In a recent interview with Honesty Outlook (廉政瞭望), a magazine focusing on anti-corruption reporting published under the official Sichuan Daily, journalist Chu Chaoxin (褚朝新) spoke about In Fact, I Still Want to Make Progress (我, 其实还想进步), his book relating his experiences as an investigative reporter.
If Chu’s name sounds familiar this is likely due to his connection to one major story a decade ago: the saga of Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun (王立军), whose escape to the US consulate in Chengdu in February 2012 marked the dramatic start to the corruption scandal engulfing Chongqing Communist Party secretary Bo Xilai.
It was Chu who on February 15, 2012, nearly one week after Wang was taken into custody and escorted to Beijing, received a mysterious text message that would offer the world its first glimpse of the sordid details of the Bo Xilai scandal, involving the alleged poisoning of British businessman Neil Heywood by Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai. The text, which Chu quickly posted to his Weibo account, was likely sent to him by a third party under instructions pre-arranged by Wang Lijun before his trip to the US consulate. It read: “British national Heywood was murdered in Chongqing; Wang Lijun had investigated the case and found Gu Kailai to be a suspect.”
At that time, Chu was a journalist for Southern Weekly, the celebrated liberal newspaper that within months would face intensified efforts to bring it to heel, culminating in the January 2013 “Southern Weekly incident.” Chu would later move on to The Beijing News, another newspaper with strong professional credentials. His book is a fascinating record of his experiences as a journalist, providing glimpses of the systemic and other challenges facing those who try to uphold their professional mission.
Likewise, Chu’s interview with Honesty Outlook, though brief, offers some insight into life inside the Chinese media. Of particular interest is Chu’s view on the challenge of getting Chinese officials to open up, and on the unfortunate stiffness of reporting on government-related news in China.
A translation of the interview follows:
Honesty Outlook: Some colleagues have said that you have a knack for getting acquainted quickly with officials, that you can make the officials involved in incidents talk, and even that you maintain good relationships with some officials?
Chu Chaoxin: Sometimes it does happen that I get acquainted with officials quickly. There is definitely talk out there that Chu Chaoxin’s face resembles that of a division-level cadre, carrying his tea thermos and his satchel of documents, and that these are the things that put him quickly on a level of familiarity with officials. Actually, that’s not how it works. None of these external, superficial things are enough to make an official abandon his alertness, wariness and resistance toward a professional journalist.
In more than a decade of work as a journalist, I’ve come to trust that making an official involved [in something] open up and accept an interview relies more on professional technique. One time, for example, convincing a vice-ministerial official to grant me an interview meant running to several different cities, constantly gathering information on the scene. While I was going through this process, I sent him text messages constantly, letting him know that I was steadily reporting. I exerted pressure by saying things like, “Whether or not you grant an interview, the story will be written, and this might not be good for you.”
Perhaps is seems like a bit much to call this a skill. After all, heading to the scene is just what every journalist does in the course of reporting a story, a basic demand of our work.
Honesty Outlook: Do you ever become friends with the officials you interview?
Chu Chaoxin: Occasionally there are officials with whom I maintain good personal relationships. Like the vice-ministerial official I interviewed, Old Lu (老鲁). He is one of the few provincial officials who dared to invite me to his home. This connection was the result of a long period of contact. I know he is a circumspect official who is still clean, and he understands that I’m a proper journalist who won’t use the resources I have to engage in illegal activities. He also knows I’m quite sincere. So slowly we came to trust each other, and we became friends.
Most of the time, however, it is very difficult for professional journalists and officials to strike up friendships because of their differing positions and differing professional demands. A friend like Lao Lu is a rare thing. It’s much simpler if you treat officials as interview subjects and as work tasks when you interact with them. It’s just work. You get valuable information you need from them, and there isn’t any other transfer of interests between you. If things are frank and open, if there is respect, then this makes for a healthy interaction.
Honesty Outlook: Have you ever endured difficulty when working on a current affairs investigation?
