CNBC's Arjun Kharpal Talks Big-Name Interviews and Tech Politics

By Ryan Gandolfo, April 9, 2020

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Game Theory is a regular series where we speak with a professional with insight into China’s business and tech scene.

Arriving in China in 2018 to report on the PRC’s tech giants, Arjun Kharpal is a senior technology correspondent at CNBC. He got his start at the company in his hometown of London, before moving to Guangzhou to open up a new bureau. Having previously written for the Times and the Guardian, among other publications, Kharpal is a trusted source for the latest technology news, providing insight on tech trends in China and globally while enhancing CNBC’s presence in the Greater Bay Area. We spoke with Kharpal about big-name interviews, the tech world’s response to COVID-19 and one headline that’s been out of sight since the beginning of 2020.

Tell us about your work in South China.
I’ve been at CNBC since July 2013, starting as an intern in London where I’m from. During that time, I was covering the big American firms and the emerging growth of technology in Europe. But I also took a very, very keen interest in what was happening in China. I started to learn a lot about the large technology firms based here … and got really interested in what was going on in China. And over time, in terms of international media, [Chinese tech] was perhaps an under-covered area – it wasn’t covered as much as American technology companies. 

We were talking at CNBC about expanding our China coverage, but we didn’t know what that would look like, so I moved at the backend of 2018 to Guangzhou to open up this new bureau with the specific aim of covering the innovation and tech scene here in China.  

Who was a better interview: Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei or Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang?
I’m going to have to be very diplomatic on this one. You know, they were two very different kinds of interviews. We interviewed Alibaba’s Daniel Zhang around Singles’ Day 2018, and things were continuing to grow, while when we interviewed Ren Zhengfei it was a testing time for Huawei. I’ll tell you one thing that did come through in both interviews was their vision and grasp on the industry and how they were looking to take their companies forward.

With people in China pushed even further to engage with digital channels due to the coronavirus outbreak, how do you think tech companies have responded?
Alibaba is a good example. It launched an online clinic service via Alipay and Taobao early on in the outbreak. And so that’s an example of it leveraging the apps it already has and giving them a different use, which could engage new users as well. When it comes to cloud computing, you saw both Huawei and Alibaba come out with algorithms that analyzed CT scans, which obviously takes a little bit of time, but they’re claiming it can be done in seconds. 

This outbreak may have given these technology companies the data learning required to develop better technology around health. On top of that, they’re working with research institutions and medical institutions, so this could give them more of an opportunity to prove that their technology is viable in the long term, and it could actually open up a new business stream as well.

The US-China trade war has largely disappeared from headlines since the pandemic started. Do you miss reporting on it?
Well, it certainly dominated the agenda for a long time, and one thing I’ve noticed since moving to China is the increasing politicization of technology. That’s an exciting story and I do miss reporting on it to some extent. We saw in the realm of technology a recognition from countries like the US of China’s quick rise when it comes to technology and what they are doing with it. This led to some soul searching in America about what their strategies are when it comes to key technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence. 

I also think it sparked some debate about what the internet itself will look like in the near future and which companies will be the most dominate. I’m sure it’s taken a backseat right now, given that the world is trying to deal with the coronavirus, but when this settles down, it will be very much back on the table – because it’s something that’s happening regardless of the virus.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

For the latest on China’s tech front, follow Arjun Kharpal on Twitter (@ArjunKharpal) and check out his podcast Beyond the Valley

[Cover image via Yin Hon Chow/CNBC]

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