Author: David Bandurski

Now director of the CMP, leading the project’s research and partnerships, David joined the team in 2004 after completing his master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He is currently an honorary lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre. He is the author of Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin/Melville House), a book of reportage about urbanization and social activism in China, and co-editor of Investigative Journalism in China (HKU Press).

Lu Ye

September 2005 — Lu Ye is a professor of journalism at Shanghai’s Fudan University and director of the school’s Institute for Broadcast Media and Social Research. Her areas of research include media professionalism, news production and broadcast television. Professor Lu is also acting secretary of the Chinese Association of Communication (CAC), an association of communications scholars promoting the development of communications in China.

Shi Zhengmao

September 2005 — Since 1994, Shi Zhengmao has been a reporter, editor and producer for China Central Television. Before joining CCTV, Shi was a reporter for Lifeweek magazine and News and Publishing Daily. Shi holds a law degree from China University of Political Science and Law and has studied economics at Beijing University.

Sun Xupei

September 2005 — In the 1980s, Sun Xupei was director of the research office of the Journalism Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a key force behind the push for media reform and freedom of speech within the socialist system. Sun was also an instrumental figure in early efforts to create a Chinese media law. Currently Sun is a professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology and a researcher at the News and Broadcast Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. From 1981 to 1983, he worked as a reporter at People’s Daily. Sun is the author of numerous books and articles, including An Orchestra of Voices: Making the Argument for Greater Speech and Press Freedom in the People’s Republic of China, which has been translated into English.

Guidance • Supervision • Reform • Freedom: Plotting the direction of Chinese media through an analysis of the all-important buzzword

By Qian Gang
Translated by David Bandurski
Chinese media are changing. People from all walks of life in China have recognized this fact – businesspeople, politicians, professional journalists.
I have watched the crooked path of this change for three decades, beginning with the end of the Cultural Revolution and the start of Deng Xiaoping’s opening and reform, coming to an abrupt halt following the crackdown on student demonstrators on June 4, 1989, revived once again after Deng’s so-called “southern tour” in 1992, which quickened the pace of economic reform.
The media landscape is much changed today. Media hold fast to the “iron laws” of state news management because they must. But they rush out at the same time into the hurly-burly marketplace, keeping up as best they can with the changing times. The injection of capital into the media is transforming it structurally – we can now refer to it as an “industry”, a change in itself. The Internet and new media, with their unrealized potential, loom on the horizon. Meanwhile, a growing number of good reporters, intent on professionalism, forge ahead against sizable financial and political obstacles. And of course, the shutdown earlier this year of Freezing Point, a popular weekly supplement of China Youth Daily newspaper, reminds us rather poignantly that censorship is alive and well, and even mutating, in China.
It is a complicated picture indeed.
But a study of the terminologies used in China to talk about the media and its role in culture and politics may help us sharpen that picture just a bit. In Robin Lakoff’s The Language War, which has been translated into Chinese, the author talks about how we use language to construct reality:

Language is, and has always been, the means by which we construct and analyze what we call “reality” … What we know of it we know through carefully selected words, images that tell us what we ought to think and believe we know. It is no accident that, at the very moment at which meaning making rights are being contested, politicians and others in the public eye have developed armies of specialists whose job it is to construct public meanings via the skillful manipulation of language …

While Lakoff writes of the “democratization of meaning-making” in American culture, the opposite is true in China, where Party leaders continue to serve as the gatekeepers of language, defining social and political reality in all areas of life and work. This being the case, it shouldn’t surprise us to find that changes in China’s political climate come with whole sets of new buzzwords, so that, for example, the “Three Represents” (the platform of former President Jiang Zemin) yields to current President Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society”.
The same applies to Chinese media, which the Party has always regarded as key to its exercise of power. Chinese leaders closely govern the very language journalists use to conceptualize their own work and role in society.
Over the last decade, but particularly over the last three years, I have carefully analyzed the media in China by looking at the buzzwords Chinese use to talk about it, terms like “guidance of public opinion”, “supervision by public opinion” (sometimes translated “watchdog journalism”), “media reform”, and “freedom of speech”.
These terms are like mile markers, some fading behind, others crowding ahead. Some are heard constantly, but used by different people with widely different meanings.
“Reform” under “Guidance”
Chinese Journalist, a monthly magazine published by Xinhua News Agency, and News Line, published by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, are China’s most influential professional magazines for journalists. They are largely responsible for conveying the “management spirit” of state propaganda ministers to the media at large, and many newspapers and television or radio stations take out subscriptions at public expense. The appearance and degree of prevalence of critical media terms in either or both of these publications can point the way to the dominant political position on media and its role in Chinese society. The graph below, for example, shows the relative frequencies of use for the terms “guidance of public opinion”, “supervision by public opinion” and “media reform” between 1994 and 2004 in the abovementioned publications. They suggest that control, via “guidance”, has been the top priority, while media “supervision” (of official corruption, etc.) has been an important, but secondary, priority:


(Source: China Knowledge Network Service Platform (CNKI), China Journalism Network (CJN). Search through complete archives of China Journalist and News Line for 1999-2004).
Of the three terms plotted in Graph 1, “guidance of public opinion” is most widely used, followed more closely by “supervision by public opinion”, and trailed quite substantially by “media reform”, which remains more or less level over the decade.
What do these peaks and troughs mean? The prevalence of “guidance of public opinion” suggests the term, which means leaders must carefully control the language of media to ensure stability and progress on policy goals such as economic growth, has been the centerpiece of Chinese media policy from the early 1990s onward. There is an important historical reason for this. While the second two terms are relics of the 1980s reform movement, “guidance of public opinion” appeared only after the June 4, 1989, crackdown on student demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. It is a product of rethinking of media policy in the aftermath of social unrest.
In the 1980s, media reform in China began as a reaction against the “falsehood, sensationalism and emptiness” that prevailed during the Cultural Revolution. Communist Party leaders began to speak cautiously of “media reform” in the early 1980s, by which time the term was commonly used inside the media.
Media reforms continued through the 80s despite political uncertainty. China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the China’s Communist Youth League, took the lead by introducing critical news reports and discussions of hot-button social issues. In Shanghai, the outspoken World Economic Herald appeared, becoming an instrumental force behind the economic reform drive.
Finally, in 1987, media reform received official recognition and was worked into the Party’s political agenda. In its official report, the Thirteenth Party Congress said, “Let the people know and discuss the larger issues”. In addition, news and publicity vehicles should “serve a watchdog function”, the report said. This was essentially a mandate for what has since been called “supervision by public opinion” in China, meaning the scrutiny of lower-level officials through investigative reporting. After the 1987 report, “supervision by public opinion” became a regular buzzword in the China media lexicon.
June 4, 1989, brought a swift end to all of these changes. On May 6, 1989, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang said in a meeting with top propaganda officials: “Open things up a bit. Make the news more open. There’s no big danger in that. By facing the wishes of the people … we can only make things better”. These words were severely criticized in the wake of June 4, and Zhao was blamed for creating widespread public support for the student demonstrations and “guiding matters in the wrong direction”. Just six months later, in November 1989, the Party’s new general secretary, Jiang Zemin, gave a speech emphasizing the need for “guidance of public opinion.”
And so a new media buzzword was born.
Party propaganda officials made it known through a series of statements to news media that language must “adhere to guidance of public opinion”. Aside from this new and dominant term, there was a dizzying parade of other media terms during this time. They included “Marxist view of media”, “disciplined publicity”, “politicians running the newspapers”, “mouthpiece”, and others. Taken together, they constituted Jiang Zemin’s policy position on the role of the media, which emphasized control and took its bearings from the unrest of June 1989.
“Guidance of public opinion”, as a buzzword for political control of the media, may have risen into dominance after June 4, but “media reform” nevertheless persisted as a term of importance. After Deng Xiaoping made his famous “southern tour” to major Chinese cities in 1992, commercial reforms in the media were jump-started. One after the other, flagship Party newspapers came out with profitable weekly editions or commercial daily spin-offs. In a limited capacity, and on a trial basis, overseas capital was allowed to flow into domestic Chinese media.
Foreign participation was not, in fact, entirely new. Some foreign media groups had struck up joint ventures in the 1980s in areas that were safe politically, such as computers and fashion. International Data Group led the charge in 1980 with China Computerworld magazine, set up jointly with a business arm of China’s IT industry regulator, Ministry of Information Industry. The Chinese-language edition of fashion magazine Elle followed suit in 1988.
But the boldest attempt by an overseas media investor to gain a foothold in the Chinese market came in August 1992, as Hong Kong businessman Yu Pinhai signed a joint-venture deal with Guangzhou’s Xiandai Renbao (现代人报). While the contract yielded complete editorial control to the Chinese partner, Yu’s company exercised its influence through Lie Fu, its manager for China operations. Zhao Shilong, a well-known investigative reporter, recalls the innovations Lie Fu introduced at the paper, and their impact on the industry:

The newspaper employed a system totally unlike others on the mainland. It introduced and implemented editorial methods and compensation systems in line with the modern [global] newspaper industry; it used new circulation and marketing methods; it put in place a totally computerized copy flow (reporters had to submit electronic articles rather than handwritten ones); it used full-color printing technology; it employed modern management techniques to create staff cohesion. All of this meant Xiandai Renbao was fresh and alive in a way never before been seen in China. The three top newspapers in Guangzhou, Southern Daily, Yangcheng Evening News and Guangzhou Daily were extremely nervous.

