“When I saw the reporter in prison uniform and handcuffs making his confession, I realized that there is no future in becoming a journalist in China. I will choose another profession.”
Wang Liming is a student of international journalism at a university in Zhuhai. Like her classmates, she was astonished to see the confession of Chen Yongzhou, a reporter of the New Express of Guangzhou, on Oct. 26. His head was shaved, like a prisoner beginning his sentence.
Just a week before, Wang and other students were praising Chen as a model of the investigative journalist they wish to imitate — someone who dared to write a lengthy expose of the lies of a powerful state company and was backed by a newspaper editor who dared to publish it.
Instead, Chen’s confessions seemed to reveal the worst aspects of Chinese journalism – publishing articles for money which is shared among journalists and editors alike and refusing to admit it.
Here is a summary of what happened. From September 2012, New Express, a medium-size paper under the Yangcheng Evening News, ran 18 articles about Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Co. Ltd. (01157.HK, 000157.CN), one of China’s biggest manufacturers of heavy equipment which is based in Changsha, capital of Hunan. Of the 18, 14 were under Chen’s byline.
The articles said that Zoomlion had inflated its profits and committed other accounting irregularities. They led to a drop in the price of its shares listed in Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
In July this year, the company accused Chen of false reporting and conspiracy and published his personal information on the internet. On Sept. 9, Zoomlion asked the Changsha police to take action. On Oct. 18, they detained Chen at a police station in Guangzhou and drove him in a black Mercedes to Changsha.
On two successive days, his newspaper carried a dramatic front page with the headline “Please release him”. This rare direct challenge to the police moved many people, including Wang and her classmates. Then, on the morning of Oct. 26, came the dramatic “confession”. The editor and president of New Express was dismissed to take responsibility.
Wang’s reaction was common to many Chinese who are skeptical of what they see in the official media.
“I do not know if he took money or not. That is not the issue,” she said. “The issue is that Chen was left to swing alone. At the end, no-one supported him and he will receive a long prison term. He was sacrificed to placate powerful interests. Who dares to be an investigative journalist in China? Who dares to take that risk?”
During the last 20 years, journalism in China has taken enormous strides. Go to a newspaper stall in any major city and you find a dazzling and colorful selection of newspapers and magazines, on subjects from fashion, health and tourism to finance, sport, literature and international news.
In the West, the traditional media is in sharp decline; many famous and historic titles have closed. In China, on the other hand, the media is in robust financial health, with millions of yuan pouring in for advertisements, especially from companies selling property, cars and consumer goods.
Taboos remain on reporting social and political issues; but, among serious subjects, business journalism is the most open. Much credit for this must go to Hu Shuli, the lady journalist who founded the Caijing (Finance and Business) magazine in 1998 and forbade her staff to accept the red envelopes that were and are everyday practice in Chinese journalism.
In November 2009, she and 90 percent of the magazine’s journalists left to set up Century News. Her two magazines have been pioneers in business journalism, especially investigative reporting, often “on the white edge of the ping pong table”, as the Chinese saying goes.
She has inspired many, like Wang Liming, to believe that the media can play an important role in reporting the complex world of business in China – its extraordinary successes and ground-breaking entrepreneurs as well as its malpractices, false accounting and the links between business and power.
Century News sees itself as constructive: encouraging the business world, often chaotic and corrupt, into following rules, standards and ethical standards and build on the achievements of the last three decades.
Most sensitive is investigative reporting, especially of large and powerful state companies, like Zoomlion. A red line not to be crossed is reporting those firms controlled by family and associates of senior leaders. Editors must make judgements not only on the accuracy and legality of the text but also on whether they have sufficient political backing: who will protect them in the event of a backlash?
The editors of New Express miscalculated. It sets a fearful precedent for those who dare to do investigative journalism.
Mark O’Neill, a Hong Kong-based journalist and author, writes on Greater China. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.