Despite strong control of information by the state, the characterization of Chinese journalism as invariably propagandistic and uncritical of the authorities is an unfair one. For a minority of reporters, watchdog journalism is their raison d’etre, a calling that forces them to play a constantly shifting game of cat-and-mouse with the state apparatus and corrupt local politicians who, more often than not, are the object of their reportage.
This noble tradition finds its roots in baogao wenxue (報告文學), or reportage literature, which artfully blends fact and fiction to expose actual events. One of the pioneers of the genre was the China Youth Daily’s Liu Binyan (劉賓雁), whose stories exposing injustice in the 1950s earned him the designation of “rightist” and landed him in a re-education camp until the late 1970s. Only during the period of soft liberalization in the 1980s, however, did investigative journalism in a form recognizable to Western news consumers emerge in China, especially after then-premier Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽) in 1987 incorporated the term yulun jiandu (輿論監督), which literally means “supervision by public opinion,” into his annual report to party leaders.
This form of journalism is the subject of Investigative Journalism in China, which explores eight cases of watchdog journalism as told from the perspective of the prominent reporters themselves, who were invited to the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong to share their experiences. We follow reporters who throw caution to the wind as they follow their lead, reporting on such well-known cases as the saga of Wu Fang, a woman who was disfigured and abused by powerful local officials, the Henan AIDS epidemic, the China Youth Development Foundation school charity scandal, a drug rehab center in Guangzhou where women were forced into prostitution, the widespread exploitation of taxi drivers in Beijing, a cover-up of a deadly mine explosion in Shanxi Province, the rise and fall of Li Zhen (李真), a Hebei Province official who became drunk with power, and the SARS epidemic. The only important subject not covered in the book (and one wishes it had been) is reporting on ethnic tensions, such as in Xinjiang or Tibet.
Every chapter is fascinating reading that not only provides an insider’s account of the events themselves, but more fundamentally, exposes the story behind the story and highlights the professional — and sometimes personal — risks taken by the reporters and the news organizations that employ them. A postscript accompanies each chapter, in which the authors discuss the significance of their case for journalism in China as well as the lessons learned.
The system in China, in which media organizations pay reporters a piece rate according to the number of words published, discourages risk-taking, as journalists can ill afford to see their stories censored, and therefore unpublished. “Safe,” uncontroversial stories, therefore, are the preferred option, not only by journalists, but news organizations as well.
Looming above this “self-discipline” is a mechanism that defends the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through a web of laws and regulations, the frequent closure of news outlets, lawsuits, transfers, threats, intimidation, physical violence and the revocation of credentials. The repercussions are especially harsh if a news report is seen to be linked to “social unrest.” As the CCP announced in late 2001, “the news media ... must always follow the leadership of the party.” Since then, stricter regulations have been implemented, most of them under President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
At all times, the interests of the party override the truth and define the media’s role in society. Stories that are deemed too sensitive, or which could damage the reputation of the party, are often dropped by news organizations or used as neibu cankao (內部參考), or “internal references” — classified documents meant for limited circulation among party officials (reporters sometimes quote from a neican, but do so at great personal risk). This practice, added to journalists’ close cooperation with police, is one of the reasons why some journalists have been accused of working as spies for the state. In other instances, a major news organization like Xinhua will attempt to “beat” smaller or commercial-oriented publications to a story to pre-empt further reporting and sanitize it before it can cause damage to the party’s image.
Under this system, watchdog journalism becomes more an act of civil disobedience, the consequences of which are often negative for both the reporters and their employer. Even news outlets that seem to “get away” with an investigative story are eventually haunted by their actions, as happened to the China Economic Times after it reported on the taxi scandal in Beijing. Later that year, its request to propaganda officials to increase its publication frequency was turned down.
All the authors agree that yidi jiandu (異地監督), or cross-regional reporting — media in one particular province reporting on sensitive events in another province — is a powerful instrument for reporters. “By taking advantage of political decentralization,” one writes, “the media can minimize the risk of disciplinary action when dealing with sensitive stories.” Many of the cases presented in Investigative Journalism in China were the result of this chink in the Chinese system’s armor.
That opening, however, appeared to have closed in 2005 after Beijing News broke a story about violent clashes over land requisition in Hebei Province, prompting local party leaders to request the Central Propaganda Department to impose restrictions on cross-regional reporting and “dangerous meddlers.” A full ban on exchanges of newspaper articles between provinces was fully implemented in July 1 this year.
The prospects of investigative journalism in China are not bright, but hope stays alive thanks to a small army of Chinese Don Quixotes who have taken on the windmills. Investigative Journalism in China does those truth-seekers justice by telling their stories and showing that Chinese media, though severely curtailed, is nevertheless no monolith. Practitioners of true reportage are “shouldering the door,” and if enough people apply limited force to the door, the cost to each person will be minimized. Armed with the lessons derived from this book, and with the addition of Netizens and citizen reporters — who receive little treatment here — Chinese reporters could win the next round in the information war. But the game is far from over.
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