Yu Pinhai’s newspaper venture, an important first for overseas participation in the highly sensitive area of “news”, was nevertheless doomed. Officials in Guangdong shut Xiandai Renbao down on January 1, 1995.
But it was during this period that groundbreaking newspapers like Southern Weekend, for which I served for several years as managing editor, and investigative news programs like China Central Television’s “Focus”, came into being, offering a fresh approach to news and analysis. Naturally, political support was an indispensable component of their success, as it remains today. Southern Weekend was able to weather several political storms with officials in Beijing because it had a definite degree of support from provincial leaders in Guangdong. “Focus”, which routinely shed light on ugly social and political problems, like administrative corruption, was supported by the country’s top propaganda official, Ding Guangen, who actually had a role in its creation.
After the mid-1990s, terms of commercial ilk, like “media industry” and “media market” became more or less synonymous with media reform. Searching all Chinese periodicals for the years 1994 and 2004, I found the frequency of the term “media reform” unchanged. The frequency of “guidance of public opinion”, on the other hand, rose 70 percent, and the frequency of “media industry” rose 50 times over.
In the late 1990s, new terms were coming regularly into circulation, terms like “enlarging and strengthening” (the creation, in essense, of officially-controlled media groups of a Murdoch-like nature), “media restructuring” (consolidation of state media), and “the influence of media” (an official version of eyeball economics in which politics plays no part). Each of these pointed to policy positions on key problems facing Chinese media.
“Enlarging and strengthening” is a good case in point. The longhand version of the term, clunky and comical in English, was: “doing the news media big and strong.” It was a response to commercial reforms, with a nervous eye on China’s nearing accession to the World Trade Organization, and essentially a policy shove in the direction of media consolidation. The idea was that a number of consolidated media groups would be better equipped to compete in a globalized market. The concept had in fact been appropriated from other industries. In late 2000, Xu Guangchun, then deputy head of the Propaganda Department and top man at broadcast regulator SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film and Television), introduced the “enlarging and strengthening” slogan to the radio and television industries.
“Capital infusion into media”, another important concept as China’s media entered the new century, marked one of the most sensitive facets of “enlarging and strengthening”. Before the 1990s, this term did not exist in China. But with the implementation of media investment policies in 2002, the state approved a number of media groups for business registration as limited liability companies or as joint-stock limited companies and drew investment from government-sponsored institutions, with the important stipulation they would not interfere with the propaganda and censorship process. Foreign investors were also itching for more opportunities to enter the media sector in China, but this was a sensitive issue.
The Sixteenth Party Congress convened in November 2002, Jiang Zemin passing the position of Party chief on to Hu Jintao. In early 2003, politburo standing committee member Li Changchun, who was in charge of ideology, held up a new buzzword, “The Three Closenesses”, as the defining principle for future propaganda work. “The Three Closenesses” were: “Sticking close to truth, sticking close to the people, and sticking close to life.” Li emphasized that the first criterion in measuring “products of culture and spirit” (journalism, publishing, the arts, etc) was whether or not the people were satisfied with them. He said China should promote asset restructuring in the “culture industries” (including media), and “optimize resource allocation, thereby enlarging and strengthening them”.
China had by this time already become a WTO member, lending greater urgency to “enlarging and strengthening” as a means of “facing competition from global media groups and the fierce war for public opinion on the global stage”. Without a strong economic foundation, many academics argued, Chinese media would be shouldered aside by bigger foreign competitors.
Chinese officials, of course, were never about to let this happen. Commercial reforms could move forward, but the Party would maintain its white-knuckle grip on the media. Propaganda minister Xu Guangchun stressed that there were “four constants” (yes, another buzzword) in the media reform process. The media’s role as a mouthpiece of the Party would not change. Party newspapers (such as People’s Daily) would not change. The role of officials at the top of media organizations would not change. And the cardinal rules of correct guidance of public opinion (in other words, towing the Party line) would not change.
China’s “media reform” plodded forward under the all-important principle of “guidance of public opinion”. Reform might be an imperative. But so were social stability and the position of the Party in the life of the nation. The process of reform was to be safe and amenable. There would be no repeat of the events of June 4, 1989.
“The Three Closenesses” were just finding their feet when Chinese media were faced with their first major challenge of the 21st century, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. This national health crisis would prove a major reality check for Hu Jintao’s new media policy.
Chinese media under SARS

The first known case of SARS appeared in November 2002 in Heyuan, a city about 160 kilometers northeast of Guangzhou. In mid-December, the People’s Hospital in Heyuan admitted two SARS patients. Within two weeks scores of health workers were infected. In late December, Zhong Nanshan, a well-known respiratory specialist, treated several patients transferred to his Guangzhou facility. On December 31, he issued a report to the Chinese Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and a few days later a group of CDC officials went in secret to Heyuan.
Local and national media knew nothing about the situation. But that afternoon people in Heyuan made a run on local pharmacies, buying out stocks of erythromycin, a common antibiotic.
Before dawn on January 3, 2003, Heyuan leaders met at the mayor’s home to discuss measures for dealing with cases of “atypical pneumonia”. Hours later, Heyuan Daily, a mouthpiece of the city government, ran an article urging city residents to disregard rumors of an epidemic. Most urgent in the minds of Heyuan officials at the time was a planned meeting two days later with Guangdong’s executive committee on the development of “cities of excellence”, an important test of the city’s economic infrastructure.
In fact, Heyuan’s approach to dealing with crisis could be seen as indicative of China’s overall approach to spinning the news: economic development comes before all else, and information must be tightly controlled to this end.
SARS, meanwhile, spread from Heyuan to Zhongshan, 60 kilometers south of Guangzhou, and then to Guangzhou itself. On January 16, Guangzhou’s New Express sent a reporter to Zhongshan to look into rumors of an epidemic there. An article called, “’Pneumonia of mysterious origin’ appears in Zhongshan and could spread”, made the paper the next day alongside a photo of patient hooked up to a respirator. This was the first report on SARS to appear in China. Like Heyuan, though, Zhongshan moved immediately to combat what it said were baseless rumors.
“No disease has appeared in Zhongshan,” they said.
On January 21, national officials from the CDC made an inspection tour of Guangdong. On January 23, a report on the situation in Zhongshan by Guangdong’s health bureau was sent to subordinate offices throughout the province. Everyone was ordered to have a strong grasp of the appropriate procedures for prevention and treatment. On February 3, the provincial government sent a report on SARS to the Ministry of Health in Beijing. At the same time, instructions were sent to relevant offices below the provincial level.
It could be said that Guangdong’s provincial leadership were actually quite firm in dealing with the containment of SARS through administrative means. But they had settled on resolving the crisis behind closed doors. The media would play no part, save in the issuing of official lies and half-truths. In the three weeks from mid-January to the start of the weeklong Spring Festival holiday they kept a stranglehold on news about the epidemic.
By February 6 things were only getting worse. Information about the disease, most of dubious accuracy, started bouncing back and forth on the Internet and through SMS text messaging. On February 8 Guangdong made a report on the SARS situation to the State Council, the highest organ of state administration. However, an urgent announcement went out simultaneously to media in the province:

In order to avoid the spread of rumors and other forces of instability, all media units within the province are to refrain from interviews and reporting concerning the recent discovery in our province of a disease of unknown origin. At the same time, media units must work to maintain secrecy, neither exposing nor diffusing information to the outside.

