China: Investigative Journalism Struggles but Survives

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Despite official pressure, Chinese investigative journalists continue to press the limits of state control, as in their tough reporting on the 2015 explosion at a Tianjin warehouse.

Investigative journalism in China, which enjoyed a period of vitality from the mid-1990s to around 2013, is struggling to survive today as the government steps up its control of traditional and digital media. In recent years, a government crackdown has driven an exodus of veteran investigative journalists from the news media. Some have landed at cash-rich Internet companies, others at startups and philanthropic ventures. Still others have abandoned the media industry all together. Meanwhile, globalization, technological changes, and market pressures have shifted the paradigm for in-depth and enterprising reporting on China. Whether that reporting happens inside China or beyond its borders, we have seen international collaborations, data-driven journalism, and multi-disciplinary methodologies.

Even as the government reins in the news media, policies to promote the digital economy, combined with heavy investment in IT infrastructure, have created new potential space for media development. Moreover, China’s growing integration with the global capitalist system has provided a flood of data and information residing at Chinese and overseas regulatory agencies, and at international organizations such as the World Bank. Chinese official government websites also offer information that can, in the hands of enterprising journalists, tell a much fuller story about China.

“Supervision by Public Opinion”

Investigative journalism, practiced in China under the aegis of “supervision by public opinion” – 舆论监督 or yulun jiandu, which can also be translated as “watchdog journalism” – has been recognized by the Chinese Communist Party since the 1980s as one of a number of key ways of keeping power in check. However, the extent to which the Party has allowed the press to engage in such reporting has varied under successive leaders.

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Better times: Profiles of Chinese muckraking from earlier years.

In the mid-1990s, the “supervision by public opinion” mandate was taken up enthusiastically by a new breed of market-oriented newspapers and magazines trying to make their mark in a booming but competitive market. Over the next decade, civic-minded reporters broke new ground on a wide array of topics. They probed corruption in both government and private business. They exposed cases of police violence and uncovered the abuse of public funds. Notable work of that period, when it was not uncommon for reporters to devote months to a story, included an exposé on cartels in China’s taxi industry, the first in-depth report on illegal blood selling that was fueling an AIDS epidemic in China’s heartland; and the chilling undercover story of women being sold into the sex trade by a government-run drug treatment center.

Professional journalists in China were able to push back against relentless press controls, thanks in large part to a complicated and often ambiguous environment. They developed their own tools and techniques that allowed them to “hit line-balls,” as they are fond of saying – doing coverage that just skirts the boundary of the politically acceptable. At other times, when the situation warranted, they stepped over the red line. In April 2003, for example, as it became clear that the government had not (as it claimed) contained the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and China was coming under intense international scrutiny, journalists at media-like newsmagazine Caijing leapt into the breach, doing world-class reporting on the crisis. This surge of investigative journalism reached its apex in 2003, when state-run China Central Television paid special tribute to eight leading investigative journalists in an hour-long, prime time program.

Since 2003, however, the government has progressively closed off the loopholes that traditional media have been able to exploit. In 2004, for example, the Party leadership issued a ban on the practice of cross-regional reporting, whereby media from one city or province (where they have the most to fear from their local leaders and official censors) do investigative reporting in other jurisdictions. This prohibition had an appreciable impact on investigative reporting, even though some media still managed to slip reports past official censorship. Beginning around 2005, the government augmented its system of cautionary missives and bans with a more rigorous system of internal censorship, in which censors were placed directly inside more outspoken newspapers and magazines.

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Correspondent Cai Jing in News Probe, once a leading investigative weekly program on CCTV.

For journalists, the period after the heyday of 2003 has been a constant uphill struggle. Those who thought China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, might bring a long-awaited thaw after he took power in 2012 have been sorely disappointed. Instead, political pressure on traditional media has intensified across the board, with new restrictions on the Internet and social media to boot.

