Wed, Sep 09, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Reporter’s shaming signals China’s ratcheting up of media controls

The always tenuous boundary lines seem to be shrinking, raising questions about journalistic freedom and the future of publications such as ‘Caijing,’ which has long been in the forefront of financial reporting in the country

By Amie Tsang  /  NY Times News Service, HONG KONG

Illustration: Mountain People

When the Chinese Ministry of Public Security arrested nearly 200 people at the end of last month for “spreading rumors,” one of the most prominent targets was Wang Xiaolu (王曉璐), a reporter for the respected business magazine Caijing.

Wang was compelled to confess on television before going to trial. Dressed in a green polo shirt and looking downcast, he told viewers of China Central Television, the main state network, that he had gathered information using private sources “through abnormal channels,” then added to this his “own subjective views.”

The article in question was a “sensational” and “irresponsible” report on the stock market, Wang said.

That the state would take aim at a publication like Caijing came as a surprise to many. The magazine has a strong reputation for hard-hitting investigations and pushing the boundaries of what the government might deem permissible. Yet it has steered clear of prohibited topics like the Falun Gong movement.

“I know how to measure the boundary lines,” Caijing’s founder, Hu Shuli (胡舒立), told the New York Times in 2005. “We go up to the line — and we might even push it. But we never cross it.”

So the public shaming of one of its journalists has raised fears about prospects for journalistic freedom within China — and the direction of Caijing itself.

The publication was set up in 1998 by Hu, a former propaganda writer for the Chinese Communist Party publication Workers’ Daily, and it took an aggressive journalistic approach from the beginning.

The cover of the first issue focused on a property company with a rocketing share price that had been suspended from trading after overstating its profits. A few insiders were tipped off beforehand and managed to unload their shares.

In an editorial on the future of journalism in China, Hu wrote: “By simply reporting the story and pointing out places where the system failed to protect small investors, we incited a stir. Government watchdogs immediately criticized Caijing.”

Caijing, a biweekly magazine with a circulation of 225,000, has continued chasing the same types of stories. Exposes by Caijing — which means finance and economics in Chinese — have covered such topics as illegal securities trading, stock price manipulation and falsified profits. Some of the reports have prompted regulatory investigations.

However, for a business-focused publication, it has also ventured further into less traditional territory.

In 2003, Caijing was one of the few Chinese media outlets to report critically on the SARS crisis. The government tried to control the story, said David Bandurski, an editor at the China Media Project based at the University of Hong Kong.

“Some media, Caijing and Southern Metropolis Daily, decided they were going to report,” Bandurski said. “Hu Shuli was going into west China with her hazmat suit. Around the time of SARS, April 2003, was the beginning of what they think of as the media spring. Official guidance totally fell apart.”

In 2008, Caijing reported on how construction standards had been ignored and public money was wasted in Sichuan Province, leading to the collapse of many schools during an earthquake. Other publications were punished for covering the collapsed schools, but Caijing was not.

Bandurski said the importance of economic reform to the government meant elites wanted strong financial reporting. Caijing seized the opportunity.

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