Rumors were running wild in Guangdong. On February 10, under another strict order against “further reporting”, media were sent an official government news release, or tonggao, called “Atypical pneumonia cases found in some areas of Guangdong”. They were told to stick to the information in this release, not building on the story and not linking online sites to other news sources (such as overseas media). The release did not, of course, offer any facts about the serious spread of SARS, but only cautioned citizens to “take the necessary steps to protect themselves from the spread of the disease.” Just hours later a second release came through. This one obliged the media to report that there had been 305 SARS cases and five deaths, a willful misrepresentation of the epidemic’s true scale.
On a daily basis, the publicity office of Guangdong’s Party committee sent out releases detailing how media should talk about SARS, how much space should be devoted to the story and so on. But some media felt the door had been prised open and decided to make a gamble. Southern Metropolis Daily disregarded missives from the publicity office and ran two pages of SARS coverage. Southern Weekend’s tongue grew dangerously sharp: “It’s time we reassess the media’s role and purpose,” it wrote.
Less than a week later a stern warning went out to all media in the province against being adventurous with SARS coverage. On February 17, the publicity office said: “[Media] must not lead discussion toward suggestions the government has been sluggish in dealing with the present crisis, or that the people have a right to know”. On February 23, media were warned to “maintain correct guidance of public opinion”, which again meant walking the Party line. The text of that warning left little room for imagination: “From this time forward, with exception to news reports on SARS issued by the official Xinhua News Agency, decisions for all media in this province concerning SARS coverage are the prerogative of this office alone [Guangdong’s provincial publicity office], regardless of whether that coverage concerns sick cases, disease origins, expert analysis, stories about the effort on the medical front or economic factors”. “Big or small, all reports must physically go through this office, which will decide whether they can or cannot be reported and how they should be reported. Nothing may be reported that has not first passed through this office.”
The warnings were not entirely confined to Guangdong. Central media in Beijing had also been issued various controls concerning the “guidance” of SARS coverage.


By this time, SARS had spread to other areas of China as well as Hong Kong and other countries in the region. The Tenth National People’s Congress and the Chinese Political Consultative Congress, the country’s biggest annual political meetings, opened on March 5 that year. The publicity office of Guangdong’s Party committee warned provincial media they were not to report any official comments on SARS made by delegates at either of the forums. Southern Metropolis Daily, though, again seized the opportunity, printing an interview with the country’s second highest health official, Zhu Qingjun. The report was called, “SARS searching for international cooperation”. The reporter responsible was immediately recalled from Beijing, and not long after the meetings, both Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend were disciplined by officials for SARS and other reports.
While Guangdong media were working under severe constraints, a handful of other national media were testing the waters. Preeminent among these was Caijing, one of the country’s leading business magazines, which had done a series of SARS reports for its April 5 issue. These addressed problems in China’s healthcare system, possible economic fallout, and the need for international cooperation. Most media, however, kept quiet, either failing to recognize the seriousness of the epidemic or fearing uncharted territory.
By this time too, another big story had dropped out of the sky. When the United States launched its invasion of Iraq on March 20, propaganda officials threw the doors wide open. News of the invasion flooded the pages of Chinese newspapers and magazines. China Central Television ran non-stop news and commentary on channels One, Four and Nine, raking in substantial advertising revenues, which rose at CCTV that year by more than 30 percent.
Politburo member Li Changchun praised CCTV’s coverage of the war, saying it, “satisfied the public’s demand for information and showed the network had a good grip on guidance”, the last a reference to the familiar buzzword, “guidance of public opinion”. Li said news reports on the war in Iraq brought home the point that, “there was ample room for reform of the media, that CCTV had great potential, and that the network had the confidence needed to turn over a new leaf”.
On April 9, as American troops rolled into Baghdad, Time magazine ran Jiang Yanyong’s famous letter, in which the Beijing doctor contested the number of SARS cases officially reported in the capital and said military hospitals had been ordered to hide the truth about the disease. The shock of these revelations rippled through China’s top leadership levels. The forced resignations of China’s top health official, Zhang Wenkang, and Beijing Mayor Meng Xuenong followed on April 20, signals that the central government was determined to resolve the crisis as openly as possible. All at once, there was no end to the types of SARS coverage open to domestic media. Many took to the story with gusto, as the following graph makes clear:

After April 20 central and regional media were inundated with SARS coverage. Of course, the propaganda bureau still had its nose in the business, demanding all media “have a firm grasp on correct guidance of public opinion, directing all efforts toward creating an environment conducive to the prevention of SARS”. Some, though, were already starting to criticize Chinese media quite vocally for their complicity in deceiving the public.
For Western media, SARS and its cover-up once again begged serious questions about China’s political stability. When revelations of misinformation brought a public outcry and the resignation of two high-level officials, some foreign media started comparing the episode to the April 1986 explosion of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, which some argued had accelerated glasnost, or “openness” and perestroika, or “restructuring”. Foreign journalists wondered whether SARS would usher in a new era of openness under China’s new president, Hu Jintao.
“Freedom of Speech” and “supervision by public opinion”
Academics and media professionals certainly saw SARS as inviting reflection on media reform and the idea of the “Three Closenesses”. What did reform mean, and what about relevance to the people, if the media failed such an important test? Who was media reform supposed to serve? As media were “enlarged and strengthened”, as they consolidated to form more powerful domestic media giants, did the public’s right to know expand too? Or could those in power deny this right at will?
At the height of the SARS epidemic in China, Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor in Beijing and frequent media commentator, had suggested two interwining factors posed a serious challenge to the media’s ability to play a more independent role. The first factor was autocracy, or “rule by men”, that old bogeyman never quite in China’s past – meaning the affairs of the nation, big and small, were handled through guanxi, or various forms of connection and power-brokering, rather than through rule of law. The second factor, somewhat ironically, was commercialism, one of the driving forces behind media reform.
The tenacity of “rule by men”, said Zhan, meant the idea of the media as a public service vehicle and balancer of interests was constantly rebuffed, and ‘freedom of speech’ viewed as a scourge and menace to entrenched interests. Commercialism, in the form of advertising and public relations, meanwhile, had given rise to what Zhan called “neo-feudalism”, a triangular conspiracy of government, business and the media. Zhan Jiang’s argument, which dragged ‘freedom of the press’ into the media reform debate, was of a kind rarely seen in the Chinese media.
In fact, Chinese citizens are entitled both to “free speech” (言论自由) and a “free press” (出版自由) according to article 35 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. But “freedom of the press” – in Chinese, literally “news freedom” (新闻自由) – is a term of extreme sensitivity, merely tolerated though not outright prohibited. As such, the term appears only rarely in the Chinese press, and when it does appear the intonation is generally negative, maybe a snide comment about “the West’s ‘freedom of the press’”, or “so-called ‘freedom of the press’”.
Searching the China Journalism Network (CJN) database for appearances of the term “freedom of speech” over the last 10 years, I came up with the following graph:

Clearly, pejorative uses of “freedom of the press” account for the bulk of all instances. This is true particularly for the year 1999. Why should this be the case? I don’t know how many of you recall the bombing by U.S. warplanes of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, but you can be sure the Chinese have not forgotten. The incident turned Chinese anger not only to America but also to its hollowed ideals, including “freedom of the press”, and shows how the question was related to the larger geo-political issue of Western dominance and values.
The issue of press freedoms was most openly discussed in the 1980s, as the Chinese Communist Party began drawing up its Media Law. In 1985, an official named Hu Jiwei led the effort to draw up a draft of the law. The third section of that draft stated, “We establish this law according to Articles 22 and 35 of the Constitution, as well as other related articles, in order to ensure freedom of the press and develop socialist media work”.
These efforts, again, were cut short by the June 4, 1989, crackdown on student demonstrators in Beijing. In the aftermath of June 4, Jiang Zemin addressed the question of freedom of the press in the most negative terms: “Hostile forces overseas and staunch domestic supporters of bourgeois freedoms see ‘freedom of the press’ as an important means of bringing about peaceful change [to the Party’s leadership of China]”, he said.
During and after SARS, Chinese media kept their thoughts on freedom of the press closely guarded. Any reflection on the institutional lessons brought home by SARS was nipped in the bud by an atmosphere of intensified control.
The next major policy statement on the media came in September 2004 and was aimed at “strengthening Party governance”. That statement reiterated the principle of the “Three Closenesses”, “guidance of public opinion” and “Party control of the media”. One particular focus was “the strengthening of publicity work related to the Internet in order to bring about more positive [non-critical of the Party] Web-based speech”.
The abovementioned decision made no explicit reference to “media reform”, but did in fact encourage “supervision by public opinion”.
“Supervision by public opinion” is a term much bandied about in the Chinese media. You may recall my first graph, which plotted frequency of three key media terms in China’s top professional journalism publications – “guidance of public opinion”, “supervision by public opinion” (or “watchdog journalism”) and “freedom of speech”. Running the same search for all mainland media through a Chinese news database from 2000 to 2005, I came up with remarkably different results:

