The Beijing Taxi Corruption Case
On June 28, 2002, the staff for the weekly supplement of China Economic Times, a leading Chinese business daily, held their routine Friday editorial meeting. Wang Nan, the section’s editor, handed veteran investigative reporter Wang Keqin a pile of research materials, including a document from the newspaper’s parent organization, the Development Research Center (DRC), a policy think-tank under China’s State Council, the country’s chief administrative authority
The DRC document, “An Investigation and Petition on the Plight of Beijing Taxi Drivers,” had been sent over by Guo Lihong, who ran the center’s economics division. It included statements from a few local taxi drivers. While it was common for China Economic Times’ reporters to cite officials from the DRC in their news reports, it was less common for the DRC to send reports directly to the newsroom. Wang Nan suggested Wang Keqin explore a possible news feature about the economic difficulties facing taxi drivers in Beijing. This was indeed news to Wang Keqin, who said he had long assumed taxi drivers fared better than many city residents.
Starting with the DRC report Wang gathered background on the taxi industry. He quickly realized drivers were being charged a whole range of ad hoc fees from taxi companies, which accounted for over 98 percent of the roughly 67,000 taxis on Beijing’s roads. One type of fee was called the “vehicle portion”, and generally meant a driver paid several thousand yuan per month for the right to operate a taxi under the company’s license. In addition to vehicle portions some drivers were forced to pay “risk deposits” amounting to tens of thousands of yuan. Many drivers had effectively fronted the money to pay for their own vehicles, forking out 50 to 100 thousand yuan when they signed their job contracts with the company. Without being licensed for the passenger transport business, drivers had to rely on the companies for vehicle purchases.
Taxi drivers had been vocal about these problems for years. In 1995, one driver had tried to defend his right to own a taxi before a Beijing court. When the court refused to try the case, thousands of drivers staged a strike at the Beijing West Railway Station, bringing traffic to a standstill for several hours. Drivers staged similar strikes in the summers of 1996 and 2000, stalling their cars outside Beijing’s Capital International Airport.
These incidents had brought the industry’s problems to the attention of Chinese leaders, but decisive action had never been taken. Wang found a 2001 article from China Market magazine quoting Premier Zhu Rongji, the head of China’s cabinet as criticizing the nationwide taxi industry before a meeting of Party leaders. According to a researcher cited in the China Market report, Zhu Rongji compared the tactics of taxi companies to those of the Green Gang, a mafia-style crime group that had operated in pre-Communist Shanghai. The premier, said the article, had even sent his wife on an undercover fact-finding mission in which she rode taxis and spoke with drivers about their situation.
By the time Wang Keqin was on the taxi story it was approaching two years since Zhu Rongji’s criticism of taxi companies. Nothing whatsoever seemed to have been done in that time. Wang Keqin learned that several newspapers had tried to put together reports on the issue only to drop them after threats from gangs they suspected were hired by taxi companies. Wang later said he was angered by the media’s lack of action on the story at the time. “If journalists don’t have a conscience, don’t have a sense of humanity, they are totally worthless,” he said.
Wang Keqin also started developing sources among Beijing taxi drivers, a much harder task than he had first expected. He started out by contacting Shao Changliang, one of the drivers listed in the DRC report. Shao was able to put him in touch with other drivers. But many drivers were reluctant to talk to the report. “I don’t care if you’re President Jiang Zemin,” said one driver at a diner popular with local cabbies. “What good can possibly come from the work of one journalist? Why waste an interview?” Wang persisted, conducting one-on-one and group interviews, paying visits to driver’s homes and to popular hangouts. Over the course of three months of reporting he completed interviews with more than 100 drivers. In many cases, he convinced them to sign and fingerprint their statements so they would be admissible in court if necessary. He carried an inkpad everywhere he went. A strong believer in what he calls “comprehensive, impartial and accurate reporting”, Wang Keqin sought to have as many types of evidence as he could for his story – eyewitness accounts, written statements, documentary evidence. Whenever possible he made sure he had original documents. He also sought out multiple originals of similar documents, like taxi registration papers, so he could compare these for accuracy and consistency.
