric vehicles (EVs), raising fears about the impact on American auto companies. Disputes over regions like Taiwan and Hong Kong also added to the tension, with China hinting at using sanctions against foreign companies as a form of leverage in response to US sanctions.

“Both sides have incredible leverage over different aspects and right now they’re going through a period of figuring out: How is that going to work?” he asked. “How is your competition going to work? Is it really national security? Or is it competition?” 

Zepeda asked Barboza about his recent move to create The Wire China and WireScreen, a news and data platform focused on China and global supply chains. 

Barboza explained that during his final years in China, he began to question if there was a more efficient way to conduct investigative reporting. He described how investigative journalism involves extensive research, mapping ownership structures, and collecting various documents over months or even years. He sought a way to enhance investigative reporting and provide more context for stories.

“A lot of the data that I'm interested in as a business reporter is cross-border data. If you're looking at a Chinese company, you might say, I need Cayman Islands records, I need Hong Kong records, I need SEC filings. I need all of these different jurisdictions and there's no platform that can take you around the world in the sort of global interactions and flow of money across those borders.” 

Barboza envisioned a product that could combine China business reporting with global data, enabling readers to access original sources and understand ownership structures and financial flows in-depth. His goal was to build a data platform that could integrate with news platforms like The New York Times. While the Times showed interest initially and sent him to Harvard as a fellow to work on the project, they eventually faced challenges in implementing it within their system. In 2019, Barboza chose to take a leave of absence to independently pursue his vision, driven by his belief in the crucial need to integrate news and data more effectively.

Zepeda asked Barboza about the challenges he faced while building his business and dealing with data. He said that the sheer scale of the endeavor was daunting. His platform contains data for 10 million companies, compared to Bloomberg, which might cover around 15,000 listed Chinese companies. 

“The question I had in the early days was, why is no one doing this? And then I realized, now I understand why they're not doing it. It's really hard.”

Zepeda asked Barboza about the types of customers his data platform serves and what insights it provides to these customers. 

He described how, as a journalist, he would want to know about a company's history, ownership, relationships, and any potential risks or positive aspects. Similarly, their customers, including law firms, consulting firms, and universities were interested in understanding the companies they were engaging with. 

“I think of this as the 360 view. For executives, I want to know my competitors. I want law firms, university research firms, asset managers, and anyone who would want to know deep information on a company, private or public. Cross border dealings, supply chains, we want to provide that.”

In response to Ryan's question about maintaining journalistic integrity when reporting on a topic with significant implications for foreign affairs, Barboza emphasized his approach remains consistent. 

“The way I approach journalism and also this venture is basically the same. I don't have all the answers and I'm not that opinionated. I think of my role more as building up the research, interviewing the people, and finding information to help people make smart decisions.”

Zepeda asked Barboza for his perspective on China's future, considering the claims of an imminent economic collapse, demographic challenges, and debt issues. Barboza shared that he had heard predictions of China's collapse back in 2004 when he moved there, but it never materialized. 

“People want to have this idea that China is going to collapse. I don't see China collapsing anytime soon. But it doesn't mean they don't have their challenges.”

He expressed concerns about demonizing China and media coverage but stressed the importance of asking tough questions and providing a balanced perspective. His goal, he said, is to offer information and diverse voices to help people make informed judgments about how to coexist with China, address competition, and handle integration, such as the significant presence of Chinese students in the US.

After a lively question and answer period, Zepeda asked what advice Barboza would offer to those embarking on their careers, considering the ongoing US-China dynamics. He advised the students to adopt a global perspective by traveling abroad, engaging with international students, and understanding how people from different parts of the world perceive and approach various issues.

“If you're working as business students, if you're working in the corporate world, or in your company, you're going to have those interactions with China, getting your supplies from a Chinese company, competing with them, thinking about Chinese issues. Learn a little about the culture and try to experience it from their point of view. I think that’s what is most important.”



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