It could have been the scoop of the year: the deputy governor of Henan Province had reportedly conspired with a local mayor to have his wife killed and chopped up. If proven, the murder would rank as one of the worst crimes by a senior official for decades.
But the story was a minefield. Knowing how many papers have been closed down, and how many journalists arrested, for covering such sensitive topics, most editors gave Henan a wide berth.
The exception was the Nanfang Daily Press Group, whose papers are increasingly earning national respect, and official condemnation, for their coverage of China's social ills.
When reports of the killing emerged last month, reporters from two of the group's flagship titles, the Southern Metropolitan Daily and Southern Weekend, flew to the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, and talked to the victim's family, colleagues, and detectives.
Off the record sources confirmed the murder and arrest, but a request for an official comment effectively killed the story. Henan's propaganda department ordered a news blackout.
It was nothing new. That week, three other Southern Weekend stories were spiked by the authorities. Nothing was published on police negligence in floods that killed 100 school children, nor on six villagers murdered in battles with gangs recruited by power companies to kick them off their land, nor poor safety planning that led to a fire in which 31 died.
Even after their stories were buried, the journalists used other means to get the news out, via private diaries and field notes posted on the Internet or circulated by e-mail. Some revealed they had to travel in near secrecy to avoid local authorities. Others said they used public phones to avoid being traced, and filed from net cafes and through friends.
"As a journalist, my job should be focused on writing a good report. But half of my effort is spent on considering how to get a story past the censors and the likelihood of punishment," said Liu Jianqiang, whose Henan story was spiked. "By writing out these notes, hopefully I can emerge from this gloomy mood. To act otherwise, by keeping my head low and docile in the face of mistreatment, and by pretending I'm a `good citizen,' my heart would feel bitter," Liu said.
The risks are great. Last year, three editors from the Nanfang group -- Yu Huafeng, Li Minying and Cheng Yizhong -- were imprisoned on fraud charges, an act of revenge by the local public security bureau when the authorities closed down the 21st Century Herald and the New Herald.
"It's very traumatic. I don't want to have to go through that again," one veteran said. "Now, every time a sensitive story comes in, I'm nervous. To be a good journalist in China, you can't just be an idealist; you must be a realist too."
But the system that nurtured so many good journalists is still in place. Guangdong was one of the first provinces to open to the outside world. Reflecting its modern business environment, the Southern Weekend blazed a trail in 1992 when its parent company, a party-controlled propaganda organ, transformed what had been a four-page celebrity gossip sheet into a hard-hitting news weekly.
The aim was to attract readers and advertising by being first to the news. Out went stodgy layout, in came smart design.
To encourage hard-hitting journalism, reporters were rewarded for the quantity and quality of their work. It was a huge success. The Nanfang Weekend now has a 1.3 million circulation nationwide. By breaking stories before officialdom had a chance to censor them, it and sister papers such as the Southern Metropolitan Daily and the Beijing News, have had more influence than others in shaping public debate on the dramatic social changes now taking place.
As well as scoops about SARS and the Three Gorges dam, the Nanfang Weekly made the biggest splash of 2003 by investigating the case of Sun Zhigang, who died in police custody. Its coverage forced a change of national policy on detentions, and humiliated local police chiefs.
"This was our Watergate scandal. It transformed attitudes," said Wang Xiaoshan, a former Southern Metropolitan employee. "Until then, journalists had put the priority on self-survival. After, everyone wanted to break important news. More and more young reporters now want to be heroes."
The Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department lists stories which must not be published. Several journalists confirmed such lists exist, but warned that providing copies could be considered a breach of state security.
In quiet weeks, lists contain few subjects: typically, Taiwan, Tibet or religious freedom. At other times, they stretch to 25 or more items: riots, strikes and alleged affairs of senior leaders. No editor would disobey such orders, but the role of newspapers has become more adversarial.
"Nanfang group has started a nationwide movement," a former employee said. "I think most journalists don't stand on the side of the party, they stand on the side of society. There has been a big change in the attitude of the media."
The authorities appear rattled. Propaganda officials now convey orders by phone. A more direct control is to replace editors with propaganda officials, such as Xiang Xi, latest chief of Southern Weekend. There are more sinister means: in the past two years, at least five Chinese and two foreign journalists have been arrested. According to the rights group, Reporters Without Borders, China has jailed 30 reporters and 62 cyber dissidents -- more than any other country.
The onset of summer has sparked a rise in incidents of “mask rage” in South Korea as more hot and bothered commuters either refuse to wear face coverings or leave parts of their faces exposed. In South Korea, Japan and other countries in East Asia, widespread mask wearing has been cited as one possible explanation for the region’s relative success in bringing the COVID-19 pandemic under control. South Korea, one of the first countries outside China to be affected by the virus, flattened the coronavirus curve in April, although it is now struggling with dozens of daily cases, mainly in and around
‘WOULD NOT COMPLY’: The company’s user data are kept in Singapore and it would not turn the data over to Beijing even if asked, TikTok chief executive Kevin Mayer said Social media app TikTok has distanced itself from Beijing after India banned 59 Chinese apps in the country, according to a correspondence seen by Reuters. In a letter to the Indian government dated on Sunday last week and seen by Reuters on Friday, TikTok chief executive Kevin Mayer said the Chinese government has never requested user data, nor would the company turn it over if asked. TikTok, which is not available in China, is owned by China’s ByteDance, but has sought to distance itself from its Chinese roots to appeal to a global audience. Along with 58 other Chinese apps, including Tencent
‘FIGHT FOR FREEDOM’: Hong Kongers will never bow to Beijing, the advocate said, while the US’ envoy to the territory called China’s new security law a ‘tragedy’ The world must stand in solidarity with Hong Kongers after Beijing imposed sweeping national security legislation on the semi-autonomous territory, advocate Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) said yesterday, vowing to continue campaigning for democracy. Wong, one of the territory’s most prominent young advocates and a figure loathed by Beijing, was speaking outside a court where he and fellow advocates are being prosecuted for involvement in last year’s pro-democracy protests. China last week enacted sweeping security legislation for the restless territory, banning acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. The legislation has sent a wave of fear through the territory, and criminalized dissenting
CHANGING PERCEPTIONS: In its tender, the Hong Kong administration said that it had failed to ‘mobilise the community to support law enforcement actions’ The Hong Kong government has agreed to pay millions of pounds to a discreet London-based PR firm to counter coverage of the territory in the international media. Consulum, which has also represented Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was on Monday awarded the ￡5 million (US$6.2 million) one-year contract to improve Hong Kong’s reputation — the same day that China passed national security legislation targeting the territory. The Mayfair-based PR business was founded by Tim Ryan and Matthew Gunther Bushell, two former employees of Bell Pottinger, an agency that has been criticized for representing some governments and leaders that other businesses