Every driver willing to talk had a story about what his company had put him through. Deng Shaolong, a driver for Beijing Yinjian Taxi Company, told Wang Keqin he had been hospitalized the year before for treatment of a severe perianal abscess (a work-related condition due to sitting for long periods in a vehicle). Although the operation meant he couldn’t work for four months, the taxi company continued to charge his monthly vehicle portion of 5,100 yuan. Just two hours after he was off the operating table, the company sent someone to his bedside to collect.
Drivers for Beijing Wanquansi Taxi Company, one of the city’s largest, produced messy, improvised receipts for various penalties the company had charged them for supposed infractions of all kinds. These were deducted, they said, from hefty “risk deposits” – usually between 30,000 to 80,000 yuan – the drivers had to pay as a condition for their contracts. “The assets of the Beijing Wanquansi Taxi Company were built on fines!” they told Wang Keqin. Every company, they said, had its own set of strict in-house rules designed for the levying of such penalties.
The conditions shocked Wang Keqin. Everyone seemed to know by name drivers who had died of extreme fatigue at the wheel. On a blistering hot night in August, he visited the 90 square-foot apartment of driver Feng Jiyou. Six family members spanning three generations were huddled together there. Despite his early setbacks, Wang was eventually able to build a strong rapport with his taxi driver sources. All eventually allowed him to use their real names in his story, which Wang convinced them was the best way to prove the reliability of their testimony.
Wang Keqin eventually said self-deprecatingly that he had gone out of his way to cut an absurd figure – a small-time reporter, leading a ragged life, fighting for the equitable treatment of taxi drivers who made, on a salary basis, about twice what he did. When assigned to the taxi story, Wang Keqin’s monthly salary was 1,200 yuan (US$145), just enough to cover the barest necessities in a city where a small apartment costs about 1,500 yuan (US$180) a month. Wang could ordinarily expect to supplement his salary with income from published articles – 60 yuan (US$7.25) each. Accepting an investigative assignment that consumed his time meant he would have to get by without.
CULTIVATING THE SOURCE: GOVERNMENT AGENCIES
As Wang Keqin continued to interview taxi drivers he tried to secure interviews with government officials to get their side of the story and find out why the industry was such a mess. The government office most directly involved was the city’s transportation bureau, but the story in fact touched on over 30 agencies, which meant Wang Keqin had a lot of ground to cover. Just getting in the door proved a problem, however.
While a number of local governments in China have issued ordinances on information disclosure in recent years, beginning with Guangzhou in 2003 following the government’s cover up of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, officials still maintain a monopoly on information – they decide what to release, when and how. While these ordinances, and proposed national legislation on disclosure, seek to make openness the practice and secrecy the exception, the reverse is still the rule. There are no laws or regulations granting the media access to official records and government offices can refuse requests out of hand.
All government offices in China have publicity offices set up to disseminate information as suits official needs. These offices cultivate close relationships with beat reporters, who in many cases, media insiders say, will not expose sensitive issues. Government offices look on outside reporters as meddlers. If they are working off their beats or do not have close relationships with the office, this can suggest to officials that they are doing watchdog journalism, or what is called in Chinese “supervision by public opinion”.
Wang Keqin called dozens of officials during his first few weeks on the taxi story. Only three agreed to meet with him, and all of these were arranged with the help of one of Wang Keqin’s acquaintances, a seasoned reporter on the labor beat with good contacts in the city labor department.
Wang made his first attempt to reach officials at the transportation bureau just a few days after he started the story. Zhang Lei, an officer in the bureau’s publicity office, asked China Economic Times to fax over an official interview request. This was the beginning of several weeks of back and forth and foot-dragging. “Our district chief is away from his desk right now,” publicity officers would say, or “Our district chief is in a meeting right now”. Next it would be: “We have already forwarded your information to the Taxi Management Office and are still waiting for an answer.”
The city’s labor bureau, before Wang’s reporter friend stepped in, asked that China Economic Times send over Wang Keqin’s press pass, work visa and a letter of introduction. Wang’s editor faxed over the official letter and said the press pass and work visa were on their way. No sooner had the bureau received the fax than it modified the procedure – “We will also require an official letter from your personnel department concerning the press pass,” they said. The newspaper’s personnel office sent a letter over as requested. The newspaper was told to wait while higher-ups at the bureau were consulted.
