Communications and Competition in China, 1900-1945

Heidi Tworek

This paper examines how British, French, German, and American news agencies competed to supply news to China in the first half of the twentieth century. Competition over news supply and information technology in China provides historians with insights into the competition amongst Western nations over emerging markets as well as their strategies for building relationships with the state in the developing world.

British and French news agencies had controlled news supply to and from China since the mid-nineteenth century, particularly the British news agency, Reuters. From around 1900, however, German and American news agencies sought to expand their reach in China to keep pace with their increasing trade interests in the region. From the early twentieth century onwards, China became a battleground for Western news agencies to secure the most privileged position as an intermediary connecting Chinese information to global markets.

The journalists negotiating with Chinese news agencies and newspapers generally did not speak any Chinese language themselves. They operated on assumptions about the Chinese economy, Chinese government, and Chinese journalism that stemmed from their experiences in Western journalism. And they saw China as a space for competition between Western agencies for control over news supply out of China and global news provision to Chinese newspapers. Chinese newspapers generally had no correspondents abroad and relied on news agencies to supply global news. Chinese officials in turn used these newspapers as evidence for global and national public opinion and sought to control them to mold citizens. 

There are two strands running through the paper. The first examines how news agencies sought to secure exclusive contracts with successive Chinese governments either by styling themselves as anti-imperial institutions, in the German case in the 1920s, by offering superior economic information in the case of Reuters, or by teaming up with American embassies and businesses in the case of United Press. The second considers how the emergence of wireless technology changed news supply to China in the 1920s. French, German, and American news agencies used wireless to bypass British cable networks and created fiercer competition over information than ever before. During World War II, German news agencies in particular would build on this legacy to become the leading suppliers of information to Japanese-occupied China.