In late March, one of China’s most outspoken media groups, Caixin Media, alleged in an investigative report that Guo Wengui (郭文贵), the chief shareholder of Beijing Zenith Holdings, had been involved in the ouster of former Beijing vice-mayor Liu Zhihua. According to Caixin’s report, followed up by other Chinese media, Guo Wengui allegedly enlisted the help of Ma Jian, a former vice minister in China’s Ministry of State Security now facing his own corruption investigation, to oust Liu Zhihua and in the process remove obstacles to a preferential land deal near Beijing’s Olympic Green park.
Guo Wengui, who is currently living overseas, quickly went on the offensive against Caixin Media, launching a vicious verbal attack on its editor-in-chief, Hu Shuli (胡舒立), one of China’s most respected veteran journalists and a former China Media Project fellow.
Announcing its own decision to file lawsuits in Hong Kong against Guo and Beijing Zenith Holdings, as well as “certain media outlets” in Hong Kong (to which Guo had given interviews), Caixin Media alleged that Guo’s attacks had “undermined the professional credibility of Caixin Media and defamed the reputation of Hu Shuli, its editor-in-chief.”
But the Guo-Caixin showdown has also brought the issue of watchdog journalism — or what is known in China as “supervision by public opinion” — and press freedom into the spotlight. In its statement, the Caixin Media legal team alleged that Guo’s remarks about Hu Shuli were not only potentially libellous, but also “have severely damaged the climate for journalists as watchdogs and trampled on the fundamental principles of press freedom.”
This is a fascinating argument to hear from a mainland-based media group bringing a lawsuit in Hong Kong. What do Caixin’s lawyers mean by referring to these “fundamental principles of press freedom”? Fundamental where?
In China the notion of “press freedom” is itself a sensitive topic, used most often in a pejorative sense by Communist Party media to denote something alien and hostile (“so-called press freedom”). Freedom of expression may be enshrined — so far, impotently — in China’s Constitution, but the Party’s dominance of the news media is a point that admits no questioning.
The lawsuits are being filed, says Caixin, in the special administrative region of Hong Kong, which does guarantee press freedom in its Basic Law, which states in Article 27:
Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike.
Caixin Media, however, is a Beijing-based media group — steeped, for better or worse, in China’s tightly controlled press environment.
Caixin was founded by Hu Shuli in 2009 with a 40-million yuan investment from the Zhejiang Daily Press Group, the conglomerate linked to the official Party mouthpiece of Zhejiang province. In December 2013, the Zhejiang Daily Group sold its stake to China Media Capital (CMC), an investment fund run by Li Ruigang (黎瑞刚), who until January this year also headed up the state-owned Shanghai Media Group.
In China, all publications must be linked to the Party-state press structure through what is called a “supervising institution,” or zhuguan danwei (主管单位). This administrative relationship to the Party-state is necessary for a publication to publish at all, and the zhuguan danwei takes ultimate political responsibility for the activities of its publications. Until the December 2013 share purchase, for example, the supervising institution for Caixin Media’s flagship magazine, New Century, was the Zhejiang Daily Group. After the sale, the supervising institution was changed to the Chinese Literature Press (中国文史出版社), whose own supervising institution is the Office of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (全国政协办公厅), China’s nominal political advisory
All Chinese news media are rooted this way in the Party-state system, licensing being one of the most important means of controlling the press.
So, if Caixin Media and all of its related publications are based in China, bound to the press licensing system, and subject to the dictates of the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department, how can Caixin’s legal team suggest Guo Wengui in particular has “severely damaged the climate for journalists as watchdogs and trampled on the fundamental principles of press freedom”?
The simplest answer may be that Caixin Media does regard press freedom as a fundamental principle, whatever the political realities on the ground in China. The introduction to Caixin Media Company Limited on the group’s official English-language website states that its editorial staff “are the torchbearers of professional journalism, known for providing high-quality, credible content.”
The legacy of Caixin’s editor-in-chief, Hu Shuli, is an important strand in the larger story of professional journalism in China over the past two decades. She has been instrumental in promoting professional reporting in the public interest, the kind of journalistic activity that, in any society, entails a belief in press freedom as a “fundamental principle.” Hu Shuli’s media, first Caijing magazine and now Caixin, have been crucial training and testing grounds for this kind of public interest journalism in China.
But the going has never been easy.
Which brings us to the other piece of the puzzle regarding the Caixin Media legal statement, the one that makes more immediate sense in a Chinese media context — the reference to “journalists as watchdogs.”
Media like Caixin have been able to conduct professional journalism in a difficult political environment thanks in large part to the Party’s political stand on watchdog journalism, or “supervision by public opinion” (舆论监督).
As China entered the reform era in the 1980s, there was considerable backlash against the monolithic propaganda tools of the pre-reform era, which had simply amplified the distortions of the political system and deepened tragedies like the Cultural Revolution. Chinese media began airing more critical perspectives. And finally, in 1987, media reform was given greater priority as the party’s political report to the 13th National Congress spoke of “letting the people know and discuss the larger issues.”