In the face of the clampdown on in-depth journalism and the decline of the print media, scores of veteran investigative journalists have moved on to other ventures. Luo Changping, a senior editor at Caijing magazine, turned to the Internet to expose the dubious financial dealings of Liu Tienan, then deputy head of a powerful economic policy body, the National Development and Reform Commission. Soon after, his editors were forced to transfer him from the newsroom to a peripheral research post. Rather than be sidelined, he decided to leave Caijing. Luo, who subsequently won an Integrity Award from Transparency International, has now launched a consumer-related online media site in collaboration with OKO-Test, a German product testing and review firm.

Other reporters who have left traditional media to explore new opportunities. Zhao Hejuan quit newsmagazine Caixin in 2012 to launch TMT Post, an online site covering technology, media, and telecommunications. Zhao is best known for her investigative series exposing corruption in the telecommunications industry, and for her report on an orphan trafficking ring. There is also Zuo Zhijian, a noted investigative reporter and director of the news department at 21st Century Business Herald, who has launched two digital companies – an e-reading app, and a platform for personal finance management. Zuo achieved renown as a journalist with his exposé on malpractice at the Shanghai Security Fund.

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Deng Fei left Phoenix Weekly to work on social causes like child trafficking. Credit: Ying Chan.

Many other journalists have applied their expertise to organizing public-interest campaigns. Deng Fei, formerly a top reporter at the Shenzhen-based Phoenix Weekly, now works full time on social causes, such as combatting child trafficking and providing school lunches in poorer rural areas. Wang Keqin, once the doyen of Chinese investigative reporting, best known for his investigation of the taxi industry in Beijing, has become an advocate for workers suffering from pneumoconiosis, also known as black-lung disease, caused by exposure to industrial dust in the workplace.

Investigative Journalism on China: NYT, Bloomberg, FT, and WSJ

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This 2010 Financial Times piece spearheaded a new era of international reporting on Chinese officials.

Even as Chinese media have found it increasingly difficult to pursue in-depth or investigative stories, international media have broken new ground in their own reporting on China. In classic follow-the-money fashion, they have worked to expose the financial wealth and connections among China’s top leaders and their close relatives. On March 29, 2010, the Financial Times pioneered the genre in an article called, “China: To the Money Born.” The report focused on the dominant role played by the children of senior Chinese leaders in the country’s hedge fund business. In November 2011, the Wall Street Journal followed suit with a report called “Children of the Revolution.” The next year, in a package called “Revolution to Riches,” Bloomberg News mapped wealth connections among China’s top leaders. The foreign reporting bombshell came with a package of stories at the New York Times by David Barboza, focusing on the family wealth of then-premier Wen Jiabao. These stories and others provoked the ire of Chinese officials. In 2012, in the aftermath of these stories, China’s Internet censors blocked the websites of the New York Times, which remain blocked to this day.

An Axed Story at Bloomberg

While international media are pursuing investigative reporting on China, they also have commercial considerations. In November 2013, top executives at Bloomberg News, one of the world’s most powerful media organizations, axed an investigative series on the richest man in China, after the story had been cleared by top editors and company lawyers. Five months later, Peter Grauer, Chairman of Bloomberg LP, disclosed in a talk at Asia Society in Hong Kong that the company should have “reconsidered articles that deviated from its core of coverage of business news, because they jeopardized the huge sales potential for its products in the Chinese market.”

International Collaboration: ICIJ

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This ICIJ series bared investments on nearly 22,000 tax haven clients from Hong Kong and mainland China.

If reporting by Chinese media carries immense risk, and if the endeavors of international media threaten huge financial costs, what is the route forward for investigative reporting on China? The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) provided one answer with a series of cross-border collaborative projects, including the Panama Papers and Offshore Leaks. Both are projects with global scope, involving hundreds of journalists in dozens of countries. In Offshore Leaks, ICIJ obtained a list of nearly 22,000 offshore clients held by persons with addresses in mainland China and Hong Kong. These documents have still not given up all of their secrets, but journalists have already identified offshore accounts in known tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, linked to some of China’s most powerful individuals – including members of the country’s parliament and executives from state-owned companies.

