Jian Guangzhou was a very nervous man. In September 2008, he’d filed a story to his newspaper’s editors that named a large, state-owned Chinese company as selling milk powder that made infants dangerously ill. It was the sort of moment that ends journalism careers in China, where even if the reporting is solid, ruffling the politically connected can bring excruciating reprisal.
The food safety problem at hand turned out to be epic: Twenty-two dairy businesses were implicated in a scandal over mixing milk with an industrial chemical that can cause kidney failure in babies. At least six infants in China died as a result, and some 300,000 fell ill. The courts convicted more than 20 people linked to the industry, sending two of those off for execution.
The Chinese Communist Party soon moved to quell public outrage and made sure senior leaders weren’t implicated. Still, Jian’s work was seen as a sliver of transparency in a nation often shrouded by censorship.
Then last month Jian announced he was resigning from the newspaper that had published his expose. In an online post, Jian said he planned to no longer “be a journalist in media that fawns over the powerful.”
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His resignation was another in a line of high-profile Chinese investigative journalists and their editors who’ve recently either left their jobs or been shoved to the side.
The departures suggest that China’s leadership, about to undergo a once-a-decade transition, is caught in a bind typical of authoritarian regimes. Work such as Jian’s, which in 2008 may have helped save children from dying, provides a pressure valve in a society already laced with pent-up discontent. Allowing it to continue, however, creates the possibility of questions arising about the ruling party – unthinkable for an authority whose power is predicated on its near-infallibility.
Chinese media recently reported that so far, six officials who were fired or punished after the milk powder fallout have been reinstated or promoted.
Wang Keqin, a doyen of Chinese journalists, said in an interview at his Beijing office that this year has been “probably the worst” in a decade or more for investigative journalists, despite one of the biggest political scandals in recent history: the wife of a powerful Communist Party figure convicted of murder, and that official, Bo Xilai, now himself being handed over to the courts. But domestic reporting on the case, viewed by some observers as ruthless political theater during a factional power struggle, has been subject to severe scrutiny by party propaganda apparatchiks.
In discussing the journalism landscape, Wang, 47, said it was typically squeezed by censors during large events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the 2009 anniversary of the party’s founding of the People’s Republic of China.
In tracing a recent downturn starting last year, though, Wang also mentioned other troubles.
“The conflicts among the people of China’s society turned white hot. Mass incidents were in the state of blossoming everywhere,” he said, using a catchall term for public disturbances ranging from street corner demonstrations to citywide riots. “Then the Chinese authorities . . . took ‘maintaining stability’ as the top priority, and in the process of maintaining stability, controlling the media has become one of the most important methods.”
Wang’s investigative team was disbanded last year at his former newspaper, the China Economic Times. His reports there ranged from a 2002 expose on a mafia-like racket in the Beijing taxi industry to a 2010 investigation of how the mishandling of vaccines in one province led to dead children.
He moved this year to The Economic Observer, known for its daring reports, where his job titles are assistant to the editor in chief and member of the editorial board.
Why did he leave the Economic Times after working there since 2002 and building a reputation as one of the best journalists in the country?
Wang stared at the shelves in front of his desk for a few moments and then declined to answer.
Sitting in a Shangahi cafe and sipping tea last week, Jian sounded wistful as he talked about the milk scandal story.
“I definitely couldn’t do it” today, he said. “Because now everyone is more cautious.”
A 39-year-old with rectangular glasses and a slight paunch, Jian said that in the period leading up to his resignation editors were killing stories that tracked corruption. For example, he said, there was one about a provincial official who “might have taken bribes.”
As Jian’s frustration mounted, he used his account on one of China’s Twitter-like micro-blog services to allude to topics he couldn’t get into the newspaper. His bosses “became concerned,” he said. A former middle-school teacher from a tiny village, he’d been reporting at the Oriental Morning Post since 2003. Nonetheless, he knew it was time to say goodbye.
Jian’s exit came on the heels of the Oriental Morning Post’s publisher reportedly being transferred out of the job in July and the suspension of a deputy editor in chief. A similar shakeup took place in Guangdong province at about the same time, when the head editor of the New Express newspaper was said to have been shifted to another post. The Communist Party secretaries of Shanghai and Guangdong are in the running for seats on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee this year. Some speculate that as a result, their administrations aren’t tolerating surprises in the run-up to the party congress.
Jian, who now wants to start an organization to support journalists, said the politics of the party are a fact of life. “It must be recognized that under the system of governance of the Communist Party, although the media have gained a certain progress and freedom, they will always be attached to this state apparatus ... to say it in a simple phrase, they’re ‘dancing with shackles.’ ”
In two hours or so of conversation, Jian’s comments were marked by pauses and careful wording. He kept his gray suit jacket folded neatly and ended with a request that his quotes be used judiciously. Jian reminded a Western reporter that in the long view, there’s been positive change during the past several decades. Not too long ago, Jian said, the interview with him itself couldn’t have taken place.
As he got ready to leave the teahouse, Jian said he and his friends sometimes jokingly asked one another, “How long will it take until the dawn comes?”
He preferred not to discuss for publication what that meant.