The state of journalism in China is bleak and exhilarating. Last year journalists pushed the envelope and scored many small victories. But huge challenges remain. Now reporters are bracing for a long bitter winter—one in which cold winds will blow on them even as the temperature rises—as they anticipate the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party that will convene in 2012. At that time there will be a change in the party’s senior leadership, and there are already reasons for the press to be concerned.

China’s Propaganda Department: New Restrictions on the Press
This past January the party’s propaganda officials sent draconian instructions to the Chinese news media. That same month Chang Ping, one of China’s most respected columnists who worked for the Southern Media Group, was forced out. Several months earlier, his editors had banned him from writing for the Southern publications; his contract was not renewed when he refused to refrain from writing for other media outlets. And the government’s blockage of social networks continues, as its tools of censorship become increasingly sophisticated and are applied with surgical accuracy to control dissent and criticism.

Still, despite the propaganda ministry’s best efforts, it is discovering that with more than 400 million Internet users in China, 100 million bloggers, and 850 million mobile phone users, the impact of the people’s voice is growing. And journalists remain an unruly and determined lot intent on obtaining and moving information to the people.

Investigative Reporting in China: Progress, Setbacks and Surprises
– Jan Gardner

Collusion between corrupt government officials and businesspeople is at the heart of many of China’s tens of thousands of annual episodes of social unrest. Nowhere is that more in evidence than with the forced evictions and the seizure of land and homes to make way for development; these stories now reside at the top of the news agenda for investigative journalists.

Last September the forced demolition of a family home in Yihuang in Jiangxi Province resulted in three family members—a man and two women—lighting themselves on fire and jumping from the roof of their house. Given how information from Yihuang was spread, this story signaled a landmark moment in contemporary Chinese media with the emergence of microblogs—China’s version of Twitter—as a valuable distribution tool for journalists.

Read about the incident on Global Voices.
Two family members were harassed and threatened by local officials as they set out to petition the Beijing government to have their grievances heard. Police had confronted them on their way to the airport so they locked themselves in an airport bathroom and corresponded via text messages with local reporters. Phoenix Weekly reporter Deng Fei reported the story live via microblog and then other journalists began to do the same through two popular websites, and This rapid-fire reporting catapulted the story to national attention and, in doing so, made Chinese news history by demonstrating the power of microblogging. These efforts by the Chinese media eventually brought a small measure of justice to the Zhong family.

Phoenix Weekly reporter Deng Fei is a leading microblogger. Photo by Ying Chan.

Resources for Investigative Reporters
What happened in Yihuang offered sobering lessons for the Chinese government and the public. In recent years the forced requisition of land and the destruction of homes have pitted Chinese citizens against local authorities. While party leaders in Beijing have repeatedly issued orders to ban such forced demolition, local government officials continue to act recklessly, and the Yihuang affair was a particularly egregious example.

Last year The Beijing News exposed audacious land practices in Pizhou in Jiangsu Province. There, the government had submerged thousands of acres of farmland by diverting a river. Then government officials attempted to hide their misdeeds by blanketing areas of illegal land development throughout the city with black plastic netting to deceive the remote sensing satellites of the Ministry of Land and Resources. The reporting about this drew the attention of central government leaders. Following its publication, Political Bureau Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang and Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu ordered an investigation that uncovered staggering abuses in Pizhou.

There were other investigative stories in 2010 that are notable for the government abuse they brought to light, including these:

  • Guangdong’s Southern Metropolis Daily and Caijing magazine reported on another appalling situation involving Anyuanding, a private security firm with strong official backing from party leaders. It was operating a network of “black jails” in Beijing, which involved the acceptance of payments from local governments throughout China to round up and lock up those petitioners who came to Beijing. Prisoners in these facilities were abused and tortured as their jailers were found to be acting beyond the law.
  • When a fire tore through a high-rise residential building in Shanghai in November, Century Weekly magazine, led by former Caijing editor in chief, delivered an in-depth report about the causes of the tragedy. The story revealed that the redevelopment project never went through an open bidding process.