In this case, “supervision by public opinion” far surpassed “guidance of public opinion’ in frequency of use, suggesting a sharp division between the official media publications and other media over the prioritizing of media principles. Obviously, we need to look more carefully at how “supervision by public opinion” is used, as Chinese have vastly different ideas of what this term means.
Chinese officials have employed the term for some time, in fact. Every report issued by a Party congress since 1987 has made some mention of “supervision by public opinion”. When General Secretary Zhu Rongji visited the CCTV studio of the “Focus” news program in 1998, he managed to work the term into his speech, as did his successor, Wen Jiabao, in a letter of support to the program in 2004.
While the Communist Party has acknowledged the need for “supervision by public opinion”, it has also stressed that this is one necessary aspect of “self-supervision” and not a process of opposition to the Party or its policies. So it will probably not surprise you that China has a toolbox of slogans and buzzwords with the express purpose of fine-tuning “supervision by public opinion”. “Emphasizing positive publicity” and “Help out, don’t create chaos” are the preeminent ones at present, and under these is a whole set of strictures governing whom the media may investigate, when it is appropriate to do so and when not, what proportion of overall news such reports may account for, and so on.
On February 17, 2004, just seven months before the decision on strengthening governance, the Party mentioned “supervision by public opinion” in its new statute on “internal Party supervision”, marking the first time the term actually appeared in Party laws and regulations. The statute defined it as just one of ten supervisory systems, emphasizing at the same time that news media must, “support the Party’s principles, respect news discipline and professional ethics, have a grasp of the correct guidance of “supervision by public opinion”, and pay close attention to the social implications of “supervision by public opinion”.
Much criticism has been leveled at “supervision by public opinion”, particularly that carried out by Party-controlled newspapers, for “swatting at flies and leaving the tigers alone” – that is, only going after small-time officials and petty businesspeople. And some academics have rather pointedly remarked that it actually amounts to “state supervision by means of the media”. In other words, rather than serving a real watchdog role, it complements and reinforces the power of the Party and state.
But while it is true that “supervision by public opinion” can and has been leveraged by the center to supervise the actions of small-time officials and businesspeople, even this is not a simple matter. The most influential of Chinese media, programs like CCTV’s “Focus”, routinely kill segments addressing very real cases of official wrongdoing after local leaders pull their weight. Chinese corporations complain supervision by the media ties them down, and officials, wary of economic growth figures, are rather inclined to listen. In the new age of advertising, powerfully connected companies with important advertising budgets often enjoy the media’s blind eye.
As commercial reforms have accelerated in the industry, “supervision by public opinion” has been abused by runaway opportunism. Some reporters have become adept at extorting money from those they investigate, so the expose has now become the ransom note. This problem occurs industry wide, and in many cases media dangle scathing reports in front of corporations or officials to induce them to sign advertising contracts. Another trend lately on the rise is the spinning of “supervision by public opinion” by companies or clusters of interest to engage their commercial or political enemies.
Reporters or editors with strong professional sensibilities, those who care about such niceties as ethical journalism, are not without their shortcomings. Many of these set out to do investigative reporting for the good of Chinese society, but lack sufficient professional training.
It is fair to say “supervision by public opinion” is under assault on a number of fronts. But it is also in this general area of Chinese journalism one can expect to find the incipient forces of professionalism and the very best Chinese journalism has to offer. There are many reporters who patiently move ahead, one step forward, a half step back, even as they are bound by Party dictates, oppressed by hardships of their trade, and ridiculed by their colleagues. Inch by inch, they push the bounds, opening more space for their craft, upholding their right to cry out where there is injustice. Their yardstick of self-discipline (which means not overtly challenging the Party, something all reporters must weigh carefully) is the phrase, “As long as Mom and Pop are happy”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the need to keep both the Party and the public satisfied.
I should also mention that it is under the auspices of “supervision by public opinion” that investigative reporting has made notable progress in China over the last decade. A group of top-notch investigative reporters has grown up in China in recent years. Their efforts have also brought some recognition from colleagues in the West, and there is even a core that views the work of “supervision by public opinion” from the standpoint of freedom of speech. They argue their investigative work stems from an inalienable right mandated under freedom of speech as guaranteed in China’s constitution. For them, “supervision by public opinion” is the Chinese cognate of Western “watchdog journalism”.
“Supervision by public opinion” is both one of the most widely used and most complex of Chinese media terms, and in many ways understanding its nuances can help you see more clearly what Chinese journalism is like and what its possibilities and limitations are.
“The Harmonious Society” and Media Reform
Changes in Chinese media are of course subject to the vicissitudes of Chinese politics. The graph below should give you an idea of what political moves in China look like two dimensionally. It plots frequency of occurrence in the Chinese press for the terms “Deng Xiaoping Theory”, Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents”, and Hu Jintao’s “The Harmonious Society”:

(SOURCE: Huike News Database (慧科新闻数据库), January 2004 to June 2005, search of all mainland Chinese publications).

The sharp rise of “The Harmonious Society” signals the burgeoning influence of the ruling concept of Hu Jintao’s administration. So far, the rise of Hu’s new buzzword has not brought a shift in dominant media terminology, but the old terms have undergone some reshuffling. Under Hu’s governing ideology, “guidance of public opinion” still dominates, and “freedom of the press” continues to be more or less unwelcome.
The key priority behind Hu’s policy is stability, which he and other officials see as undergirding the essential of economic development. The idea is to enter what officials have termed “a period of golden economic growth” without deep inequalities dividing the Chinese population. But the media is often viewed by officials as a source of instability. Since the second half of 2004, “The Harmonious Society”, Hu’s buzzword underscoring stable development of Chinese society as a whole, has risen sharply as a term of importance. At the same time, “supervision by public opinion”, which some regard as a potential force of instability, has noticeably slipped, as Graph 5 makes clear.
One key question behind Hu Jintao’s harmonious society is how the relationship between the media and the state should be defined. Some have suggested the Party harness the mobilizing power of the media to achieve its policy goals, that “as a ruling Party, the CCP must strengthen its ability to use the media and influence public opinion”. In late 2004, Wang Jiarui, director of the International Department of the Central Committee, the highest authority within the ruling Communist Party, circulated a document offering lessons from international experience as to how China might handle media relations. Three of the options were as follows:

1. Direct control of the news media
2. Emphasizing public relations work with media in order to mitigate negative reports and guide public opinion
3. Placing emphasis on new publicity concepts and methods in order to improve on publicity mechanisms and enhance the government’s image