The 13th Congress report also included the CCP’s first high-level affirmation of the media’s watchdog role—a mandate for media to conduct “supervision by public opinion,” one of a number of recognised methods of monitoring power in China. [See my brief rundown of these events here, or go more in-depth with our book, Investigative Journalism in China.]
From the mid-1990s to around 2005, a process of rapid commercialisation in China’s media, combined with this mandate to conduct public opinion supervision, brought a period of relative refulgence for professional journalism in China. Since that time, however, watchdog journalism — by which I mean journalism of an in-depth or investigative nature — has been in constant retreat. A big part of this story is official policy. The Party has taken active steps to rein in more freewheeling media, the likes of Caijing, Southern Metropolis Daily, the Beijing News, Southern Weekly, and of course Caixin.
For 10 years now, there has been a formal ban on the practice of “cross-regional reporting,” which means media from one administrative area (say, Guangzhou) — where they have the most to fear immediately from Party leaders directly overhead — doing harder-hitting stories in neighbouring or more far-flung areas. As we also know from the Southern Weekly incident of 2013 and related stories, censorship (and particularly prior censorship) of news stories has become even more draconian by comparison to the past.
Watchdog journalism is under immediate threat in China. At no point in the past 10 years have things been quite so impossible as they have been under Xi Jinping. To the extent that “public opinion supervision” is still a priority, or a possibility, at all for China’s media, this reporting is happening at a handful of outfits like Hu Shuli’s Caixin.
The Party’s hampering of more enterprising journalism, meanwhile, has emboldened businesses and other interest groups, who have intruded further on the media’s ability to report news in the public interest. It is in this context that Caixin’s allegations in its legal statement make the most sense. Caixin cannot tackle the CCP’s press control system head on, but it can push back against added encroachments on Party-mandated media supervision brought on by the likes of Guo Wengui and other powerful business interests.
As Caixin pursues its lawsuits in Hong Kong, this aspect will be an important dimension of the story to watch. Will this language about “fundamental principles” crop up again, and how?
Meanwhile, the Guo-Caixin showdown has prompted a number of editorials in China touching obliquely on the issue of interference in watchdog journalism. Among these is an editorial in the Beijing News, one of China’s leading newspapers, in which it reveals that it was inhibited in its earlier attempts to report on Guo Wengui’s property deals. The clear implication of the article is that restrictions on “supervision by public opinion” only perpetuate corruption and abuse of power.
A full translation of the piece follows. Enjoy.
“The Beijing News Reveals Intimidation Stemming From Its Probe of the Pangu Plaza” (新京报自曝舆论监督盘古大观时遭威胁)
March 31, 2015
Abnormal interference in watchdog journalism must breed tigers.
In recent days, Guo Wengui (郭文贵) has been the center of a national uproar, and the collusion between Party and government officials and business, and even the direct use of power to serve commercial enterprises, has caused shock. But this isn’t the first time doubts have been raised in the media about Guo Wengui’s fortune. Way back when there was a land dispute case over the Morgan Building (now Pangu Plaza), the Beijing News paid attention to the case, later doing watchdog journalism concerning the illegal construction of a courtyard home atop the building. But this [reporting] met with abnormal interference from non-official quarters, which even sent someone with a formal letter in the name of “national security” to threaten [the journalists].
It is in fact quite abnormal for a normal watchdog journalism report about purely corporate matters to meet with such abnormal levels of interference and resistance. While the facts about Guo Wengui’s business dealings still await investigation by the judiciary. But a question that deserves deep consideration is that if the normal conduct of watchdog journalism is protected, how is it that we heard nothing of the truth about Pangu Plaza before this time, when all the while the problem of collusion between business and power interests is becoming more and more severe? Guo Wengui’s losses of recent don’t stem directly from watchdog journalism, but if watchdog journalism had been allowed its due would we have come to this point of “shock” where we now find ourselves?
Clearly, interference in watchdog journalism through abnormal means is yet another expression of power/business collusion, the result being that certain people are beyond fear [of any repercussions] and illegal affairs are tolerated, with ever more serious consequences.
It’s of course not only Guo Wengui who eluded watchdog journalism in this way, nor just those departments and officials who backed him up. Back in the day, when there were many criticisms of Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun and their “singing red, striking black” campaign, the murmurs from Chongqing were all prohibitions against any criticism of these methods. Silence was the order of the day. The abuse of power to strike out [against criticism], resisting the normal process of watchdog journalism, meant that the actions of Bo Xilai and others in Chongqing were unbridled over a number of years, with untold damage to the country and to society.
The result of preventing watchdog journalism is to “foster the creation of tigers.” What we learn from these bitter cases, whether within officialdom or in corporate/government malfeasance, is that we must trust, treasure and respect the media’s right to conduct watchdog journalism, and allow the media to exercise and provide for the right to know and the right and duty to supervise as a matter of course. Only in this way can we prevent suffering from the outset, warning our society about risks before they become full blown crises.