Wang Keqin had better success talking to insurance firms, which saw taxi companies as a constant headache. They told him about constant contract violations and illegal insurance scams by taxi companies. Two insurance firms had analysts for the passenger transport industry who briefed Wang on such things as fake insurance policies and illegal taxi permits. According to one analyst, the city’s taxi industry represented an insurance market of over 300 million yuan (US$36 million) a year. The fact that current policies with legitimate insurance firms totaled just one-tenth that amount suggested widespread abuse of regulations mandating all taxis have insurance.
But Wang Keqin was getting nowhere with city officials. Finally, he decided to circumvent the publicity office. The only success he had was getting the head of the transportation bureau’s regulatory office to call him back. While their discussion was brief and not materially helpful, Wang Keqin tried to get a face-to-face interview on the back of this brief exchange. He showed up at the office on July 31. The secretary said her boss was out for the day, but Wang did manage to speak briefly with another employee, who offered a few details about the taxi-related regulations. Wang slipped into the publicity office on his way out, where at last he came face to face with Zhang Lei, the chief stonewaller. It was not a happy meeting. “I suggest you leave now and try reaching us about this later,” Zhang said ominously. “We’ll check and see if Mr. Liang, head of our taxi management office, will agree to meet with you.” It was hopeless arguing with Zhang Lei. Wang left through the main entrance as Zhang watched. Outside, Wang Keqin took a few laps in the courtyard before darting back in and heading straight for the taxi management office.
“I’m here to see Director Liang,” he said as soon as he was through the door.
“That’s not possible, I’m afraid. The publicity office handles news media. We don’t deal directly.”
Wang Keqin could only go back to his old business of pestering Zhang Lei.
Eventually he managed to locate the direct line for Liang Jianwei, the head of the taxi management office. “News is handled by the publicity office. I don’t directly accept interviews,” he said.
As it happened, Director Liang operated his own taxi company and had been mentioned in the China Market article Wang Keqin had stumbled across in his early research, the very same one that mentioned Zhu Rongji’s statement on the industry.
On August 26, nearly two months into his investigation, Wang Keqin received a call from one of the taxi drivers with whom he had become close. “Didn’t you say you‘re finding it hard to reach officials from the transportation bureau? Well, a bunch of us are going there tomorrow to meet with the director, Zhang Yansheng. Why don’t you come along?”
This was Wang Keqin’s best chance so far. They arrived at the bureau at nine the next morning and squatted outside Zhang Yansheng’s office. The office staff repeatedly told them to get lost, but they refused to move until they had seen the director. Two uniformed security guards paced back and forth in the hallway eyeing them closely.
At about half past nine, Director Zhang emerged from a nearby office and told the drivers to wait in an empty conference room. Several minutes later the director returned. He immediately fixed his eyes on Wang Keqin. “Today I’m meeting with drivers only. Are you driver?” her asked sternly.
“I’m a friend of theirs,” said Wang.
“Get out. If you’re not a driver, get the hell out,” Zhang growled.
Wang Keqin refused to budge, but a pair of heavy-set staffers hoisted him by the arms and dragged him forcibly into the hall. He was dropped in a waiting area in an adjacent building and asked to stay put. Thirty minutes later two white-haired cadres came in to commiserate with him. Retired officials like this were often retained by government offices as unofficial negotiators. They told Wang Keqin calmly that a meeting with Director Zhang was not possible.
Looking back on his exposure in the conference room, Wang Keqin said he should have made a greater effort to blend inconspicuously with his friends. He surmised that his ragged man of letter appearance made him stick out like a sore thumb among the drivers. Office employees had probably told Director Zhang to be careful.
CULTIVATING THE SOURCE: TAXI COMPANIES
Getting information from taxi companies was at least as tough as reaching government offices. Wang Keqin phoned more than twenty local taxi companies, but none of the larger ones agreed to meet with him. He tried walking directly into Wanquansi Taxi, one of Beijing’s better known companies, but two guards prevented him from going in. When he insisted on meeting with the boss, the office employees just ridiculed him. Wang Keqin waited nonetheless, until a man reeking of alcohol stumbled out of the back office and stepped right up in his face: “What newspaper did you say you’re from? We don’t want an interview! Get the hell out!” The guards took him by the arms, a replay of his treatment at the transportation bureau, and tossed him outside.