The priorities of censorship in China are without a doubt changing. Generally speaking, disaster reporting was more timely and open after SARS, but the “what” and “why” – which might for example point to government ineptitude – were often left out of the mix. In May and June 2005, blanket coverage was allowed for some stories, for example flooding in the Pearl River Delta (Guangdong province), while for others more in-depth coverage was banned, such as with the story of the death of 100 primary school students trapped in floods in northern China. For still others, outright bans were in force. No media were allowed to report on an investigation against the vice-governor of Henan province, suspected of murdering his wife. Nor could they report on a civil uprising in the town of Chizhou in Anhui province.
For all news stories in China, there is a constant push and pull between the priorities of “supervision by public opinion” and “guidance of public opinion”. While one seeks to expose (again, often for the benefit of Party leaders), the other seeks to minimize social and political fallout for the sake of “stability” and the interest of the Party. Freezing Point, the China Youth Daily supplement shutdown briefly last January, was long a bright spot of “supervision by public opinion”. But we shouldn’t be surprised to find, in the “decision” on the paper’s suspension issued by its publisher, the Communist Youth League, our other buzzword: “[We must] boster political consciousness, and the sense of [political] unity and responsibility, strictly respecting the rules of news propaganda, and supporting correct guidance of public opinion” (my emphasis).
Hu Jintao’s doctrine of the “three closenesses” has brought some change to the media. Insipid stories about official goings-on, which used to flood news pages, are slowly giving way to more palatable fare. But this ostensible “media commercialization” is not really about a free market of media offerings. Statements from Chinese propaganda ministers make it clear that Hu’s concept of the “three closenesses” is the flip side of “enlarging and strengthening”, which essentially seeks to fortify the media as one of China’s key state-owned sectors.
The idea is to accelerate development of a Party-run media sector in order to enhance the Party’s power and control. This win-win proposition for the Party allows it to keep a monopoly on news and information while profiting enormously from the media business. The bombast of the Party mouthpiece yields to the subtle suggestion of the soft political advertisement. The ersatz watchdog (“supervision by public opinion”) is let loose in the yard to nose out a a few major stories now and then, creating news sensations to grab attention and ad revenue.
The advance of bottom-line consumerism is something we need to watch carefully in China. Even as a core of journalists seek newfound professionalism and a larger civic role for media, the peculiar marriage of commerce and politics in China is throwing up new commercial obstacles to this goal. While media are still carefully controlled by the state, they have become a major source of revenue for officials. We have already seen this year, with the controversy over the participation of U.S. Internet companies in censorship actrivities in China, that it is foolish to hope commercial reforms alone will usher in a new era of press freedoms. It’s just as possible that China’s state-controlled media could sit like a great red dragon atop its pile of riches, while a few Murdochs and Microsofts nestle under its wings.
I personally believe “freedom of the press” in China today can take shape only through the formation, under constitutional mandate, of a group of credible, independent news platforms seeking to serve the public responsibly and not under state control.
For now, however, the future of freedom of the press rests with political reform. Journalists in China must keep a watchful eye on the development of internal Party reforms, such as the implementation of more “democratic” selection of Party leaders. As system reforms and changes to the Chinese constitution move ahead, one key question will be how “media reform” factors in to the equation.
When I was at Southern Weekend I used to tell my staff there were no shortcuts to media reform in China. It would be a long and arduous process, and we could only ever expect progress by increments. It is true Chinese media continue to be rigorously controlled by the country’s leaders, and events like this year’s shutdown of Freezing Point deserve our utmost attention. But in our more optimistic moments, perhaps we can be heartened by the recognition that we parted long ago with the days when the newspapers were dominated by official bombast and declarations from on high.

Hu Yong

July 2005 — Hu Yong is a producer with China Central Television Channel II, China’s most-watched business news channel, and a pioneering developer of China’s Internet. In 1999, after working eight years as a reporter, first for China Daily and later for Lifeweek newsmagazine, Hu joined the editorial board of China Internet Weekly. From 1999 to 2001, he was also president of the China Internet Institute, a leading think tank on Internet research and consulting in China. Hu is the author of Internet: The King Who Rules, the first book introducing the Internet to Chinese readers, and many other best-selling books concerning the Internet economy. He has also written for a variety of national and international business and professional publications, including Fortune (the Chinese edition), The Economic Observer, Business Watch, Sino-Foreign Management, China Entrepreneurs, 21st Century Business Review, China International Business. He is a regular columnist for, and Project Syndicate.

Lu Xinyu

May 2005 — Lu is a professor of journalism at Shanghai’s Fudan University and director of the school’s department of television journalism. She is author of Documenting China: The Contemporary Documentary Movement in China and Mythology/Tragedy/Aristotle’s Art of Poetry: New Concepts in Poetic Tradition of Ancient Greece, as well as numerous articles. Lu also serves as deputy director of Fudan University’s Research Center for Visual Culture.

“China’s selective memory”

/The New York Times
NEW HAVEN, Connecticut Ever since June 4, 1989, when the world’s cameras embarrassed the Chinese government by recording the slaughter of unarmed protesters in Beijing, spring has been a sensitive period in Chinese politics. Public demonstrations of all kinds have been repressed as if they were vicious cancers. It is indeed news, then, that people have been protesting in the streets of Chinese cities about Japan’s wartime past, its textbooks’ reluctance to face history squarely and its proposed accession to the United Nations Security Council.
[Click HERE for full article at The International Herald Tribune]

Tang Jianguang

April 2005 — Tang has served as editor and head of the political affairs desk at China Newsweek magazine since 2002. From 1994 to 2002, Tang worked as a reporter and as head of the general news and economic news desks for Chengdu Commercial Daily, one of the first commercial newspapers to be published in the tabloid boom of the mid- to late 1990s.

Li Yaling

April 2005 — Currently a roving reporter for Chengdu Commercial Daily, one of western China’s most successful newspapers, Li has worked as a journalist since graduating from university in 1995. One of Li’s best known investigative stories concerned a drug-addicted mother whose infant died at home of starvation as local police kept the woman in detention and ignored her pleas for them to go look after the child. Li Yaling also writes serialized fiction for Chengdu Commercial Daily.

The Beijing Taxi Corruption Case

On June 28, 2002, the staff for the weekly supplement of China Economic Times, a leading Chinese business daily, held their routine Friday editorial meeting. Wang Nan, the section’s editor, handed veteran investigative reporter Wang Keqin a pile of research materials, including a document from the newspaper’s parent organization, the Development Research Center (DRC), a policy think-tank under China’s State Council, the country’s chief administrative authority

The DRC document, “An Investigation and Petition on the Plight of Beijing Taxi Drivers,” had been sent over by Guo Lihong, who ran the center’s economics division. It included statements from a few local taxi drivers. While it was common for China Economic Times’ reporters to cite officials from the DRC in their news reports, it was less common for the DRC to send reports directly to the newsroom. Wang Nan suggested Wang Keqin explore a possible news feature about the economic difficulties facing taxi drivers in Beijing. This was indeed news to Wang Keqin, who said he had long assumed taxi drivers fared better than many city residents.

Starting with the DRC report Wang gathered background on the taxi industry. He quickly realized drivers were being charged a whole range of ad hoc fees from taxi companies, which accounted for over 98 percent of the roughly 67,000 taxis on Beijing’s roads. One type of fee was called the “vehicle portion”, and generally meant a driver paid several thousand yuan per month for the right to operate a taxi under the company’s license. In addition to vehicle portions some drivers were forced to pay “risk deposits” amounting to tens of thousands of yuan. Many drivers had effectively fronted the money to pay for their own vehicles, forking out 50 to 100 thousand yuan when they signed their job contracts with the company. Without being licensed for the passenger transport business, drivers had to rely on the companies for vehicle purchases.

Taxi drivers had been vocal about these problems for years. In 1995, one driver had tried to defend his right to own a taxi before a Beijing court. When the court refused to try the case, thousands of drivers staged a strike at the Beijing West Railway Station, bringing traffic to a standstill for several hours. Drivers staged similar strikes in the summers of 1996 and 2000, stalling their cars outside Beijing’s Capital International Airport.

These incidents had brought the industry’s problems to the attention of Chinese leaders, but decisive action had never been taken. Wang found a 2001 article from China Market magazine quoting Premier Zhu Rongji, the head of China’s cabinet as criticizing the nationwide taxi industry before a meeting of Party leaders. According to a researcher cited in the China Market report, Zhu Rongji compared the tactics of taxi companies to those of the Green Gang, a mafia-style crime group that had operated in pre-Communist Shanghai. The premier, said the article, had even sent his wife on an undercover fact-finding mission in which she rode taxis and spoke with drivers about their situation.

By the time Wang Keqin was on the taxi story it was approaching two years since Zhu Rongji’s criticism of taxi companies. Nothing whatsoever seemed to have been done in that time. Wang Keqin learned that several newspapers had tried to put together reports on the issue only to drop them after threats from gangs they suspected were hired by taxi companies. Wang later said he was angered by the media’s lack of action on the story at the time. “If journalists don’t have a conscience, don’t have a sense of humanity, they are totally worthless,” he said.

Wang Keqin also started developing sources among Beijing taxi drivers, a much harder task than he had first expected. He started out by contacting Shao Changliang, one of the drivers listed in the DRC report. Shao was able to put him in touch with other drivers. But many drivers were reluctant to talk to the report. “I don’t care if you’re President Jiang Zemin,” said one driver at a diner popular with local cabbies. “What good can possibly come from the work of one journalist? Why waste an interview?” Wang persisted, conducting one-on-one and group interviews, paying visits to driver’s homes and to popular hangouts. Over the course of three months of reporting he completed interviews with more than 100 drivers. In many cases, he convinced them to sign and fingerprint their statements so they would be admissible in court if necessary. He carried an inkpad everywhere he went. A strong believer in what he calls “comprehensive, impartial and accurate reporting”, Wang Keqin sought to have as many types of evidence as he could for his story – eyewitness accounts, written statements, documentary evidence. Whenever possible he made sure he had original documents. He also sought out multiple originals of similar documents, like taxi registration papers, so he could compare these for accuracy and consistency.