In the wake of Hu’s departure, Caijing has tried to keep up its reputation of hard-nosed reporting. For example, it did a special report on 120 corrupt officials who were found guilty over a 23-year period, ending in 2010. The magazine’s relentless probing for the underlying causes of China’s ubiquitous corruption has amounted to an indictment of the political system. Chinese journalists also continue to report on the country’s many environmental issues—in the face of government officials’ attempts at censorship and efforts to suppress bad news, whether the story involved an oil leak or a disaster in a gold mine. Public health issues remain a frequent target of journalistic enterprise, such as the reporting that revealed the deaths and disabilities of children after the use of tainted vaccines in Shanxi and brought to public attention the melamine that had been put in milk and infant formula that led to thousands of children becoming sick and some dying.

Microblogging: The People’s Power

There was more vital investigative work accomplished by Chinese journalists in 2010 than can be summarized in this brief story. What is exciting to report is that in a year filled with intense pressures and tightening restrictions on journalists, reporters from party-run media and the market-oriented press made important inroads and did so with professional grit and idealism.

Yet the challenges journalists confront remain daunting. As state power expands, it often is applied arbitrarily. Editors who step out of line are fired as the propaganda ministry tightens its control of the editorial decision-making process. All of this is done with an ongoing lack of transparency. As commercial pressures increase, more avenues of professional corruption open up for reporters. Two paid-for cover-ups on the rise are the red envelopes containing cash given as a reward for cooperation and “shut-up fees” for not reporting news.

On the positive side, technology is serving journalists well. Our new communications tool—the microblog—releases news in real time and at high speed. Because the microblogged story is told in fragments as information becomes available, it is difficult to censor. It is fair to say that Chinese journalists are now universally aware of the power of the microblog. Chinese new media expert Bei Feng has described the medium as “fragmented and decentralized communications.” Journalist and blogger Xiao Shu has said that “observation is a power unto itself, capable of changing China through all-encompassing attention.”

Qian Gang, my co-director at the China Media Project, launched his microblog on this past May, and within five months had 1.7 million people following what he posts. Some of those 1.7 million readers will share his posts with other people so this means that his broadcast power surpasses that of many newspapers.

In January, a call went out through two of China’s major microblogging platforms— and—asking people in China to share photographs of children working as street beggars. The idea is to enable families to locate abducted children by recognizing them, or the children could be identified through police databases. This is another example of how microblogs are becoming a dominant method of spreading word about sensitive topics.

Value of Exposure

On a balmy winter day in late December, I met the intrepid journalist Deng Fei and three other reporters over lunch in a restaurant in Sanlitun, Beijing’s latest trendy hangout. We mused about the media scene, their work, and the odds we face in doing these kinds of stories. As we chatted, Deng checked the news with his computer, answered phone calls, and sent short messages with his phone from @dengfei. In Beijing, free wireless is now common at newer restaurants, or people use 3G to get online at an affordable monthly charge of less than $20.

We live in an era when we receive and dispatch news anytime and anywhere, a time when the human spirit and information flow like running water, gathering and dispersing with warp speed. How can bureaucrats suppress such forces of nature?

Sober, but feeling confident, my friends talk about how they compete while also sharing news tips and watching out for each other amidst the hazards of reporting. The camaraderie they experience and the pride they feel are palpable. Last year Deng dug into stories such as the spread of AIDS from Henan to neighboring provinces. A few years ago the province’s largely unregulated blood-selling operations led to roughly one million people being infected, and at the time the government made intense efforts to prevent reporters from telling the story and police intimidated those who tried. Deng also used microblogging to investigate the wave of suicides among migrant workers at the electronics manufacturing plant owned by Foxconn. His words reached his nearly 2.45 million followers, and the number of those signing up for his posts continues to grow.

As market competition intensifies, investigative journalism is now regarded as a shared value among national and regional newspapers. A reporter’s job is to expose corruption and to uncover the dark forces of society, my friends agreed, and a newspaper has to do these kinds of deep investigations to establish its reputation among the people. There is no going back.

Ying Chan, a 1996 Nieman Fellow, established the Journalism and Media Studies Center in 1999 at the University of Hong Kong, where she teaches. She also set up its master of journalism program, launched Hong Kong’s first fellowships for working journalists, and forged extensive ties between the University of Hong Kong and the news industry. She received a George Polk Award for coverage during her time working at New York’s Daily News and an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment