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Yueran Zhang senior contributor

Winter For Chinese Media: Why So Many Respected Journalists Are Leaving the Field

Jian Guangzhou, referred to by some as the "conscience of China." Via Weibo

Recently, Jian Guangzhou (@简光洲), one of the most reputed investigative journalists in China, quit the Oriental Daily (@东方早报) and announced he was ending his reporting career. Even though the specific reasons for Jian leaving his job remain unclear, one of his tweets on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, revealed frustration and desperation behind the decision. “My ten years with the Oriental Daily have been the most precious in my life, which gave me all the sadness and happiness, all the dreams. I suffered and endured everything because of the dream I had. And now, the dream is dead, and I choose to leave. Take care, my brothers!”{{1}}[[1]]东早10年,是我人生中最宝贵的青春,所有的悲欢,所有的梦想,所有的忍受都是因为那份纯真的理想。好吧,理想已死,我先撤了,兄弟们珍重![[1]]

Jian came to fame after a report he published on September 11, 2008, titled “14 infants in Gansu Province are suspected of falling ill with kidney stones because of Sanlu milk powder,” generated a domino effect. Further investigation showed that Sanlu, a widely-trusted brand, added large amounts of melamine, a kind of chemical raw material which is prohibited in food industry, to its products. It turned out that almost all the big brands in China’s milk industry were involved in the illegal enterprise, only differing in the extent, and about 40,000 infants all over the country were affected. Milk pollution is regarded as China’s severest food security scandal in recent years. 

By providing this type of audacious coverage under huge pressure, Jian has come to be perceived by many as the “conscience of China.” This symbolic layer to Jian’s reputation makes his departure rather heartbreaking to many, and has provoked deep pessimism about the future of China’s news media. 

Independent media: Spring or winter?

Jian’s resigning is just one of several “personnel earthquakes” that have struck the Oriental Daily in 2012. Founded in 2003, the newspaper has built up a reputation as one of the most important independent, liberal media brands in China, largely through its in-depth investigative coverage and outspoken editorials. This reputation also makes it among the most vulnerable to government censorship.

On July 18, the publication’s president and vice editor-in-chief were dismissed for unspecified reasons. Some rumors said the direct cause might be the Daily’s interview with Sheng Hong (@盛洪微博), president of Tianze Economics Institute, which was published in May. In the interview, Prof. Sheng acutely criticized the monopoly of state-owned companies in certain markets.

The misfortune has also befallen other media brands. On July 16, the editor-in-chief of the News Express Daily (@新快报) was forced to resign because of unspecified “sensitive” contents it had published. On August 23, the Oriental Vanguard (@东方卫报) published on its front page a feature article titled “Liu Xiang knew, officials knew, China Central Television knew, only the audience was waiting vainly for the legendary moment.” The article said that official heads of the Chinese Olympic Team, China Central Television (CCTV) and Liu Xiang himself had all known beforehand that his severe injury might render him unable to finish the preliminary heats of the Olympic Men’s 110-meter Hurdles, and CCTV had prepared four commentating plans accordingly. The report caused the editor-in-chief, the assistant editor-in-chief and the so-called “news supervisors” (新闻总监) to be dismissed.

Although the government’s control over news media has always been tight, the range and intensity of the purge this year has been rarely seen, suggesting that the censors’ controlling hand is tightening. As Wang Keqin (@王克勤), a former investigative journalist famous for his coverage of AIDS spread and illegal mining plants, comments, “It’s getting colder. The winter is approaching.”{{2}}[[2]]秋凉了,冬的脚步正在逼近。[[2]]

Wang’s comment is especially profound considering that earlier this year, many claimed that “the spring of Chinese media” was  coming after the state-owned, usually conservative People’s Daily (@人民日报) published a series of op-eds calling for political reforms, widely read as a hint that China’s news-control bureaus were liberalizing. However, this interpretation proved too optimistic, with purges beginning in July. 

The strange dichotomy between the liberalization of official media and the increasing oppression of  independent media can also be found in social media. On one hand, the Weibo account of the Party mouthpiece People’s Daily has shown a degree of humanity and independence that has pleasantly surprised netizens, and the account of Xinhua News Agency (@新华社中国网事) bravely challenged military authority when it reported on a military officer beating a flight attendant. On the other, journalists in independent media are being deprived of freedom of expression. @新闻已死 provides the evidence: “I hear that all the professionals working for the Nanfang Daily are required to report their Weibo accounts, even the passwords, to their superior.”{{3}}[[3]]听到一个事,南方报系所有从业者的微博,全部上报、造册;甚至《南方日报》所有记者的微博,连密码也要上报。[[3]]

The perplexing contrast might reflect the intense battle between conservative and liberal power within the central government. It might also point to an integrated strategy by the Party’s Publicity Bureau–winning more popularity by being a bit more liberal in order to edge out independent media, who become more intimidated and likely to self-censor. If the latter is true, the winter of Chinese independent media may truly have arrived.