Every driver willing to talk had a story about what his company had put him through. Deng Shaolong, a driver for Beijing Yinjian Taxi Company, told Wang Keqin he had been hospitalized the year before for treatment of a severe perianal abscess (a work-related condition due to sitting for long periods in a vehicle). Although the operation meant he couldn’t work for four months, the taxi company continued to charge his monthly vehicle portion of 5,100 yuan. Just two hours after he was off the operating table, the company sent someone to his bedside to collect.

Drivers for Beijing Wanquansi Taxi Company, one of the city’s largest, produced messy, improvised receipts for various penalties the company had charged them for supposed infractions of all kinds. These were deducted, they said, from hefty “risk deposits” – usually between 30,000 to 80,000 yuan – the drivers had to pay as a condition for their contracts. “The assets of the Beijing Wanquansi Taxi Company were built on fines!” they told Wang Keqin. Every company, they said, had its own set of strict in-house rules designed for the levying of such penalties.

The conditions shocked Wang Keqin. Everyone seemed to know by name drivers who had died of extreme fatigue at the wheel. On a blistering hot night in August, he visited the 90 square-foot apartment of driver Feng Jiyou. Six family members spanning three generations were huddled together there. Despite his early setbacks, Wang was eventually able to build a strong rapport with his taxi driver sources. All eventually allowed him to use their real names in his story, which Wang convinced them was the best way to prove the reliability of their testimony.

Wang Keqin eventually said self-deprecatingly that he had gone out of his way to cut an absurd figure – a small-time reporter, leading a ragged life, fighting for the equitable treatment of taxi drivers who made, on a salary basis, about twice what he did. When assigned to the taxi story, Wang Keqin’s monthly salary was 1,200 yuan (US$145), just enough to cover the barest necessities in a city where a small apartment costs about 1,500 yuan (US$180) a month. Wang could ordinarily expect to supplement his salary with income from published articles – 60 yuan (US$7.25) each. Accepting an investigative assignment that consumed his time meant he would have to get by without.

As Wang Keqin continued to interview taxi drivers he tried to secure interviews with government officials to get their side of the story and find out why the industry was such a mess. The government office most directly involved was the city’s transportation bureau, but the story in fact touched on over 30 agencies, which meant Wang Keqin had a lot of ground to cover. Just getting in the door proved a problem, however.

While a number of local governments in China have issued ordinances on information disclosure in recent years, beginning with Guangzhou in 2003 following the government’s cover up of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, officials still maintain a monopoly on information – they decide what to release, when and how. While these ordinances, and proposed national legislation on disclosure, seek to make openness the practice and secrecy the exception, the reverse is still the rule. There are no laws or regulations granting the media access to official records and government offices can refuse requests out of hand.

All government offices in China have publicity offices set up to disseminate information as suits official needs. These offices cultivate close relationships with beat reporters, who in many cases, media insiders say, will not expose sensitive issues. Government offices look on outside reporters as meddlers. If they are working off their beats or do not have close relationships with the office, this can suggest to officials that they are doing watchdog journalism, or what is called in Chinese “supervision by public opinion”.

Wang Keqin called dozens of officials during his first few weeks on the taxi story. Only three agreed to meet with him, and all of these were arranged with the help of one of Wang Keqin’s acquaintances, a seasoned reporter on the labor beat with good contacts in the city labor department.

Wang made his first attempt to reach officials at the transportation bureau just a few days after he started the story. Zhang Lei, an officer in the bureau’s publicity office, asked China Economic Times to fax over an official interview request. This was the beginning of several weeks of back and forth and foot-dragging. “Our district chief is away from his desk right now,” publicity officers would say, or “Our district chief is in a meeting right now”. Next it would be: “We have already forwarded your information to the Taxi Management Office and are still waiting for an answer.”

The city’s labor bureau, before Wang’s reporter friend stepped in, asked that China Economic Times send over Wang Keqin’s press pass, work visa and a letter of introduction. Wang’s editor faxed over the official letter and said the press pass and work visa were on their way. No sooner had the bureau received the fax than it modified the procedure – “We will also require an official letter from your personnel department concerning the press pass,” they said. The newspaper’s personnel office sent a letter over as requested. The newspaper was told to wait while higher-ups at the bureau were consulted.

Wang Keqin had better success talking to insurance firms, which saw taxi companies as a constant headache. They told him about constant contract violations and illegal insurance scams by taxi companies. Two insurance firms had analysts for the passenger transport industry who briefed Wang on such things as fake insurance policies and illegal taxi permits. According to one analyst, the city’s taxi industry represented an insurance market of over 300 million yuan (US$36 million) a year. The fact that current policies with legitimate insurance firms totaled just one-tenth that amount suggested widespread abuse of regulations mandating all taxis have insurance.

But Wang Keqin was getting nowhere with city officials. Finally, he decided to circumvent the publicity office. The only success he had was getting the head of the transportation bureau’s regulatory office to call him back. While their discussion was brief and not materially helpful, Wang Keqin tried to get a face-to-face interview on the back of this brief exchange. He showed up at the office on July 31. The secretary said her boss was out for the day, but Wang did manage to speak briefly with another employee, who offered a few details about the taxi-related regulations. Wang slipped into the publicity office on his way out, where at last he came face to face with Zhang Lei, the chief stonewaller. It was not a happy meeting. “I suggest you leave now and try reaching us about this later,” Zhang said ominously. “We’ll check and see if Mr. Liang, head of our taxi management office, will agree to meet with you.” It was hopeless arguing with Zhang Lei. Wang left through the main entrance as Zhang watched. Outside, Wang Keqin took a few laps in the courtyard before darting back in and heading straight for the taxi management office.

“I’m here to see Director Liang,” he said as soon as he was through the door.
“What for?”
“An interview.”
“That’s not possible, I’m afraid. The publicity office handles news media. We don’t deal directly.”

Wang Keqin could only go back to his old business of pestering Zhang Lei.
Eventually he managed to locate the direct line for Liang Jianwei, the head of the taxi management office. “News is handled by the publicity office. I don’t directly accept interviews,” he said.

As it happened, Director Liang operated his own taxi company and had been mentioned in the China Market article Wang Keqin had stumbled across in his early research, the very same one that mentioned Zhu Rongji’s statement on the industry.

On August 26, nearly two months into his investigation, Wang Keqin received a call from one of the taxi drivers with whom he had become close. “Didn’t you say you‘re finding it hard to reach officials from the transportation bureau? Well, a bunch of us are going there tomorrow to meet with the director, Zhang Yansheng. Why don’t you come along?”

This was Wang Keqin’s best chance so far. They arrived at the bureau at nine the next morning and squatted outside Zhang Yansheng’s office. The office staff repeatedly told them to get lost, but they refused to move until they had seen the director. Two uniformed security guards paced back and forth in the hallway eyeing them closely.

At about half past nine, Director Zhang emerged from a nearby office and told the drivers to wait in an empty conference room. Several minutes later the director returned. He immediately fixed his eyes on Wang Keqin. “Today I’m meeting with drivers only. Are you driver?” her asked sternly.

“I’m a friend of theirs,” said Wang.
“Get out. If you’re not a driver, get the hell out,” Zhang growled.

Wang Keqin refused to budge, but a pair of heavy-set staffers hoisted him by the arms and dragged him forcibly into the hall. He was dropped in a waiting area in an adjacent building and asked to stay put. Thirty minutes later two white-haired cadres came in to commiserate with him. Retired officials like this were often retained by government offices as unofficial negotiators. They told Wang Keqin calmly that a meeting with Director Zhang was not possible.

Looking back on his exposure in the conference room, Wang Keqin said he should have made a greater effort to blend inconspicuously with his friends. He surmised that his ragged man of letter appearance made him stick out like a sore thumb among the drivers. Office employees had probably told Director Zhang to be careful.

Getting information from taxi companies was at least as tough as reaching government offices. Wang Keqin phoned more than twenty local taxi companies, but none of the larger ones agreed to meet with him. He tried walking directly into Wanquansi Taxi, one of Beijing’s better known companies, but two guards prevented him from going in. When he insisted on meeting with the boss, the office employees just ridiculed him. Wang Keqin waited nonetheless, until a man reeking of alcohol stumbled out of the back office and stepped right up in his face: “What newspaper did you say you’re from? We don’t want an interview! Get the hell out!” The guards took him by the arms, a replay of his treatment at the transportation bureau, and tossed him outside.