Wang continued to push and eventually spoke with office managers at a few of the smaller taxi companies. His big break came during a meeting with a lower-level transportation official in Pinggu, a district of Beijing. He told Wang Keqin he was annoyed with the city transportation bureau’s unwillingness to address the problems facing taxi drivers. He became more and more animated as they spoke. Wang saw his opening. But gaining the official’s confidence was crucial to his full cooperation. Wang’s answer was to play up China Economic Times’ affiliation with the Development Research Center (DRC), which was directly under China’s State Council. He also spoke about his former career in Gansu Province, as clerical secretary to a provincial official. He said the newspaper and the DRC were conducting an investigation of the taxi industry, and the Pinggu official’s assistance would be beneficial.
Wang Keqin’s de-emphasizing of his media role worked (the reader should remember that in China these lines are always vague). The district official waved his staff into action and requested all taxi companies in his district to cooperate with Wang Keqin’s investigation. In a convoy of official sedans, Wang was whisked off to the first of several interviews. Before long, he was seated comfortably in a conference room, where the table was laid out with green tea and fresh fruit.
The Pinggu official sat in on the meetings as company representatives walked Wang Keqin through their operation methods. They went to several companies, where bosses spoke matter-of-factly about how they had used official regulations to start up taxi companies with little or no initial expenditures – all it took was knowing the bureaucratic ropes. Zhang Huiyu, a standing committee member of the People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body, in Pinggu District, told Wang Keqin how he had founded a taxi company with nothing: “Back in 1992 some friends of mine suggested that I could start up a taxi company without spending a cent or incurring any debt. I did all the paperwork in Xisi District in Chengguan. The village government made all the approvals and notified the [Beijing] city transportation bureau. After that, the transportation bureau issued me an instrument of ratification for the passenger transport business. I received licenses for 50 vehicles”. Zhang’s next step was to put out a call for drivers. Anyone with driving ability who was willing to put up 50,000 could work for his company. Before long he had found 25 drivers and taken in 1.2 million yuan in “financing funds”. He used this money to buy 25 passenger minivans. So by obtaining one approval and without spending a dime, Zhang Huibao had created a taxi company with a fleet of 25 vehicles and assets totaling 1.3 million yuan.
Changes in city regulations worsened the situation for drivers who felt locked into the trade by the huge “financing funds” and “risk deposits” they put down to secure their contracts. When Beijing announced in June 1996 that minivans could no longer be used for the taxi business, the companies passed on to the drivers the cost of changing their fleets to sedans. Zhang Huiyu accomplished this by “buying” the fleet’s 26 minivans back from his drivers for between 38 and 45 thousand yuan each, selling them to companies outside the taxi industry, then applying the funds to the purchase of 26 new sedans worth 115 thousand each. His former minivan drivers then “purchased” the sedans for 135 thousand yuan each. The licenses for these vehicles still belonged to Zhang Huiyu’s company, so the drivers were essentially investing receiving shares. Meanwhile, Zhang Huiyu hiked the monthly taxi portions, the right to operate the taxis, up to 1,500 yuan from 800 yuan.
Practices like these were common across the industry. They meant taxi drivers worked cruelly long hours just to scrape together enough get by after paying the various fees levied by the taxi companies. On average they worked 585 full-time workdays each year, calculated on the basis of China’s standard eight-hour workday. Although they worked 12-13 hour shifts every day, they earned on average just 1,817 yuan a month, less than half Beijing’s monthly per capita income as reported by the city government at the time.
Because of regulatory loopholes, taxi companies also got away without paying taxes. Wang estimated that if taxi companies across China paid taxes to the state of 1,500 yuan per year – less than most companies charged their drivers for vehicle portions – state tax revenues from the industry would total about 14 billion yuan (US$1.7 billion). Companies routinely paid kickbacks to the city transportation officials. An accountant from one company said they paid hundreds of thousands of yuan in “gratuities” each year to officials at the transportation bureau. “This is how all the companies do it,” he said.
Aside from the misery of taxi drivers and the loss of state revenues, the residents of capital were losers too. Wang’s investigation found that irrational fees, and particularly taxi portions, were the primary cause of higher taxi fares. If drivers were issued licenses for their own vehicles, Wang research showed, taxi fares would drop by about 30-40 percent.
TO PRINT, OR NOT TO PRINT?
Wang Keqin completed his investigative report in the middle of September. Once the draft was in the hands of his editors, the fight was to ensure the story was printed without major changes that lessened the impact of the report. Editors at China Economic Times had to weigh the implications of the story very carefully as it dealt with administrative corruption and mismanagement by the city-level government of the national capital.
