Yang Haipeng in front of the historic Eliot Hall at the University of Hong Kong in 2004.
For many current and former professional journalists in China, the recent passing of media veteran Yang Haipeng (杨海鹏) in Shanghai has been an occasion to celebrate the man, but also to look back on a time when conscientious reporters and editors could do breakthrough work exposing the ills of the system.
The following tribute to Yang was written by “Lao Zuo” (老左), a former reporter at the 21st Century Business Herald (21世纪经济报道), a paper launched in 2001 by Guangdong’s Nanfang Daily Group. The journalist recalls how Yang Haipeng’s assistance was instrumental to their first in-depth investigative report, on the 2003 corruption case against former Wenzhou deputy mayor Yang Xiuzhu (杨秀珠). And in the process they provide a picture of just how much has changed for Chinese media in the past 10 years.
We include three photos of Yang Haipeng, including the featured image above, taken during his visit in 2004 to Hong Kong, where he took part in a forum of top investigative reporters and editors.
Lao Zuo (老左)
My first time doing investigative reporting was back in 2003. The topic was fugitive former Wenzhou deputy mayor Yang Xiuzhu (杨秀珠). The case didn’t deal with a very high-level official, but it did deal with more than 100 million yuan, and the nature [of the case] was especially outrageous. China had issued a red notice [from Interpol], and from that time on Yang Xiuzhu would top China’s most-wanted list.
Even in 2015, during a visit of [our] national leader to the US, when the extradition of fugitives was raised, Yang Xiuzhu was the first to be mentioned. So this could be said to be a benchmark anti-corruption case.
But when I arrived in Wenzhou overnight with another colleague [that year], we were like mindless flies crashing into an invisible net. Three days passed, and the two of us spent every day making appointments with people we thought might be likely to talk. Most of the time we were denied. From time to time, someone would be willing to meet, but it was always some rather marginal person — and what they told us was either unverifiable or just plain gossip, nothing that could be included in a rigorously vetted manuscript.
Just imagine, if a corrupt official stealing hundreds of millions can slip through the net of police, prosecutors and the law, how could two young people in their 20s pry open the mouths of people at the center? Yang Xiuzhu had fled the country, but her protective network remained intact. And even if someone could lay out the twists and turns, could they really trust two journalists to bring down [the enemy]?
At that time, we were a weekly publication. The two of us had just seven days to put the report together. As the time passed our anxiety only gathered.
At a loss about what to do, our editor suggested that we ask Yang Haipeng.
At that point, Yang Haipeng and I had never met, but I’d heard people talk about him. The editor’s point was that Old Yang had done his report on Wenzhou’s “underground organization minister” (温州地下组织部长案), [about a local official who had sold government posts], that he would be rather familiar with the official environment [in the city], and he probably also knew Wenzhou officials. “You can find him and ask,” [he said], leaving us Yang Haipeng’s phone number.
I called the number right away.
On the other end of the line, Lao Yang’s voice rang like a bell. He spoke so eloquently. He analyzed for me the personnel lines of officialdom in Wenzhou and Zhejiang province, and then he said he could introduce some friends to me. It seemed like he was pulling out a small book on the other end, and then he rattled off a series of mobile numbers.
All of them were for top-level Wenzhou city officials, or for old cadres who had retired [from top positions].
My colleague and I later estimated that we had visited close to 50 city officials in Wenzhou. Each time we called to arrange an appointment, our opening line was: “I was introduced by Yang Haipeng.”
As it turned out, the name “Yang Haipeng” was at that time an implied access card within Wenzhou officialdom. Some officials politely declined on the phone, but most would still point us in the right direction, which they considered to be a matter of giving Yang Haipeng face. And many officials were willing to talk. Time was running out, and my colleague and I split up to meet with as many officials as we could.
In just two days we obtained enough material to support publishing [the story.] Then we hightailed it to Hangzhou, where we met our last key interview – a retired former vice-governor of Zhejiang.
That was one night in the spring of 2003, and after we had dinner the colleague and I hurried off to a villa district next to West Lake. There was a guard at the gate, and the leader’s wife came personally to meet us there. Once we were through the gate, the leader was there to greet us warmly. The first words that came out of his mouth as he greeted us were: “So you’re friends with Yang Haipeng.”
We spoke for nearly two hours, then the leader’s wife walked with us back to the gate. We hurried back to our hotel, because the story’s deadline was the next day. We hadn’t even organized a lot of the audio recordings, and we had so much more than we had anticipated, so it took us a long time to get everything sorted.
We arranged for my colleague to sleep first while I wrote the first half. Early the next morning, I slept while my colleague continued to write the second half. Then, at around four or five in the afternoon, I got up again and the two of us went over the draft together, delivering it to the editors.
In the end our manuscript was completed on schedule, and though the writing left much to be desired, the reporting met with the approval of the editors. Given the significance of the case, our article got front-page placement.
When I look back on it now, we certainly had enthusiasm back then. But we didn’t have the ability to take on such a heavyweight investigative story. I had just joined the paper, and I was totally green. But the Southern Daily Group [at that time] had the courage to let young people take on such projects, and the editors took care in correcting the draft. But if it hadn’t been for Yang Haipeng and his selfless help, that report would never have been done.
The publication of the article shook official circles in Zhejiang, and it was shared widely by media in China and overseas.
After our story broke, Yang Xiuzhu remained in the media spotlight. Her life overseas was often the subject of reporting at home and abroad, and she could never shake the red notice or the official media [coverage]. As I said at the outset, when [our] national leader visited the US in 2015, the first name mentioned was her. The next year, Yang Xiuzhu returned to China and surrendered herself, closing the top case on the Red Notice List.
From beginning to end no one but us knew the decisive role Yang Haipeng had played in the whole process. That was because Yang, even though a talkative guy who was then very active on social media, never mentioned it to anyone. The public had no way of knowing.
My guess is that he had long ago forgotten the whole thing himself. The reason simply being that after he left the Nanfang Daily Group in 2002, Yang helped so many generations of journalists. His kind assistance was behind so many of the major reports that are now so familiar to everyone.
Whether in the media, or later as an opinion leader on Weibo, he was probably doing this his entire life, defending the public interest and sniping at the corruption of those in positions of power. You could call it a hunger for justice.
In the media era, his wide range of interview resources and his familiarity with the environment of officialdom were a constant wonder to those of us who came after him. So he was later recruited to Caijing magazine by Hu Shuli (胡舒立). His work in the news business [back then] was never questioned by anyone in the industry.
From that time, as traditional media declined, Old Yang continued to be active on social media. The things he did were no different from what he did in the newspaper era – exposing corruption, and expanding the space for speech.
So in my eyes Yang Haipeng was of course an outstanding journalist with great inner strength, a great man of his generation. He was also a traditional scholar with a chivalrous sense of justice, and a modern intellectual committed to expanding public space.
It was just that our times placed a seal on such intellectuals. For those who have influence, this has been tantamount to a capital punishment of the spirit. The spiritual Old Yang, after hundreds of “reincarnations” on Weibo [after his account was repeatedly shut down], passed away long before his physical body.
But his lifelong pursuit and ambition was in the end that of humanity. Before the spiritual power of words and ideas, worldly power is like a knife in the water. The physical body is just a skin. In the river of the ages, fleeting twists and turns cannot alter the direction of the current.
May Haipeng step through the ages!