China’s most famous investigative journalist works in obscurity out of a cluttered, closet-sized room on the second floor of a small office building on the outskirts of Beijing.
That Wang Keqin works at all is a wonder. He is one in a scarce breed of devoted watchdog journalists who are managing to keep the craft alive amidst stepped up censorship by China’s government.
They are succeeding in no small part by using social media to communicate directly with their readers. Unlike their Western counterparts, who might Tweet as an afterthought to an investigative project, social media sometimes are the only means for Chinese reporters to publish the truth about sensitive stories.
“In a country where the media is controlled by the government, the Internet has become an important, unprecedented, and huge platform to break censorship and pass the truth to the public,” Wang said through a translator in a recent interview in his office at the China Economic Times, where he is the chief reporter on a six-person investigative team.
The China Economic Times is a national, full-coverage newspaper with a special focus on the economy. As with all Chinese media, the publication is owned by the government.
Officially, the Chinese Communist Party authorizes, even encourages investigative reporting under a policy known as “yulun jiandu,” which refers to the press’s role as societal watchdog — and explains why a paper like Wang’s is allowed to set up an I-Team. The policy emerged in the 1980s as a way to keep corruption and social ills in check during China’s transformation to a free-market economy.
But after a brief experiment with semi-independent investigative reporting, officials clamped down after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which they blamed in part on media-fanned unrest. The government further tightened its grip in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Party leaders wanted to present a positive image of China to the world, and investigative reporting by definition exposes problems. The Olympics came and went, but the restrictions remain.
Today, Chinese journalists estimate that anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of investigative stories are killed, usually via a phone call to the editor just before deadline. The target of the story might use connections to get provincial officials or the central government’s propaganda department to quash the story. Or Communist leaders might order the piece be withheld to preserve “social harmony” – a justification used so often that “harmonized” is a euphemism for censored in newsrooms.
Along the wall to the right of Wang’s desk are teetering columns of mustard-yellow envelopes, each one stuffed with documents, photos and interview notes – the evidence of traditional shoe-leather reporting, some for stories that made it past the censors and others that didn’t. (Another Chinese investigative reporter described the unpublished pieces as “stones in my heart.”)
Wang has managed to publish stories that revealed a high incidence of HIV in Hebei Province, widespread corruption in taxi licensing in Beijing, and shoddy construction that led to collapse of buildings in the 2008 earthquake.
The impact of the earthquake investigation took officials by surprise, and the Central Propaganda Department recalled all copies of the China Economic Times. Last summer, his editor was fired in the wake of an investigation that linked the deaths of four children to unrefrigerated vaccines.
Government retaliation has had a chilling effect in newsrooms across China, making it harder to get potentially controversial stories into print or on air.
But Wang finds hope in the white-blue flicker of the screen of his desktop computer and the beep of his cell phone. On this morning, both have yielded tips on the latest in a wave of attacks on citizens who refuse to yield their property to government officials for development.
“In recent years, China has undergone rapid urbanization. Many cities are pulling down old buildings to construct new ones. But in this process, problems occur: Old houses are pulled down brutally or by violence. Many people have been injured or even killed in attacks.
One of the tips came in on his micro-blog. Twitter is not available in China, so Wang uses a different but similar service.
The tipster reported that “a person was killed in a brutal house demolition in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province,” Wang said, adding that “my blog and micro-blog are sources of information that provide me with the latest news in an incredible amount. I often get tips on the Internet,” he said, noting that his followers post details, photos and other evidence of wrongdoing
But social media also serve another important role: They carry stories to the public that he can’t get in the paper . By the time the censors have blocked his website, the long tail of the Web has ensured that the information is disseminated on many other URLs – so many that trying to block them becomes an impossible game of whack-a-mole.
“Blogs and mini-blogs are truly revolutionizing the way we work. It has become an important tool in our work,” Wang said, before dispatching a reporter to the latest scene of an assault. “In China, news is censored. The newspaper I work for is also censored. But the Internet has created an unprecedented space for Chinese people to voice their opinions and exchange information, including what the press cannot cover. It is hard to censor the Internet as strictly as traditional media. So when we cannot report certain delicate issues in traditional media, we are still able to tell that story on blogs, micro-blogs and online forums.”
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Li-Fung Cho, “The Emergence of china’s Watchdog Reporting,” Investigative Journalism in China (Hong Kong University Press 2010). Tong, Jingrong and Sparks, Colin, “Investigative Journalism in China Today,” Journalism Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3, 337-352. “China Bars All Reporting on Deadly Explosion in Xinjian, Aug. 20, 2010, International Federation of Journalists. Branigan, Tania, “Wang Keqin and China’s revolution in investigative journalism,” guardian.co.uk, May 23, 2010.