Two-thousand-and-three was a milestone year for investigative journalism in China. Some media organizations had been transformed from Communist Party propaganda tools into market-oriented news outlets. The Party line had weakened while market influences strengthened, leaving many journalists with an expectation of a new wave of semi-independent journalism.
There had just been a change of leadership, with Hu Jintao taking over as president. In response to the SARS pandemic, the central government launched new laws and new accountability systems, igniting hopes for responsible and transparent governance. Market-oriented news outlets like the weekly magazine Caijing and the daily newspaper Southern Metropolis News expanded coverage.
In April of 2003, Southern Metropolis News published a story about Sun Zhigang, 27, a graphic designer who was picked up by police during a random identity check and died in custody, after being attacked by staff and inmates. The story caused a national outcry, the first mass protest in China’s budding online space. The detention and repatriation regulation, under which Sun had been held, was abolished, and a decade of rights advocacy began. The market-oriented media and new private online ventures opened up an alternative space where people could express their opinions outside official discourse.
Ten years later, with Xi Jinping now president, those advances are being reversed. In December, Chinese authorities charged free speech activists who protested outside the Southern Media Group’s offices with public order offenses. The media group—which owns Southern Weekly, one of the most liberal newspapers in China—has been criticized for allegedly providing evidence to the police that the protests were interfering with their operations. The claim, which many believe is false, seems designed to tarnish the paper’s moral image.
The press is under political as well as economic pressure. The experience of Chen Yongzhou is a case in point. A respected journalist working for Guangdong’s New Express, Chen was arrested in October after he had reported alleged corruption at a state-owned construction equipment company. As the New Express and other media outlets were showing solidarity with Chen, he confessed on TV that he had been bribed to report false information. Though some feared Chen had been tortured into making a confession, he and the New Express went from being victims to being loathed across China.
For market-oriented media, cost cutting and declining advertising revenues have contributed to a lack of newsroom protection and a drop in professionalism and ethical standards. Economic interests are pushing aside the public interest. Now, just as a decade ago, market-oriented media face a turning point, this time for the worse. Communist Party outlets will continue to receive financial support from the Party itself.
Private online media are boldly exploring new applications, new platforms, and new services to meet the needs of a new generation of consumers. But the space market-oriented media have traditionally occupied is being squeezed by government censorship on the one hand and declining economic viability on the other. The golden age is over. The next decade, if there is one, will be precarious.
Hu Yong is an associate professor at Peking University’s School of Journalism and Communication. He has worked for China Daily and China Central Television