Wang continued to push and eventually spoke with office managers at a few of the smaller taxi companies. His big break came during a meeting with a lower-level transportation official in Pinggu, a district of Beijing. He told Wang Keqin he was annoyed with the city transportation bureau’s unwillingness to address the problems facing taxi drivers. He became more and more animated as they spoke. Wang saw his opening. But gaining the official’s confidence was crucial to his full cooperation. Wang’s answer was to play up China Economic Times’ affiliation with the Development Research Center (DRC), which was directly under China’s State Council. He also spoke about his former career in Gansu Province, as clerical secretary to a provincial official. He said the newspaper and the DRC were conducting an investigation of the taxi industry, and the Pinggu official’s assistance would be beneficial.

Wang Keqin’s de-emphasizing of his media role worked (the reader should remember that in China these lines are always vague). The district official waved his staff into action and requested all taxi companies in his district to cooperate with Wang Keqin’s investigation. In a convoy of official sedans, Wang was whisked off to the first of several interviews. Before long, he was seated comfortably in a conference room, where the table was laid out with green tea and fresh fruit.

The Pinggu official sat in on the meetings as company representatives walked Wang Keqin through their operation methods. They went to several companies, where bosses spoke matter-of-factly about how they had used official regulations to start up taxi companies with little or no initial expenditures – all it took was knowing the bureaucratic ropes. Zhang Huiyu, a standing committee member of the People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body, in Pinggu District, told Wang Keqin how he had founded a taxi company with nothing: “Back in 1992 some friends of mine suggested that I could start up a taxi company without spending a cent or incurring any debt. I did all the paperwork in Xisi District in Chengguan. The village government made all the approvals and notified the [Beijing] city transportation bureau. After that, the transportation bureau issued me an instrument of ratification for the passenger transport business. I received licenses for 50 vehicles”. Zhang’s next step was to put out a call for drivers. Anyone with driving ability who was willing to put up 50,000 could work for his company. Before long he had found 25 drivers and taken in 1.2 million yuan in “financing funds”. He used this money to buy 25 passenger minivans. So by obtaining one approval and without spending a dime, Zhang Huibao had created a taxi company with a fleet of 25 vehicles and assets totaling 1.3 million yuan.

Changes in city regulations worsened the situation for drivers who felt locked into the trade by the huge “financing funds” and “risk deposits” they put down to secure their contracts. When Beijing announced in June 1996 that minivans could no longer be used for the taxi business, the companies passed on to the drivers the cost of changing their fleets to sedans. Zhang Huiyu accomplished this by “buying” the fleet’s 26 minivans back from his drivers for between 38 and 45 thousand yuan each, selling them to companies outside the taxi industry, then applying the funds to the purchase of 26 new sedans worth 115 thousand each. His former minivan drivers then “purchased” the sedans for 135 thousand yuan each. The licenses for these vehicles still belonged to Zhang Huiyu’s company, so the drivers were essentially investing receiving shares. Meanwhile, Zhang Huiyu hiked the monthly taxi portions, the right to operate the taxis, up to 1,500 yuan from 800 yuan.

Practices like these were common across the industry. They meant taxi drivers worked cruelly long hours just to scrape together enough get by after paying the various fees levied by the taxi companies. On average they worked 585 full-time workdays each year, calculated on the basis of China’s standard eight-hour workday. Although they worked 12-13 hour shifts every day, they earned on average just 1,817 yuan a month, less than half Beijing’s monthly per capita income as reported by the city government at the time.

Because of regulatory loopholes, taxi companies also got away without paying taxes. Wang estimated that if taxi companies across China paid taxes to the state of 1,500 yuan per year – less than most companies charged their drivers for vehicle portions – state tax revenues from the industry would total about 14 billion yuan (US$1.7 billion). Companies routinely paid kickbacks to the city transportation officials. An accountant from one company said they paid hundreds of thousands of yuan in “gratuities” each year to officials at the transportation bureau. “This is how all the companies do it,” he said.

Aside from the misery of taxi drivers and the loss of state revenues, the residents of capital were losers too. Wang’s investigation found that irrational fees, and particularly taxi portions, were the primary cause of higher taxi fares. If drivers were issued licenses for their own vehicles, Wang research showed, taxi fares would drop by about 30-40 percent.

Wang Keqin completed his investigative report in the middle of September. Once the draft was in the hands of his editors, the fight was to ensure the story was printed without major changes that lessened the impact of the report. Editors at China Economic Times had to weigh the implications of the story very carefully as it dealt with administrative corruption and mismanagement by the city-level government of the national capital.

The first issue to consider was timing. The inaugural session of the Sixteenth Party Congress was just days away. Political sensitivities were always heightened in the run-up to such meetings, as officials worried that negative press might sabotage their prospects for advancement. News reports even mildly critical of the leadership tended to evaporate during periods like this.

This particular political session was even more sensitive because there was widespread anticipation President Jiang Zemin would hand the reigns over to his successor Hu Jintao. There was additional speculation that a high-level Beijing city official would be elevated to the politburo, the elite group of China’s top 24 or so leaders. Attacking the Beijing city government at such a time was sure to make enemies. China Economic Times’ directorial board – comprising the paper’s chairman, editor-in-chief, and deputy editor-in-chief – worried that running Wang’s article might put not just their own positions but the newspaper’s future at risk.

The first suggestion the editors had was to run the report in seven sections over the period of a week, which might soften the political impact without compromising the story itself. Wang Keqin was adamantly against this idea. He argued that the first section would simply send up a red flag and officials would make sure the other six sections were never printed. While most of the editors agreed, running the full report was simply not an option, not at least on the eve of these important meetings. They decided to wait for the right opportunity.

In the meantime, Wang Keqin’s report had to be kept safe. They wanted to make sure word did not get out that they were sitting on a report about corruption in the Beijing government. They removed all record of the story from the newspaper’s internal computer network and agreed not to talk about the report to other staff.

Wang Keqin did not slow down. He knew, of course, that the report was dangerous and that it might take a show of unity to raise the stakes of administrative action against the newspaper and protect both himself and his editors. So he worked behind the scenes to solicit expert commentaries and supporting articles at other media that might bolster his own report when the time came. He convinced Xu Hui, an expert economist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, to write a 4,000-word commentary about regulatory problems in China using the taxi industry as a case in point. Columnists at China Economic Times readied a similar critique. Wang also gathered together unused material from his investigation for a piece called “What the Experts Say”, which included his interviews with several academics.

The possibility of a libel suit was also a concern for the newspaper. It was increasingly common for officials to use the local courts, which were still not sufficiently independent from bureaucratic meddling, to restore their reputations. The editors wanted to make sure Wang Keqin’s report was as watertight as possible. In mid-November the editorial board, comprising the directorial board plus four additional editors, pored over Wang’s draft and consulted a lawyer. The lawyer went carefully through the facts, checking them against the pile of documentation Wang had provided. “I don’t see any legal problems here. The evidence is formidable”, he said.

The editors left the final changes up to Wang Keqin, who delivered a printed, staple-bound copy to the editor-in-chief, Bao Yueyang. Some editors continued to voice concerns, however. One of the biggest issues was whether taxi drivers might use Wang Keqin’s report as an occasion to stage a demonstration like those in years past. If the newspaper were seen to be tied in any way to social unrest, disciplinary action was virtually assured. The newspaper might be shut down and letters of self-criticism forced from its staff.

Wang Keqin assured the editors the taxi drivers would not stage demonstrations. “I know these guys well and I don’t think that’s how they will respond,” he said. Wang even sought to allay their fears by providing signed statements from a number of taxi drivers.

After debating the report for several days, the editorial board decided to draft an “article release” signed by all seven members. This sign-off process had already by computerized at China Economic Times, but drafting a physical release was both a way to show support for the story and keep it under wraps long enough to get it out safely. The final version went to Bao Yueyang’s office with six signatures. Bao added his own. “The Inside Story on the Beijing Taxi Cartel” was ready to run.

As Wang’s article ran off the presses that night, Bao Yueyang posted a message on China Economic Times’ bulletin board system (BBS): “This story, following the report on securities fraud in Lanzhou, is the second missile Wang Keqin has fired at corrupt government. For a story as truthful as this one it is only right for us to run a bit of risk.”

Finally, on December 6, 2002, the China Economic Times issue featuring Wang’s report was delivered to newsstands all over China.


