With officials in Shanghai now saying a return to normal life in the city is not expected until around June 1, the saga of the 2022 lockdown is far from over for many residents in China’s financial capital. Whether the city does return to normal will depend on the results of continued mass testing under a policy mandating that anyone testing positive must be sent to a government-run isolation center, regardless of whether they report symptoms.
But over the past week new questions have been raised about the integrity of the testing process, a clear and present concern for residents eager to ensure an end to lockdown for all. In the midst of these questions, says one veteran Chinese journalist, there has been worrying silence from the very media outlets that should be tasked with getting at the root of problems. And this is a reminder that the health of a community is directly linked to the health of its journalism.
Last week, numerous residents in Shanghai independently posted to Weibo that they had been relocated to quarantine facilities after receiving positive Covid test results from a lab operated by Shanghai Runda Medical Technology, a company listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange (603108 ). Once these residents had been tested in quarantine, their tests processed by other labs, their tests had come back negative.
Subsequent online discussions focused on poorly managed testing in the city, where residents have been obliged under China’s “dynamic zero” Covid policy to endure multiple rounds of self-testing in addition to regular PCR tests. The alleged false positives angered many residents given the serious consequences such results could have not just for those tested but for whole communities and for the entire city.
On May 11, Shanghai Runda Medical Technology announced publicly that it had ordered its affiliate to conduct internal checks in response to public concerns. But in the week since concerns first came to light, there has been no reporting of this story from state media or commercial media outlets.
Over the weekend, Yang Lang (杨浪), a veteran journalist who has worked previously at several of the leading publications of the reform era, including China Youth Daily (中国青年报), China Youth (中国青年) magazine, the Business Times (财经时报) and Caijing (财经), posted a reflection on social media in which he decried the lack of media attention to the Shanghai Runda Medical Technology case.
Indirectly criticizing controls on media reporting, Yang said that no good has ever come from “uniformity of public opinion” (舆论一律), and he harkened back to an earlier era of press activity in the 1990s and 2000s when it was possible for investigative reporters in China to expose major issues of public concern.
A translation of Yang’s brief post follows.
The Shame of the Media After the ‘Neutering’ of Investigative Reporting
By Yang Lang (杨浪)
It has been six days since information was shared about false positives being returned [on Covid tests conducted by] Shanghai Runda Medical Technology, but up to now there have been no real follow-up reports from well-known media aside from internet reports.
Given that nucleic acid testing is the chief means by which anti-epidemic testing is conducted throughout the country . . . . and given the fact that a single positive result means lockdown for major cities, the accuracy of testing is a matter of public concern.
Unfortunately, even in the face of such major news concerning people’s lives, local Shanghai media, official media and professional media have said nothing. A number of outlets that once prided themselves on investigative reporting have been collectively silent.
The authorities have left an opening [for discussion] on the internet . . . . But everyone is clear about the difference between the internet and the official media. It’s because of the internet that we have information at all, but also because of the internet that things quickly get confused. In such cases, investigative reporting by the media is what provides credibility in the online age.
The landmark event in the neutering of investigative reporting [in China] was the reporting by the China Economic Herald in 2010 of the Shanxi vaccine scandal. In March of that year, nearly 100 children in Shanxi either died or were disabled for unknown reasons. Distraught parents sought desperately for treatments, and took their children to well-known hospitals that were unable to isolate any cause. But it was Wang Keqin (王克勤), a reporter for this newspaper, that reported the awful truth about fake vaccines following a detailed investigation, and as a result the criminals were severely punished. However, the reporter and his newspaper were severely criticized. The paper’s editor-in-chief, Bao Yueyang (包月阳), was dismissed.
The fading away of investigative reporting has already for many years been a thing of the past. But has anything good ever come of uniformity of public opinion? Once this this form of news reporting as a public instrument (公器) was neutered, the credibility of the media as whole went into decline. The silence of the media has only led to the accumulation of things that give the public cause for doubt. So, they wonder, was the “misreporting” of nucleic acid test result by Runda Medical Technology a mistake — or was it something else. The facts don’t simply cease to exist because you say nothing. Rather, the disease will spread to infect the entire body.
In the past, investigative reporting was an important means of clearing away public doubts and confusion, bringing balance to public opinion, maintaining the credibility of power, and stabilizing society. Some people did think that it caused chaos, but this was a means of avoiding even greater chaos.
Now, everyone can see this. And our friends in Shanghai’s media can feel it.