Dispatch

China’s Top Muckrakers Stop Digging

China’s Top Muckrakers Stop Digging

There are no pyres of magazines burning, no information police combing the newsstands every morning. Magazine censorship in China is banal. Almost all of the control has long been done in-house before publication, by reporters and editors who know just how far they can and cannot go. The closest many private magazines get to an official censor is someone they call "Teacher," sent from their own publishing houses, to patrol content.

But these days, it’s not just editors who are drawing in the lines. It’s the investors — the owners and backers of China’s few independent media outlets. And there is no better example than Caijing, China’s leading business magazine, for which I used to work as a sub-editor. The magazine, whose name means "finance and economics," earned its muckraking stripes with exposés of everything from corporate fraud and insider trading to the government’s handling of the SARS outbreak. Editor in chief Hu Shuli was recently profiled in The New Yorker; the piece emphasized her savvy, which has ensured the financial magazine’s survival and kept her and her reporters out of jail since she founded Caijing in 1998. The trick was knowing just how far stories could go and not taking them any further.

So when the magazine tightened the breadth of its coverage at the end of July, it was not the editorial side but the purse strings calling for caution. The source of the pressure, Caijing reporters told me, was the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, the party-led organization of businessmen that holds the magazine’s publishing license. The change was passed down matter-of-factly at routine weekly meetings in July, sandwiched in along with the news budget. Many desk editors told reporters they wouldn’t be running any politically controversial stories — indefinitely.

The move at Caijing comes as part of a larger constriction of civil society ahead of the 60-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on Oct. 1. In the case of Caijing,  the editorial chill came from an unlikely source: reform-minded and Columbia University-educated Wang Boming, the very investor who launched the magazine with a phone call asking Hu Shuli to be editor in chief a decade ago. Wang, a party scion, was born in Poland, where his father was the Chinese ambassador.

Wang declined to be interviewed, but he has said that he aspires to turn the holdings group that publishes Caijing — as well as the Chinese editions of PC Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and Better Homes and Gardens – into one of China’s biggest advertising agencies. Which may be exactly why a push — or a threat —  from the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce had such an effect. China’s media licensing structure makes it nearly impossible to get a license without major guanxi, or connections to officials in the right places. Private or foreign-invested magazines (like Caijing) often "rent" licenses from state-owned institutions, which means that those institutions end up taking responsibility for any politically risky material — but investors lose the money if trouble brews.

According to the New Yorker, Hu Shuli agreed to run the magazine in 1998 only under the condition that Wang would keep his hands off the editorial side. This may be the first time in 11 years that he has failed to do so. "I’ve never heard of him interfering before," one longtime Caijing reporter said of Wang. "I’ve never seen this happen. We already knew what we can publish and what we can’t."

Indeed, Caijing reporters and editors pride themselves on knowing the rules of their game; they credit the magazine’s survival to playing by them. The untouchables are known among foreign media as "the three T’s and one F": Tiananmen, Tibet, Taiwan, and the Falun Gong. Jeremy Goldkorn, who runs a Web site about Chinese media called Danwei.org, adds, "You don’t directly criticize central government and top leaders, and you don’t question their legitimacy. You can criticize lower-down officials, specific actions, and talk about local problems." The rules are blurry enough and enforced arbitrarily enough to keep everybody on their toes.

So after years of policing themselves, how did reporters at Caijing react to their main investor’s decree? With a mix of ambivalence and apathy — always citing the move as an "internal" decision. After placing several calls to one former colleague, I had nearly given up on interviewing him. He was probably too afraid to talk, I thought, and the last thing I wanted to do was get him in trouble. But he finally explained the policy shift on the phone from a crowded bus at rush hour. "It’s not a big deal!" he said, yelling over traffic noise and the intermittent, robotic voice announcing each bus stop. "It’s just that somebody up top felt uncomfortable, so Caijing decided to limit reporting on politics and social issues." He guessed it could curtail 20 to 30 percent of the magazine’s articles.

The reporter was not only blasé; he was relieved: "They said to take it easy, so we finally get time to relax, go on vacation." He couldn’t even remember where and when he first heard of the change, but before hanging up, he reminded me not to use his name.

Already, the two most provocative columns, "Opinion Leader" and "Debate," have disappeared from the Web site. "An editor said it’s just to adjust the layout, but as far as we know, it’s because we need to be more cautious in what we say and what we write," a third reporter said. "It’s to protect ourselves. … If officials say [they] don’t like what we say, we have to change topics. Otherwise we may have to close our business. Now we are trying to publish just financial and economic stories; no one knows for how long."

But in a state-run economy with no clean division between politics and business, focusing only on economics means that reporters can’t expose financial corruption, the very stories that made the reputation of Caijing in the first place. In the same week as the policy shift was announced to reporters, editors delayed a cover story about how rioting steelworkers in central China beat to death the executive in charge of privatizing the Tonghua steel mill. Originally slated for the cover, it was replaced by one on water prices and moved to the next issue.

Even before the latest move, the stakes in reporting such stories have always been high. As an eerie cautionary tale, the similarly named Caijing Shibao went out of business last year after its reporters investigated millions of dollars worth of suspicious cash transfers at a state-run bank. No editorial staff went to jail, but the penalty of three months without advertising income was expensive enough for its owner, media mogul Bruno Wu, to shut the publication down permanently, laying off 70 people. One dose of censorship like that is enough to sour every other newsroom sitting on a big exposé.

Yet to many reporters, the censorship itself seemed not up for discussion. Out of 10 editorial members I spoke with, four seemed unaware of a change. The one reporter in Shanghai who was rumored to have resigned in protest of the tightened self-censorship would neither deny nor confirm his reasons for leaving the company. "It’s not appropriate to talk about," he said, asking, "Where did you get my number?" Having sworn my source to protective secrecy as well, I declined to say.

In a circle of silence, most editorial staff who were even informed of the change either cautioned me against writing about their tightened editorial constraints or said they were no big deal — sometimes both in the same interview. Two reporters repeatedly said "self-discipline" when they meant "self-censorship." As one told me, "Caijing is a very self-disciplined media outlet."

Correction: This article originally stated that the author worked as an editor at Caijing. She worked as a sub-editor. FP regrets the error.