Over the past few months, those who thought the state of Chinese journalism couldn’t possibly get any worse have sadly been proven wrong. A few weeks ago China’s chief censorship agency told Chinese reporters that they can’t pass information on to their foreign counterparts, nor can they independently publicize stories they find through their work. This is on top of newly required courses in Marxist journalism (AKA journalism that props up the Party). While it’s unlikely these regulations can or will be universally enforced, the intended message to journalists is clear: fall in line and keep your heads down.
This all fits with Xi Jinping’s overall approach since assuming power of squashing every hint of potential challenge. In the Telegraph, a well-known journalism professor recently estimated that “the number of journalists responsible for ‘independent, public-interest, negative or sensitive’ reports has fallen by 66 percent in the last three years.” This fits exactly with what I’ve seen. Among all the Chinese reporters I knew who were doing real investigative journalism two years ago, all but a few have shifted to more vanilla beats or left the field altogether.
Once upon a time, it was good to be an investigative journalist in China. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we saw arguably the best officially sanctioned media atmosphere in PRC history. Muckraking private outlets like Caijing and Economic Observer sprouted up. Investigative journalist Wang Keqin came to prominence with stories on AIDS villages and securities fraud. And the Southern Media Group did a series of hard-hitting reports that actually prompted changes to long-standing government policies.
However, when Hu Jintao came to power in 2002, a gradual regression began to take shape. New rules against cross-provincial reporting emerged that culled watchdog media; a few editors in the Southern Media Group were slapped with lengthy prison sentences on trumped up charges; Caijing was put under pressure, prompting its star editor-in-chief Hu Shuli to jump ship; and Wang Keqin was unceremoniously pushed out of two separate newspapers.
Xi Jinping’s new government now appears to be accelerating this trend. But politics is only half of the story in the regression of Chinese journalism.
The internet has had the same disruptive effect on traditional media in China that it has in much of the rest of the world. Weibo, WeChat and a host of other social media sites, blogs and pseudo media have sprung up, grabbing market share from the traditional press. This is coupled with independent watchdog papers being watered down. The same provocative stories officials don’t want printed are usually the same ones that make people buy the papers. When repressive politics meet disruptive technology, it means tight budgets for independent papers that don’t get government subsidies. This trickles down to journalists who see their income squeezed and jobs cut.
One implication of this is journalists from respected independent media getting funneled out and ending up at state media (where they can have more money and better resources, but more ideological oversight and censorship). I’ve known of a few journalists that couldn’t bring themselves to leave journalism – either out of passion or because they lacked the skillset to go into another industry – so they reluctantly took jobs at state media after work at independent outlets dried up.
But what looks to be an even more acute implication of the current media atmosphere is good reporters getting pushed out of the industry completely. One of my former Economic Observer bosses, who’s been reporting for the past two decades, recently reflected on trends of the past few years saying that we’re seeing perhaps the biggest media brain drain ever. “People with dignity and passion get driven out of the newspaper business,” he told me.
In 2012, Jian Guanzhou, the reporter who’d broken the Sanlu milk powder scandal four years earlier, drove this point home when he finally decided to call it quits. “I have been at the Oriental Morning Post for 10 years, during which I have poured the most precious years of my youth, my sorrow, my dreams and feelings into the purest of ideals,” he wrote on Weibo. “Now my ideal is dead, so I’ll get going. Take care, brothers!”
Working within China’s tightening media system entails an endless stream of moral dilemmas. If a story could be killed for political reasons, for instance, it might make a reporter think twice about pursuing it in the first place. In most cases, they get paid based on how much they publish. If the story isn’t published, they don’t get paid for it. Even if they’re willing to risk their necks to investigate and print these sensitive stories, the scope of allowable topics is shrinking, leading to moral and financial frustration. Many just can’t do it anymore and quit journalism to go into something more stable or morally straightforward. On the grand scale, as this happens and honest reporters with a moral compass get sifted out, corrupt and sycophantic peers take over.
There are no meaningful statistics, but in talking to several Chinese journalist friends over the past few months, there seems to be a feeling that the entire industry is getting dirtier. Making money through good honest reporting is a lot harder than it once was, meaning the allure of taking bribes and colluding with (or extorting) special interests becomes greater. So there may be some semblance of legitimacy to the government’s ostensible drive to “clean up” the media.
A sullying of the industry may be the downside, but this atmosphere is certainly conducive to keeping the CCP unchallenged. The days when the Party had to seriously worry about shutting down watchdog newspapers and clipping the wings of renegade reporters might be drawing to a close. Instead, it can just watch the papers struggle to stay afloat and the journalists sort themselves into less threatening positions…or out of the industry completely.
There are of course plenty of fantastic Chinese reporters still out there pushing what they can for the pittance they get in return. One friend reporting in the Southern Media Group recently told me that the tightening atmosphere makes him regret not pushing harder in earlier years when things were more open. But this is the new reality, which only looks to hold more heartbreak ahead. “For us reporters, new changes must happen,” he told me. “I just don’t know how they’ll go.”