While ICIJ was careful to emphasize that it implied no wrongdoing on the part of the offshore account holders highlighted in its work, these investigations nonetheless pointed to serious questions of transparency and accountability in a country that has yet to enact legal provisions mandating disclosure of assets by government officials, who with impunity can shield their assets from detection.

Rich Resources for Reporting

The ICIJ stories point to new models of globalized reporting that help to marshall strength and hedge the risks of undertaking sensitive investigative stories. While ICIJ provided the data, the research, and security protocol, local media organizations offered local knowledge to create the synergy needed to conduct massive in-depth projects on a global scale. They also point the way to the new reporting opportunities offered by ever-more abundant caches of data and information in an era of global digitization. For the enterprising reporter – or group of networked reporters – extensive public records now available about Chinese companies and individuals offer an embarrassment of riches. These include regulatory filings and initial public offering statements, company reports (including those in Hong Kong and mainland China), land registries, court case filings, and other materials. Contrary to the general view that China’s government holds any and all information close, official government websites often offer valuable information that can help journalists along on their trails of inquiry.

china3Among the most important sites is the official website of the Chinese Communist Party, which gives information on the travel itinerary of senior leaders, items on the agenda at top-level meetings, and personnel changes at various government ministries. Another website of significance is that of the Party’s Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), the most senior body tasked with combating corruption and malfeasance in the party. By scraping the data from the CCDI site, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post was able to produce a multimedia package called “Tigers and Flies“ that visualized the extensive graft probes undertaken under President Xi. The data-driven piece showed how the campaign has intensified dramatically since early 2014, spreading geographically across China. By focusing on 690 cases posted to the CCDI site, the newspaper was also able to trace the political lineage and interest networks (or guanxi) of  senior and junior leaders, referred to in Chinese as “tigers and flies” who have been brought down across China. Eight months later, Chinafile of the Asia Society used the data from the same CCDI site to produce a visualization project to track corrupt officials.

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Official Sources: The Party’s Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, the top body tasked with combating corruption.

Another official site that offers useful information is that of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which provides extensive data gleaned from real-time monitoring of air and water quality on both a national and local level. To some extent, Chinese are already tapping into these rich information deposits. Domestic non-profit organizations and individuals have been able to generate reports using data from official websites. Ma Jun, one of China’s foremost environmental advocates, has created his own interactive site tracking the state of water pollution in the country. The site allows visitors to search data for their own geographic areas, or for their own research or reporting. A host of other stories can be discovered, deepened, and illuminated through data and information released by various ministries on their portals – in large part because of the government’s effort in promoting greater transparency as manifest official policy over the past decade.

Why Covering China Is Important

Domestically, investigative reporting in China is in a sorry state. We can scarcely point to a time over the past two decades when media were under such draconian restrictions. The sense of fear among journalists is palpable. Taking a longer view, however, investigative journalism on China – much of which we can still hope will be undertaken by Chinese – is in a state of transition; it has become more dispersed and globalized, with endless opportunities offered by rich online data and information.

In China, investigative journalism has played a critical role in exposing wrongs and monitoring the powerful. As the country becomes more integrated into the global economy, and as Chinese companies expand overseas, covering China is more urgent and important than ever. Doing so in-depth in the digital and global age requires team work, a cross-disciplinary approach, and cross-border collaboration in addition to traditional journalistic core skills of reporting, writing, and critical thinking, plus the ability to deliver on all platforms: print, video, online, and mobile. In China, as in the West, the era of the lone reporter hero may be over, while technological advancement has armed journalists with tools to analyze and visualize massive amounts of data that have become increasingly available. While Chinese journalists lament the demise of investigative journalism in China, the genre may yet rise again, as good journalism would in the end serve the purpose of government transparency and accountability.


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Ying Chan is Honorary Professor at the University of Hong Kong, GIJN consulting editor, and a founding member of the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists. She is an educator who created two journalism schools as founding director (1999-2016) of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre and founding dean (2003-2010) of China’s School of Journalism and Communication at Shantou University.

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