The return of activist journalism in China

By Haiyan Wang

We journalists in China live in a paradoxical universe. There is much you in the west know that we do not, though some of it we can pick up from those websites to which we have access. We pick up news, for example, about the fate of Bo Xilai, the former party secretary of Chongqing, now held – somewhere – for investigation over “serious disciplinary violations”. But we cannot report on it; cannot report the divisions that western media say are appearing in the leadership. We could not even report the sacking of Mr Bo in March (the front page story in the Financial Times!).

Yet it is true Chinese journalism has changed greatly since Deng Xiaoping decreed in the 1980s that the media could be partly privatised and thus had to respond more to the wishes of their audience. A new generation of journalists, of whom I am one, sees its task as truthful journalism, exposing corruption and other crimes, and offering independent analysis of society.

There have been many examples of successful investigative reporting. The much-cited “landmark” success was the exposure of the death of Sun Zhigang, a graduate who came to the southern city of Guangzhou in March 2003. He was picked up, put in a detention camp and beaten to death. I remember the excitement of my colleagues on Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolitan Daily, the paper most committed to investigative journalism in China, when it reported the case – which in the end led to the abolition of a bad law. They predicted it would be a “turning point” in often timid Chinese journalism, and believed that investigative reporting could be a powerful engine of social change.

There have been other examples – revelations of tainted milk, workers held in slave-like conditions, villagers compelled to relocate. The media managed to expose the real death toll, which the government had tried hard to cover up, during the 2003 outbreak of the Sars virus.

But investigative journalism in China was never independent and is less so now. Indeed, its effect has always been contradictory. Media exposés often result in punishment of officials responsible for corruption or for a miscarriage of justice: but the journalists who undertake the investigation are often punished too. In the Sun case, officials were punished, the law was changed – and three journalists went to jail.

The past two years have been especially frustrating. Investigations are often closed down and reporters fired. The growing list of dismissed journalists even includes Wang Keqin, one of the nation’s most famous investigative journalists.

Many young reporters who came to expect more in the last decade are frustrated and seeking to revive an activist tradition. Crusading journalists such as scholar and translator Wang Tao (1828-97); Liang Qichao (1873-1929), “the greatest figure in Chinese journalism”; and his tutor, Kang Youwei (1858-1927), used their profession as a platform to advocate social and political change. Today, China is undergoing another transition: the state of society demands the return of activist journalism.

A handful of reform-minded reporters have already extended their activities beyond traditional news. They see themselves as both detached observers and engaged organisers of social movements. They have appeared at public events such as successful protests against the paraxylene plant in the southeastern city of Xiamen in 2007; the (also successful) protests in 2008-09 against the internet censoring system known as Green Dam; and the investigation in 2010-11 into the death of social activist Qian Yunhui. They have even appeared at events such as the recent uprising in the southern village of Wukan, where mainstream journalists were rarely seen. There are parallels between their activism and that of the young activists and bloggers in the Arab spring; and in the popularity of figures as diverse as blogger-activists Alexei Navalny in Russia and Beppe Grillo in Italy.

Their names sometimes appear still in the licensed newspapers or broadcasters but they are also in underground newspapers, independent documentaries, alternative publications and, most prominently, online. In the past decade, reform-minded journalists have vigorously pursued so-called “investigative journalism”; tighter limits now push them into activism. This will be one of the front lines in this new age of political uncertainty. We are determined not to retreat.

Haiyan Wang is a former investigative reporter for the Southern Metropolitan Daily in Guangzhou. She wrote this with John Lloyd, FT contributing editor

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