Wang’s report was instantly successful at newsstands. In Beijing, copies of China Economic Times sold in some places for as much as 10 yuan (US$1.25) despite its one yuan cover price. In Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, copies sold for as high as 50 yuan (US$6). Within hours the report was on the Web., one of China’s top sites, logged an all-time record for online readers of a single news story. The office of China Economic Times was bombarded with phone calls from readers and taxi drivers wanting to thank the newspaper for a job well done. Wang Keqin even received calls from several taxi company managers who wanted to come clean with their own stories.
City officials did not share the enthusiasm. The transportation bureau issued an order against taxi drivers reading China Economic Times, and several newsstands around the city called the newsroom to say government agencies were buying up copies. At least one newsstand, at Beijing’s Capital International Airport, was shut down for offering copies of the newspaper. By evening Wang’s report was yanked from all major Web portals, including and The Central Propaganda Department phoned up news media to deliver a ban on all further coverage of the story or reprinting of the China Economic Times report.
Wang Keqin’s preparations ensure, though, that his was not the only voice on the issue. “It remains to be seen what impact, if any, the report will have on the city’s handling of the industry. But the article will clearly go down as a historic chapter in China’s effort to achieve regulatory reform,” wrote Xu Hui, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences expert, in an editorial that accompanied Wang’s report. A China Daily editorial from well-know columnist Ma Li called the article “a fine example of watchdog journalism.”
Just over a week later, on December 14, Wen Jiabao, who was then vice-premier, issued an official response to Wang’ Keqin’s report: “The problems in our taxi industry can no longer be ignored. Government agencies are instructed to review the issue and propose reforms.” By the beginning of 2003, Premier Zhu Rongji had been handed an official report pointing to severe problems in the taxi industry and government offices were moving ahead with the drafting of reform proposals. Wang Keqin cooperated with Beijing University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to help in drafting a new regulatory framework for the industry.
At China Economic Times editors saw Wang’s report as a major success, and Wen Jiabao’s public statement seemed the surest sign of the report’s impact.
But Chinese officials wanted to make it clear the newspaper should avoid similar stunts in the future. When China Economic Times submitted a request to propaganda officials to adjust its publication frequency later that year, the request was swiftly denied. The word back from top officials was curt and clear: “Who said you could do a report on Beijing’s taxi industry?”

Postscript< br/>
Wang Keqin originally gave his own account of this celebrated case a perplexing title: “A Down and Out Don Quixote”. The Quixote allusion, strange though it may seem at first, is familiar to investigative reporters in China. The most tenacious investigative reporters in China see themselves as crusaders for social justice battling a system that constantly frustrates this goal. One Quixote episode in particular has become symbolic of that single-minded quest. In that episode of the Cervantes classic, Don Quixote launches a futile attack with his lance against a group of windmills, imagining they are giants that must be defeated. For Chinese investigative reporters the windmill stands in for the daunting sum of obstacles to justice – entrenched local power, government secrecy, organized crime, the Propaganda Department. Their sense of social conscience spurs them into action and the hopeless joust begins.
China Youth Daily reporter Lu Yuegang, removed from his position at the weekly newspaper supplement Freezing Point in January 2006, recalls how his editor, Zhou Zhichuan, said to him while they were investigating a story in Shaanxi in the late 1990s: “The world doesn’t need just one Don Quixote. It needs a whole troupe of Quixotes”. Lu Yuegang and Zhou Zhichuan were searching at the time for evidence in the case of Wu Fang, a countrywoman who had been viciously attacked with acid under the orders of a powerful local Party official. Lu Yuegang had devoted months to the case, and was already embroiled in a libel suit resulting from his first investigative report. But for Lu Yuegang, there was so much more than just a story at stake. The journalist wanted justice for Wu Fang, and by extension, he said, all Chinese. The case consumed his personal and professional life.
It is no secret that China’s economic boom has created prosperity for some while compounding the misery of others. For those who have lost out, there are few means of conciliation. Public awareness of the legal system as a form of recourse is growing. But China’s legal system still lacks the independence needed to balance the interests of ordinary people against those of officials, who often manipulate the legal system. The only other formal avenue for seeking justice is a process called shangfang (上访), or seeking an audience with higher authorities to appeal for help. This often entails traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to the complaints office of a regional capital, where a petitioner must wait for days, weeks or months for the opportunity to meet with an official. The highest office for complaints is the national Bureau of Letters and Calls, under the umbrella of the State Council. It regularly finds itself besieged by crowds of petitioners from all around the country waiting, often to no end, to voice their grievances.
Given the inadequacy of the legal and shangfang systems, many average Chinese turn to the media to plead their cases. In some instances, disfranchised rural communities or individuals view the reporter as a godsend, a miracle worker who can convey their appeal for justice to higher authorities.
Wang Keqin recalls that one of the most pivotal moments in his journalism career was a stint as a reporter in a remote region of his native Gansu province, where hundreds of desperate farmers dropped to the ground before him, weeping and pleading for intervention. Faced with such a situation, says Zhai Minglei, a former investigative reporter with Southern Weekend, the notion of impartial reporting simply crumbles away. The reporter is affected on a deeply human level, and unwittingly becomes an advocate.
Other investigative reporters have had experiences similar to Wang’s. After journalist Yang Haipeng wrote an investigative report for Southern Weekend about criminal gangs monopolizing a local fishing industry, regional police teams broke up the racket. Fisherfolk of the area expressed their profound gratitude to Yang by erecting an effigy of him in their local temple.
It’s not hard to imagine that situations like these intensify the reporter’s sense of personal heroism.
The hero complex is further compounded by the experience of being cast out of the dominant media culture for brazen risk taking. Working for a government-run newspaper in the Gansu’s capital city of Lanzhou, Wang Keqin wrote a devastating report on shady dealings in the local financial market that had robbed thousands of small-time investors of their hard-earned yuan. Parties involved in the scam responded by putting a price on Wang’s head. The newspaper did nothing to protect him. Undaunted, Wang Keqin next wrote a hard-hitting report destroying the careers of several local officials. His knack for nosing out scandals was becoming dangerous for his newspaper. Wang was fired by editors who were themselves under intensifying political pressure. Even friends and former colleagues turned away from him. After searching three months for a job without success, he joined hundreds of other Chinese lined up outside the government offices in Lanzhou waiting to make a personal plea to complaints officials.
Apart from political and social pressures, the economic realities of the newspaper business in China are another significant obstacle to quality investigative journalism. Payment systems at most Chinese media are not designed to encourage investigative reporters determined to take on tough assignments.
Instead, journalists are generally paid under a piece-rate system. With administrative and budgetary limits placed on the hiring of necessary staff, some media must resort to forms of payment classified as “costs” rather than “wages”. These include “article payments” (搞费), which are per-word payments based on words published, and “reimbursement” (报销), by which a reporter is reimbursed in cash for personal expense receipts to an amount agreed outside the employment contract.
This system has the added effect of creating distinct hierarchies in some media organizations between official hires, who are entitled to fixed salaries, benefits and insurance, and those who are paid mostly or entirely on the basis of output. Payment procedures vary a great deal between organizations, but the vast majority of journalists are paid by a piece-rate system, and a lengthy reporting assignment can mean great personal sacrifice.
Even for Wang Keqin, a veteran reporter with a decent salary, the time-consuming reportage for the Beijing taxi story meant severe financial strain. When assigned to the taxi story, his monthly wage was 1,200 yuan (US$145), just enough to cover the barest necessities in a city where a small apartment at the time cost about 1,500 yuan (US$180) a month. Ordinarily, Wang could expect to supplement his salary with income from published articles – 60 yuan (US$7.25) each. Accepting an investigative assignment meant he would have to get by without this additional income. Moreover, it was China Economic Times’ policy not to reimburse interview costs such as transportation for stories that required only local reporting.
Considering all of these challenges together – immense social injustices to tackle, dangers to the reporter’s personal safety and career prospects, a sense of professional isolation, etcetera – many investigative reporters have developed what former investigative reporter Zhai Minglei calls “hero’s sickness”. “Deviant times and needs have made for deviant heroes”, says Zhai.
Looking back several years after Wang’s report, a thorough work of investigative reporting on an issue of public concern (and direct relevance to the lives of more than two million Chinese taxi drivers and their families), it can be said, unfortunately, that it had little impact on policy making. The issue fizzled into China’s bureaucracy. Undeterred, Wang Keqin continued to research the taxi industry nationwide, but said in late 2004 that little progress had been made in addressing the institutional causes of injustices facing the drivers. Wang Keqin has gone on to do other important investigative reports, including one in late 2005 on HIV-AIDS in the city of Xingtai in Henan Province, and a lengthy report on the beating death of China Trade News reporter Lan Chengzhang in February 2007.