The first issue to consider was timing. The inaugural session of the Sixteenth Party Congress was just days away. Political sensitivities were always heightened in the run-up to such meetings, as officials worried that negative press might sabotage their prospects for advancement. News reports even mildly critical of the leadership tended to evaporate during periods like this.
This particular political session was even more sensitive because there was widespread anticipation President Jiang Zemin would hand the reigns over to his successor Hu Jintao. There was additional speculation that a high-level Beijing city official would be elevated to the politburo, the elite group of China’s top 24 or so leaders. Attacking the Beijing city government at such a time was sure to make enemies. China Economic Times’ directorial board – comprising the paper’s chairman, editor-in-chief, and deputy editor-in-chief – worried that running Wang’s article might put not just their own positions but the newspaper’s future at risk.
The first suggestion the editors had was to run the report in seven sections over the period of a week, which might soften the political impact without compromising the story itself. Wang Keqin was adamantly against this idea. He argued that the first section would simply send up a red flag and officials would make sure the other six sections were never printed. While most of the editors agreed, running the full report was simply not an option, not at least on the eve of these important meetings. They decided to wait for the right opportunity.
In the meantime, Wang Keqin’s report had to be kept safe. They wanted to make sure word did not get out that they were sitting on a report about corruption in the Beijing government. They removed all record of the story from the newspaper’s internal computer network and agreed not to talk about the report to other staff.
Wang Keqin did not slow down. He knew, of course, that the report was dangerous and that it might take a show of unity to raise the stakes of administrative action against the newspaper and protect both himself and his editors. So he worked behind the scenes to solicit expert commentaries and supporting articles at other media that might bolster his own report when the time came. He convinced Xu Hui, an expert economist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, to write a 4,000-word commentary about regulatory problems in China using the taxi industry as a case in point. Columnists at China Economic Times readied a similar critique. Wang also gathered together unused material from his investigation for a piece called “What the Experts Say”, which included his interviews with several academics.
The possibility of a libel suit was also a concern for the newspaper. It was increasingly common for officials to use the local courts, which were still not sufficiently independent from bureaucratic meddling, to restore their reputations. The editors wanted to make sure Wang Keqin’s report was as watertight as possible. In mid-November the editorial board, comprising the directorial board plus four additional editors, pored over Wang’s draft and consulted a lawyer. The lawyer went carefully through the facts, checking them against the pile of documentation Wang had provided. “I don’t see any legal problems here. The evidence is formidable”, he said.
The editors left the final changes up to Wang Keqin, who delivered a printed, staple-bound copy to the editor-in-chief, Bao Yueyang. Some editors continued to voice concerns, however. One of the biggest issues was whether taxi drivers might use Wang Keqin’s report as an occasion to stage a demonstration like those in years past. If the newspaper were seen to be tied in any way to social unrest, disciplinary action was virtually assured. The newspaper might be shut down and letters of self-criticism forced from its staff.
Wang Keqin assured the editors the taxi drivers would not stage demonstrations. “I know these guys well and I don’t think that’s how they will respond,” he said. Wang even sought to allay their fears by providing signed statements from a number of taxi drivers.
After debating the report for several days, the editorial board decided to draft an “article release” signed by all seven members. This sign-off process had already by computerized at China Economic Times, but drafting a physical release was both a way to show support for the story and keep it under wraps long enough to get it out safely. The final version went to Bao Yueyang’s office with six signatures. Bao added his own. “The Inside Story on the Beijing Taxi Cartel” was ready to run.
As Wang’s article ran off the presses that night, Bao Yueyang posted a message on China Economic Times’ bulletin board system (BBS): “This story, following the report on securities fraud in Lanzhou, is the second missile Wang Keqin has fired at corrupt government. For a story as truthful as this one it is only right for us to run a bit of risk.”
Finally, on December 6, 2002, the China Economic Times issue featuring Wang’s report was delivered to newsstands all over China.
Wang’s report was instantly successful at newsstands. In Beijing, copies of China Economic Times sold in some places for as much as 10 yuan (US$1.25) despite its one yuan cover price. In Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, copies sold for as high as 50 yuan (US$6). Within hours the report was on the Web. Sina.com, one of China’s top sites, logged an all-time record for online readers of a single news story. The office of China Economic Times was bombarded with phone calls from readers and taxi drivers wanting to thank the newspaper for a job well done. Wang Keqin even received calls from several taxi company managers who wanted to come clean with their own stories.