Investigative journalists: To be or not to be?

Jian Guangzhou is the third distinguished investigative journalist forced to end his career within the last year. In November 2011, Yang Haipeng (@武松-手札), acclaimed as the best investigative journalists specializing in legal issues, left Caijing Magazine (@财经杂志). In July 2012, Liu Jianfeng (@V的刘建锋), famous for his coverage of Qian Yunhui’s death and the uprising in Wukan, resigned from The Economic Observer (@经济观察报). The frequent departures reflect the huge pressure facing investigative journalists. 

Yang Haipeng

Under the current circumstances, where the government sees maintaining “social stability” as its priority, any negative news is seen as potentially destabilizing. Thus, investigative journalists, whose mission is to uncover the dark side of society, are seen as “dangerous factors” and often encounter obstacles when trying to publish their pieces. @雪峰NO1’s comment is representative: “Now I’m used to an environment like this. I’ve had more articles killed than published.”{{4}}[[4]]新闻环境如此,习惯了,我的稿子被枪毙的比刊发的多。[[4]]

Moreover, investigative journalists frequently find their physical safety threatened. The beating of journalists when reporting is almost an everyday phenomenon. Lamentably, Chinese journalism school has to include self defense as part of the curriculum. One journalism teacher  (@新闻采写教师-王卫明) recently announced this “good news”: “Good news! Martialist Zhao Jilong agreed to teach self defense skills (course topic: security issues for investigative journalists). Journalists are welcome to come!”{{5}}[[5]]好消息:武术家 @赵冀龙 先生 答应国庆前后到我的《深度报道》课堂(周四上午)现场传授防身术(课堂主题:深度报道记者的安全问题)。欢迎媒体记者到场观摩.[[5]]

Thus, it came as no surprise when a research report showed that 55% of Chinese investigative journalists do not want to continue their careers at all or plan to quit within five years. Zhou Wentian (@舟亦洲), an investigative journalist previously working for the Oriental Daily, summarizes why investigative journalists tend to give up: “Chinese journalists, especially those doing investigation and emergent coverage, make a living in a profession for the young. It’s not an exaggeration to call them ‘cheap labor’ … The dream of journalism is just like poison. At last, journalists are left with wasted youth and poverty. So few investigative journalists retire at the normal age, either because the presses don’t want old journalists or they die from overwork.”{{6}}[[6]]中国记者,特别是社会突发、调查类记者,吃的是青春饭,自诩“新闻民工”,并不为过……新闻理想是一剂毒药,最后透支的是青春年华和落下半辈子的穷酸。中国很少有社会调查记者干到退休,一是报社不要年纪大的,二是过劳死了。[[6]]

Yet, despite the unfavorable environment, some journalists still hold on to their dream of documenting China’s fast-changing society and utilizing their voices to better it. Shen Yachuan (@石扉客), famous for his reporting of She Xianglin’s misjudged case and corruption of police in Shanghai, is one of them. “Even though there are so many hardships, I still believe that China, in the next ten years, will be full of amazing stories with manifold facets. Media can change China. So, my colleagues, please continue for another ten years.”{{7}}[[7]]时局多艰,不尽人意之事所在多有。但我仍然相信,未来 10年的中国,一定是浓墨重彩意象纷呈的中国,所谓“传播改变中国”是也。因此,这一行,诸君不妨再干10年.[[7]]

Even though Jian Guangzhou claims that “my dream is dead,” he is determined to keep contributing to society, pursuing his dream in another form: “I will probably not be a journalist again, but I want to do the following: To get a doctorate, to complete a book criticizing the media industry, to found an NGO named ‘independent journalists’ investigation project’ with the hope to financially support ten projects annually, in which independent journalists investigate social, environmental and developmental problems, free from all kinds of pressure.”{{8}}[[8]]下一步可能不会在趋炎附势的媒体继续做记者,但希望能做几件事:继续充电读个博士;写一本多年来未完成的媒体批评方面的书,初定《堕落的传媒》;成立“独立记者调查写作计划”的NGO,即希望有资金每年支持10个项目,资助独立记者尽量不受各种压力去完成对中国社会、环境、发展中的问题进行调查研究。[[8]] Similarly, Liu Jianfeng also announced that he would become an independent investigative journalist. Despite all signs to the contrary, some continue to hold out hope that spring will eventually come for Chinese media.