Chu Chaoxin: Definitely. Because the current affairs investigations I’ve written in recent years have involved a lot of public opinion supervision (舆论监督), which can offend a lot of people. So I’ve been subjected over the past three years to three separate investigations myself to determine whether I have done paid-for news (有偿新闻), whether I’ve committed [news] extortion (敲诈勒索), or whether I’ve had any kickbacks of any sort from local governments or companies. [NOTE: “public opinion supervision,” or “supervision by public opinion,” is a phrase unique to China that refers loosely to what could in some cases by translated “watchdog journalism.” The work is often critical or investigative, but can also in some cases involve reporting in particular of lower-level Party or government affairs by well-placed journalists at central-level media outlets. “News extortion” refers to a relatively common practice by which journalists or media threaten negative coverage and then agree to make the coverage go away by accepting cash, gifts or advertising deals.]
Local officials in my hometown, and at the newspapers where I used to work, have had visits in the past from investigation teams (调查组). The findings were that I’ve never committed any acts like that. For this I can only thank them – that they’ve helped confirm that I’m clean.
It’s really important to maintain clean relationships when you’re doing current affairs reporting and dealing with officials on a regular basis. This is a professional conduct, and also the best possible form of self-protection.
Honesty Outlook: In your book, you talk about individual officials who want to use your connections to help them “see official [posts]” (跑官). Have you come across situations like that very often? [NOTE: “Seeking official [posts],” or paoguan, refers to obtaining official positions improperly through bribes or special connections. Local officials are likely in this case to feel the journalists has access through his work to higher-level officials who can assist them in their career ambitions.]
Chu Chaoxin: There definitely have been times when officials have sought me out trying to angle for promotions. But this happens only rarely. The example I wrote about in my book was someone who wasn’t familiar with me, and after it happened, I informed the relevant officials in the local provincial CCP committee. I talk about the specifics in the book. Those who understand my character generally won’t attempt asking a favor of me like that.
In general, the official culture with the Party has changed considerably over the last decade, especially in the last few years. Officials have become more and more cautious and attentive, and the bad culture of corruption has taken a turn for the better. Meanwhile, the positive culture of people actively working to improve people’s livelihoods still awaits further progress.
Honesty Outlook: In your book, you present another side of officials to your readers. For example, their sense of helplessness, or the warmth of their emotion. It seems we’ve been lacking richer and more substantive reporting in our media of the culture of officials and the officials themselves, leading to some level of prejudice in society and the public. Why do you think this is? [NOTE: In fact, it remains sensitive for Chinese journalists to pursue more personal stories about Party and government officials, and reports on official business tend to be dry and formulaic.]
Chu Chaoxin: You’re absolutely right. Not only does this problem exist, but in fact it’s quite serious. The richer dimensions of officials have long been absent in professional media coverage, resulting in a blurred and stiff image of government officials. Officials as presented in the official media are always in meetings, doing inspections, or burying their heads in the reading of words printed on documents. As a result, the public is completely unable to see more personalized, vivid images of officials. This creates a sense of separation and unfamiliarity that is not conducive to the communication and exchange between the two groups.
On the other hand, this has a lot to do with the coldness and indifference with which some officials treat the media. Some officials lack the ability to interact with the media, or they have “media phobia” (媒体恐惧症). Of course, our culture also inclines toward reservedness, and many officials just prefer to be low-profile.
Honesty Outlook: As media, what do you think should be done in this regard?
Chu Chaoxin: News media still need to do as much as they can to diversify coverage of officials as a group. When it comes to government affairs reports, it can’t always be limited to just officials attending meetings and giving reports, or making inspection tours. I’m afraid this needs to be reformed starting with the whole way of thinking about and structuring news coverage.
The problem is that the official [Party-state] media have greater access to officials, but they can’t present them in a multi-dimensional way. Market-oriented media, on the other hand, do a better job of portraying officials as vivid and individuals, but they lack access to them. This [problem] tests the courage and ability of these two differently positioned media to break through our rigid ways of working. Whoever can break through will be able to excel in current affairs reporting.