City officials did not share the enthusiasm. The transportation bureau issued an order against taxi drivers reading China Economic Times, and several newsstands around the city called the newsroom to say government agencies were buying up copies. At least one newsstand, at Beijing’s Capital International Airport, was shut down for offering copies of the newspaper. By evening Wang’s report was yanked from all major Web portals, including Sina.com and Sohu.com. The Central Propaganda Department phoned up news media to deliver a ban on all further coverage of the story or reprinting of the China Economic Times report.
Wang Keqin’s preparations ensure, though, that his was not the only voice on the issue. “It remains to be seen what impact, if any, the report will have on the city’s handling of the industry. But the article will clearly go down as a historic chapter in China’s effort to achieve regulatory reform,” wrote Xu Hui, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences expert, in an editorial that accompanied Wang’s report. A China Daily editorial from well-know columnist Ma Li called the article “a fine example of watchdog journalism.”
Just over a week later, on December 14, Wen Jiabao, who was then vice-premier, issued an official response to Wang’ Keqin’s report: “The problems in our taxi industry can no longer be ignored. Government agencies are instructed to review the issue and propose reforms.” By the beginning of 2003, Premier Zhu Rongji had been handed an official report pointing to severe problems in the taxi industry and government offices were moving ahead with the drafting of reform proposals. Wang Keqin cooperated with Beijing University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to help in drafting a new regulatory framework for the industry.
At China Economic Times editors saw Wang’s report as a major success, and Wen Jiabao’s public statement seemed the surest sign of the report’s impact.
But Chinese officials wanted to make it clear the newspaper should avoid similar stunts in the future. When China Economic Times submitted a request to propaganda officials to adjust its publication frequency later that year, the request was swiftly denied. The word back from top officials was curt and clear: “Who said you could do a report on Beijing’s taxi industry?”
Wang Keqin originally gave his own account of this celebrated case a perplexing title: “A Down and Out Don Quixote”. The Quixote allusion, strange though it may seem at first, is familiar to investigative reporters in China. The most tenacious investigative reporters in China see themselves as crusaders for social justice battling a system that constantly frustrates this goal. One Quixote episode in particular has become symbolic of that single-minded quest. In that episode of the Cervantes classic, Don Quixote launches a futile attack with his lance against a group of windmills, imagining they are giants that must be defeated. For Chinese investigative reporters the windmill stands in for the daunting sum of obstacles to justice – entrenched local power, government secrecy, organized crime, the Propaganda Department. Their sense of social conscience spurs them into action and the hopeless joust begins.
China Youth Daily reporter Lu Yuegang, removed from his position at the weekly newspaper supplement Freezing Point in January 2006, recalls how his editor, Zhou Zhichuan, said to him while they were investigating a story in Shaanxi in the late 1990s: “The world doesn’t need just one Don Quixote. It needs a whole troupe of Quixotes”. Lu Yuegang and Zhou Zhichuan were searching at the time for evidence in the case of Wu Fang, a countrywoman who had been viciously attacked with acid under the orders of a powerful local Party official. Lu Yuegang had devoted months to the case, and was already embroiled in a libel suit resulting from his first investigative report. But for Lu Yuegang, there was so much more than just a story at stake. The journalist wanted justice for Wu Fang, and by extension, he said, all Chinese. The case consumed his personal and professional life.
It is no secret that China’s economic boom has created prosperity for some while compounding the misery of others. For those who have lost out, there are few means of conciliation. Public awareness of the legal system as a form of recourse is growing. But China’s legal system still lacks the independence needed to balance the interests of ordinary people against those of officials, who often manipulate the legal system. The only other formal avenue for seeking justice is a process called shangfang (上访), or seeking an audience with higher authorities to appeal for help. This often entails traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to the complaints office of a regional capital, where a petitioner must wait for days, weeks or months for the opportunity to meet with an official. The highest office for complaints is the national Bureau of Letters and Calls, under the umbrella of the State Council. It regularly finds itself besieged by crowds of petitioners from all around the country waiting, often to no end, to voice their grievances.
