If you asked Chinese people to name the most outspoken media outlet in China, half would probably say the Southern Media Group and the other half Caixin Media. Not bad for newcomer Caixin, founded in 2010 by Ms. Hu Shuli, the Iron Lady of Chinese journalism, who has been named in the Wall Street Journal’s list of “Ten Women to Watch” in Asia (see her Weibo account in Chinese here). At the end of 2009, Ms. Hu and her core team resigned from Caijing Magazine, China’s most profitable financial magazine and her baby for 11 years, in a high-profile protest against the authorities’ persistent interference with her reporting.
The young Caixin neither hides its ambitions nor fears baring its teeth; it rang in 2012 with its biggest scoop yet — evidence of highly biased reporting, and possible fraud, blackmail, and bribe-taking by reporters at China Central Television, or CCTV (also commonly known as CCAV, in an allusion to “adult video,” among netizens who believe its journalistic integrity has long been deflowered by its intimacy with the government). To even scratch the skin of CCTV, the eight hundred pound gorilla in Chinese media in terms of government support, financial resources, and influence, Caixin needed a solid story (and serious guts) and CCTV’s biased coverage of Da Vinci Furniture provided the opportunity.
In July 2011, CCTV exposed Da Vinci Furniture, a China-based distributor of luxurious and exorbitantly priced Italian home furnishings, as a fraudulent company that manufactured the goods in southern China but marketed them as the real thing. The exposé made a huge splash and Da Vinci’s sales crashed by more than 80% afterwards. What Caixin found out after months of hard shoe-leather investigative journalism, however, is that CCTV hid significant evidence of Da Vinci’s innocence, and one of its reporters may have extorted at least one million RMB (about US$160,000) from Da Vinci in the name of “public relations.” (More detailed coverage is available here.) The jury is still out on the truth, but it’s already clear that Caixin’s David has chosen bravely to take on CCTV’s Goliath.
The story immediately sizzled on Weibo, China’s Twitter, helped by tantalizing hidden camera videos and secret phone recordings that weakened CCTV’s case. Allegations that CCTV uses negative reporting to extort advertising dollars from major companies have floated around China’s blogosphere for years without solid evidence. Real estate tycoon Pan Shiyi used the opportunity to reveal that more than a decade ago his company was often extorted with the words “negative reports about your company have been already typeset; buy advertising in exchange [if you don't want to see them published],” though Mr. Pan did not make clear who were the offending parties.
Two days after the Caixin report, one journalist (@孙浩元) claimed that he has already received orders from censors not to report on this unfolding melodrama, and the general sense in the blogosphere is that any attempt to “harmonize,” that is, censor this matter is as good as an admission of guilt on the part of CCTV. However, many are not optimistic about the upstart Caixin’s chances to score against the entrenched CCTV. One netizen commented, “People’s Daily and CCTV are [government] flagships; if CCTV is perceived to be lying, the Party’s credibility will be undermined. So my money is on CCTV prevailing in the end.”