By Darren Yixin Chen — “Brother, we’re not simply doing journalism — we’re acting on our consciences,” Wang Keqin recalls telling one fellow journalist surprised at his determination to pursue a sensitive story that was almost certain to be killed. But Wang, one of China’s most determined investigative reporters, has never been known to compromise his ideals.
On November 25, the senior China Economic Times reporter shared his experiences with journalism master’s students at the University of Kong Kong’s Journalism & Media Studies Centre (JMSC).
Wang, who is known for his in-depth reports into everything from corruption in Beijing’s taxi industry to the spread of HIV-AIDS in China through unnecessary blood transfusions, talked to students in particular about his probe into the “Dingzhou Incident” of 2005, in which villagers were attacked by armed thugs hired by local officials after they refused to comply with an order for the seizure of their farmland. The attack resulted in six deaths and scores of injuries.
“The whole village had turned into a mourning hall,” Wang said, recalling the scene the day he arrived in the village of Shengyou in China’s Hebei province. “Dirges were being played every morning, and dead bodies were laid out in front of the village offices.”
According to Wang, hundreds of government-hired thugs armed with hunting rifles, clubs and pipes attacked a group of farmers in the village In the early hours of June 11, 2005. The farmers had pitched tents and dug foxholes on a stretch of land local authorities planned to seize for the construction of a state-owned power plant.
Wang described to students how he managed to get close to the village’s Communist Party boss and engage in a revealing conversation with the boss’s wife simply by asking for a glass of water.
In China, journalists like Wang Keqin face numerous difficulties — physical, commercial and political — as they try to conduct “watchdog journalism,” in Chinese called yulun jiandu, or “supervision by public opinion.” Journalists like Wang often risk more than their careers by pursuing tough stories that touch on the interests of powerful officials and businesspeople.
Years ago, after Wang wrote a damaging report about securities fraud in Gansu province, organized crime leaders put a huge bounty on his head. Local propaganda leaders were not happy either. Wang’s publication, Gansu Economic Daily, was briefly suspended, and Wang was told he would no longer be welcome there.
Fearing for his life and his career, Wang picked up and moved his family to Beijing.
Wang maintains a sense of humor about the warnings and finger-wagging he regularly receives from the Central Propaganda Department, the powerful CCP office that enforces “discipline” in China’s tightly controlled media. He views official displeasure as one of the clearest signs of the power of his work.
“I must sometimes write self-criticisms of my work [for propaganda authorities] because it is politically incorrect,” Wang told students. “This, I think, is a badge of honor. For a journalist, it should be regarded as an honor. But of course propaganda officials see [what you’ve done] as shameful.”
In China’s tough environment, where those with vested political or economic interests may actively exploit the weaknesses in a reporter or a story, enterprising journalists must hold their work to the highest professional standards, said Wang. Careless errors or poor documentation can leave the journalist and his publication even more open to attack.
“You are up against political power and an entire system [of vested interests],” he cautioned. “Make one careless mistake, and the whole army goes down in flames.”
Wang showed students a notebook where he had recorded all of his conversations and even gained permission from his sources to ink their fingerprints on the page in case they were later pressed to deny their statements.
While professional journalism can be difficult in China, said Wang, the rewards can also be immense when one’s persistence makes a difference.
Wang said that the daughter of Niu Zhengshe, one of the farmers killed in the Dingzhou Incident, was now attending college with government compensation. The party boss of Dingzhou, who was later shown to have planned the attack on the farmers, has been dismissed from his position.
Without the persistence of investigative reporters in China, said Wang, even these modest victories would not have been possible. And he urged JMSC students to be patient and persistent in their future work as journalists.
“[Investigative reporting] is like farming your land. The more effort you invest, the greater your harvest will be,” he said.