Given the inadequacy of the legal and shangfang systems, many average Chinese turn to the media to plead their cases. In some instances, disfranchised rural communities or individuals view the reporter as a godsend, a miracle worker who can convey their appeal for justice to higher authorities.
Wang Keqin recalls that one of the most pivotal moments in his journalism career was a stint as a reporter in a remote region of his native Gansu province, where hundreds of desperate farmers dropped to the ground before him, weeping and pleading for intervention. Faced with such a situation, says Zhai Minglei, a former investigative reporter with Southern Weekend, the notion of impartial reporting simply crumbles away. The reporter is affected on a deeply human level, and unwittingly becomes an advocate.
Other investigative reporters have had experiences similar to Wang’s. After journalist Yang Haipeng wrote an investigative report for Southern Weekend about criminal gangs monopolizing a local fishing industry, regional police teams broke up the racket. Fisherfolk of the area expressed their profound gratitude to Yang by erecting an effigy of him in their local temple.
It’s not hard to imagine that situations like these intensify the reporter’s sense of personal heroism.
The hero complex is further compounded by the experience of being cast out of the dominant media culture for brazen risk taking. Working for a government-run newspaper in the Gansu’s capital city of Lanzhou, Wang Keqin wrote a devastating report on shady dealings in the local financial market that had robbed thousands of small-time investors of their hard-earned yuan. Parties involved in the scam responded by putting a price on Wang’s head. The newspaper did nothing to protect him. Undaunted, Wang Keqin next wrote a hard-hitting report destroying the careers of several local officials. His knack for nosing out scandals was becoming dangerous for his newspaper. Wang was fired by editors who were themselves under intensifying political pressure. Even friends and former colleagues turned away from him. After searching three months for a job without success, he joined hundreds of other Chinese lined up outside the government offices in Lanzhou waiting to make a personal plea to complaints officials.
Apart from political and social pressures, the economic realities of the newspaper business in China are another significant obstacle to quality investigative journalism. Payment systems at most Chinese media are not designed to encourage investigative reporters determined to take on tough assignments.
Instead, journalists are generally paid under a piece-rate system. With administrative and budgetary limits placed on the hiring of necessary staff, some media must resort to forms of payment classified as “costs” rather than “wages”. These include “article payments” (搞费), which are per-word payments based on words published, and “reimbursement” (报销), by which a reporter is reimbursed in cash for personal expense receipts to an amount agreed outside the employment contract.
This system has the added effect of creating distinct hierarchies in some media organizations between official hires, who are entitled to fixed salaries, benefits and insurance, and those who are paid mostly or entirely on the basis of output. Payment procedures vary a great deal between organizations, but the vast majority of journalists are paid by a piece-rate system, and a lengthy reporting assignment can mean great personal sacrifice.
Even for Wang Keqin, a veteran reporter with a decent salary, the time-consuming reportage for the Beijing taxi story meant severe financial strain. When assigned to the taxi story, his monthly wage was 1,200 yuan (US$145), just enough to cover the barest necessities in a city where a small apartment at the time cost about 1,500 yuan (US$180) a month. Ordinarily, Wang could expect to supplement his salary with income from published articles – 60 yuan (US$7.25) each. Accepting an investigative assignment meant he would have to get by without this additional income. Moreover, it was China Economic Times’ policy not to reimburse interview costs such as transportation for stories that required only local reporting.
Considering all of these challenges together – immense social injustices to tackle, dangers to the reporter’s personal safety and career prospects, a sense of professional isolation, etcetera – many investigative reporters have developed what former investigative reporter Zhai Minglei calls “hero’s sickness”. “Deviant times and needs have made for deviant heroes”, says Zhai.
Looking back several years after Wang’s report, a thorough work of investigative reporting on an issue of public concern (and direct relevance to the lives of more than two million Chinese taxi drivers and their families), it can be said, unfortunately, that it had little impact on policy making. The issue fizzled into China’s bureaucracy. Undeterred, Wang Keqin continued to research the taxi industry nationwide, but said in late 2004 that little progress had been made in addressing the institutional causes of injustices facing the drivers. Wang Keqin has gone on to do other important investigative reports, including one in late 2005 on HIV-AIDS in the city of Xingtai in Henan Province, and a lengthy report on the beating death of China Trade News reporter Lan Chengzhang in February 2007.