This article also appears on the Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.

19 Comments
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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.
  • Guess

    It is very difficult to be perfect in an imperfect world, I hope investigative journalists do not be too hard on themselves. It is very noble of them to use the media and their writings to improve the society and people will remember their good deeds. But from what I can see society tends to change on a trial and error basis, you veer a bit to the right today, a bit to the left tomorrow and you continue doing that a few more times before you can find the correct straight path. As confucious says – there is goodness in everyone of us, so if investigative journalism can be used as the key to unlock the goodness in supposedly bad people, then perhaps the job of journalism can be less stressful and journalists do not need to deal too much with their internal conflicts.

    • http://www.facebook.com/leon.walsky Leon Walsky

      Huh? This isn’t that philisophical. Journalists have a job: Keep those in charge honest. Without a free media this cannot happen. That’s why the Communist government won’t let media in China be free.

      • Guess

        If you are familiar with the Chinese story of Journey to the West, you will notice that the Monkey god is very capable of identifying the demons and punishing them. Those demons may be physically subdued by him but they bear grudges from the defeat, their surrender was never voluntary. However, it was the Buddha who has the ability to turn these demons into angels again with compassion and reasoning.

  • Guess

    It is very difficult to be perfect in an imperfect world, I hope investigative journalists do not be too hard on themselves. It is very noble of them to use the media and their writings to improve the society and people will remember their good deeds. But from what I can see society tends to change on a trial and error basis, you veer a bit to the right today, a bit to the left tomorrow and you continue doing that a few more times before you can find the correct straight path. As confucious says – there is goodness in everyone of us, so if investigative journalism can be used as the key to unlock the goodness in supposedly bad people, then perhaps the job of journalism can be less stressful and journalists do not need to deal too much with their internal conflicts.

    • http://www.facebook.com/leon.walsky Leon Walsky

      Huh? This isn’t that philisophical. Journalists have a job: Keep those in charge honest. Without a free media this cannot happen. That’s why the Communist government won’t let media in China be free.

      • Guess

        If you are familiar with the Chinese story of Journey to the West, you will notice that the Monkey god is very capable of identifying the demons and punishing them. Those demons may be physically subdued by him but they bear grudges from the defeat, their surrender was never voluntary. However, it was the Buddha who has the ability to turn these demons into angels again with compassion and reasoning.

        • Leon Walsky

          What a load of bullshit.

  • billboolie

    We can always look forward that ‘Fifty Cent’ monkey puppet to enlighten us and tell us the facts – Yang Rui – that beacon in the Asian darkness! The official hand is so far up his backside, he can’t blink without their wiggling a finger or two. He primps and poses his prissy propaganda like a professional prostitute with a prostate problem. LOL!

  • billboolie

    We can always look forward that ‘Fifty Cent’ monkey puppet to enlighten us and tell us the facts – Yang Rui – that beacon in the Asian darkness! The official hand is so far up his backside, he can’t blink without their wiggling a finger or two. He primps and poses his prissy propaganda like a professional prostitute with a prostate problem. LOL!

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  • http://twitter.com/BrendanHowley Brendan Howley

    The Chinese situation is almost identical to the Cuban. In Cuba there is no investigative tradition at all but the endgame is similar to the Chinese: loss of job, threats to relatives, terrific personal stress, prosecution for ‘crimes against the state,’ prison or exile. For years, the Cubans simply tossed journalists (including one investigative reporter of my acquaintance) into the ‘forensic wards’ with highly violent, criminally insane prisoners. No drugs but you share a cell with a guy who’d kill you with a pencil. Is there psychiatric abuse of imprisoned Chinese journalists?

  • http://twitter.com/BrendanHowley Brendan Howley

    The Chinese situation is almost identical to the Cuban. In Cuba there is no investigative tradition at all but the endgame is similar to the Chinese: loss of job, threats to relatives, terrific personal stress, prosecution for ‘crimes against the state,’ prison or exile. For years, the Cubans simply tossed journalists (including one investigative reporter of my acquaintance) into the ‘forensic wards’ with highly violent, criminally insane prisoners. No drugs but you share a cell with a guy who’d kill you with a pencil. Is there psychiatric abuse of imprisoned Chinese journalists?

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