Wang Keqin and China’s revolution in investigative journalism
Death threats from criminals and official wrath fail to silence zealous watchdog journalists
Tania Branigan in Beijing
To the usual journalistic armoury (famously, ratlike cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability), Wang Keqin has added an extra element: the small, red-smudged, battered metal tin that he carries to each interview.
Inside is a sponge soaked in scarlet ink. Like a detective, the 45-year-old reporter compiles witness statements. Then he secures fingerprints at the bottom to confirm agreement.
It is a mark of the thoroughness that has made him China’s best-known investigative journalist, breaking a string of stories that have earned him renown, but also death threats from criminals and wrath from officials.
“The other side is usually much stronger. You have to make the evidence iron-cast,” he said, tapping the tin.
That is not always enough. Last week his boss was removed as the editor of China Economic Times following Wang’s report linking mishandled vaccines to the deaths and serious illnesses of children in Shaanxi province. Bao Yuehang has been shunted to a minor sister company. Shaanxi officials have claimed the report was wrong; Wang has reportedly said they did not investigate properly, although he declined to comment when contacted by the Guardian.
It is the latest case to highlight the zeal of China’s watchdog journalists – and the challenges facing them.
Wang’s CV echoes the development China’s mainstream media: from life as a propagandist to a role as a watchdog – albeit one on a sturdy chain. He started his career as an official in western Gansu province in the mid-80s – “a very easy shortcut to wealth and status”, he observed, in an interview conducted before the vaccines controversy.
He recalled the propaganda stories he used to churn out – “like accountants working under the leadership of the Communist party with a red heart” – and how he cobbled together articles for local media for a bit of extra cash. But as residents sought him out with their problems, he found his conscience stirring. “They enthusiastically welcomed me into their homes, told me their stories and looked at me with high expectations. As a 20-year-old it was the first time I was paid so much attention and I felt a great responsibility. I had to tell their story.”
By 2001 he was “China’s most expensive reporter”: not a reference to his salary or lifestyle – he still works from a small, dingy room in his paper’s nondescript offices in outer Beijing – but to the mammoth price put on his head for exposing illegal dealings in local financial markets. Soon afterwards another report enraged local officials and cost him his job.
“I had problems with black society [gangs], and problems with red society [officials],” Wang said. “I heard there was a special investigation team, [with the target of] sending me to prison.”
Shunned by friends and former colleagues, he was saved by an extraordinary intervention. An internal report on his travails, written by an acquaintance at state news agency Xinhua, reached Zhu Rongji, then China’s premier, who stepped in to protect the journalist.
That was in what many Chinese journalists see as a golden age, when an increasingly gutsy press began to root out scandals and abuses. But in 2004, the authorities responded with tough restrictions on media organisations reporting from areas where they are not based. Though the restrictions are widely ignored, journalists say they have allowed officials to impede investigations and stamp down on the burgeoning of watchdog reporting.
Add Beijing’s drive to promote a “harmonious” image of China, and the increasing closeness of economic and political influence, and many are pessimistic. “Today, investigative reporting has become a ‘rare metal’; not only power but capital is oppressing it,” said Qian Gang, formerly managing editor of the progressive newspaper Southern Weekend and now at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project. Some argue that in recent years even state media have offered swifter, fuller coverage of breaking news and touched on more sensitive topics. But to David Bandurski, also of the project, that merely reflects the government’s strategy of actively guiding public thinking. “Control is moving behind the scenes,” he said. “In fact, there is less journalists can do than two or three years ago … On the face of it you can do these things, but practically you cannot.”
When the scandal of tainted baby milk broke in 2008, one frustrated editor blogged that his paper had known of the danger but been unable to expose it.
While Beijing sometimes encourages watchdog reporting, it still approved the cross-region rule, said Bandurski: “You can talk all you want about how local officials are the problem and central government wants to fight local corruption and be the good guy. Well, then send a very strong message.”
Yet within these constraints, determined journalists fight for – and find – the space to work. “What decides whether you can do something is not what the law or policy says, but a whole set of other circumstances – who are you connected to; what someone says at a certain time that gives you cover to go after a certain story,” said Bandurski.
Younger reporters have grown up with role models such as Wang. And in a commercialised media sphere, competitive pressures create a real incentive to break edgy stories.
Li Datong, ousted as editor of Freezing Point magazine in 2006, said the media are able to do more, “not because the government loosened its control, but because the society as a whole is becoming more mature.” When earthquakes rocked Sichuan two years ago, and Qinghai last month, many editors ignored orders not to send reporters.
The internet has also amplified the voice of the mainstream media. Many journalists use personal blogs to publish material censored from their reports.
But journalists know that misjudging the opaque and shifting boundaries can damage or end careers, or their publications. And there are new challenges. Zhou Ze, a journalist-turned-lawyer who is tallying physical attacks and other pressure on the media, said a major concern was officials’ changing tactics to tackle critics.
“In recent years bribery and blackmail accusations have increased,” he said. “When you say it’s defamation, people [ask] what was written in the story and whether it was true. If you say it’s bribery or blackmail, it paints the journalist in a very negative light – people assume they have lost their ethics and they won’t get public support.”
Readers have good cause for suspicion. Corruption is rife; salaries are low and payment to attend press conferences the norm. Bungs to ensure favorable coverage or bury negative stories are common and have produced “fake journalists”, who threaten to report industrial accidents unless paid off.
Wang condemns the blackmailers but fears the bigger problem is “fake news”: propaganda, political or commercial, in the guise of journalism.
In a country where citizens have few ways of holding those with power to account, tough and reliable reporting is all the more essential. Wang has covered topics from land seizures to dangerous mines and the spread of HIV through blood transfusions. Zhou fears fewer reporters will dare to tackle such issues, and that the public will pay the price. “If reporters’ rights cannot be protected, the rights of ordinary citizens cannot be,” he said.
Press under pressure
November 2009 Hu Shuli, the editor of influential business magazine Caijing, resigns over issues reportedly including its coverage of sensitive current affairs stories. She has since founded another publication, Caixin.
December 2009 The editor of Southern Weekend, one of China’s most influential newspapers, is demoted weeks after an exclusive interview with Barack Obama. The decision was said to be due to the anger of censors.
March 2010 Thirteen Chinese newspapers publish a rare joint editorial calling for reform and the eventual abolition of the household registration system. It was removed from websites and authorities reportedly issued stern warnings to the paper which initiated the project.
May 2010 Bao Yueyang, chief editor and publisher of China Economic Times, is demoted to a smaller sister company after defending reporter Wang Keqin’s report linking wrongly stored vaccines to child deaths and sickness. The article caused a stir when it appeared but was quickly played down by other media outlets on censors’ instructions.