< Unfinished Business


Friday, November 20, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: From the outside, the Chinese media appear to be a monolith, controlled with an implacable hand by the state. And mostly, that’s true. Touch on sensitive subjects pertaining to the Party or the state, and you will suffer consequences. But, there are a few notable expectations, or at least there were a few. When On the Media went to China last year, Brooke visited Caijing Magazine, a biweekly financial and business publication that over a ten-year period had built a reputation for printing real investigative reporting. We wanted to know how it managed that difficult feat, and one editor explained that it took agility, connections and sometimes impenetrable prose. Most of all, it took a keen sense of which hot spots were simply too hot.


[INTERPRETER FOR DUAN HONGQUING]: We all know that there is a law in China and it’s electrified. If you touch it, you’re dead. Other media know this, so they draw their own line. They create a safety zone of, say, 50 meters, and they don't get closer than that. But Caijing is different; it gets closer. Has Caijing already reached the line and survived? We're not sure where the line is, so I can't say.

BOB GARFIELD: That is, until a few weeks ago when Caijing’s founding editor and guiding light, Hu Shuli, abruptly resigned after disagreeing with Caijing’s publishers over money matters and censorship. Dozens of the magazine’s top editors left with her, signaling the apparent end of Caijing and the example it had set. Jeremy Goldkorn is the founder and editor of Danwei.org, a website devoted to analyzing Chinese media. He says that while there are a few other publications brave enough to broach controversial subjects, none is so carefully read by Chinese powerbrokers and the outside world.

JEREMY GOLDKORN: It has been one of the very few publications that has been willing to tackle subjects that are considered sensitive here, so it’s done articles about, for example, SARS, when the government was denying that SARS was a problem in China in 2003. They've also done stories about corruption and various malfeasances of big government bodies in China.

BOB GARFIELD: How has it been able to stay sort of out of the way of the censors?

JEREMY GOLDKORN: There are a few factors. They haven't really covered rule of law or the interaction between citizens and the government. They've been focused on business. Also, the company that owned the magazine, SEEC, is quite a well-connected company. Wang Boming, chairman of the company, is quite tightly involved with the bodies that regulate the Chinese financial markets, and this has also given them a certain amount of protection. The thing is that most of their muckraking stories are concealed behind eight pages of verbiage that is very difficult to read, and this is something that they've always said is one of the reasons why they haven't been censored. They may have been able to print something that nobody else would dare to print, but it’s very difficult to actually get to the juicy stuff.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, the news this week is the resignation of the magazine’s editor, Hu Shuli, a major figure in Chinese journalism.

JEREMY GOLDKORN: And, in fact, without her it’s very difficult to conceive of Caijing as having any integrity at all. She’s one of the very few Chinese editors who has been willing to commit herself in public and in print to principles of journalism that uphold the truth about business interests. The talk in the Chinese media scene and on the Chinese Internet is that she has been offered a tenured position at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou as the dean of the journalism department there.

BOB GARFIELD: And does that means she will have been co-opted, or does it mean that she’s just landed on her feet?

JEREMY GOLDKORN: If she becomes a full-time teacher and does not go back into the publishing business and the media business, it doesn't mean she’s been co-opted. It means she’s been sidelined.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, all of this commotion is the result of protests from Hu and many of her colleagues about how the money is apportioned. She wanted more money for editorial and more authority over how the money was spent. Is it ultimately a press freedom issue or is something just more mundane afoot?

JEREMY GOLDKORN: In the Chinese media business it’s very rarely only one thing going on at one time. On the one hand, the editorial staff at Caijing felt that the value that they were contributing was being turned into cash from advertising which was being spent on other publications or other business ends aside from making this magazine better. That, I think, is, is certainly a factor. In the Chinese media circles, there’s been gossip for already two months now that the propaganda department, which is now called the publicity department, actually, has been squeezing SEEC, her publisher, to get rid of her because she’s too controversial.

BOB GARFIELD: How important is this episode to the progress and openness and press freedom? Is this a tempest in a teapot, or is it something quite serious?

JEREMY GOLDKORN: In some ways it’s a tempest in a teapot because it’s very much business as usual. In the Chinese media it’s very rare for any person or any institution to be able to sustain a groundbreaking media company. If you take risks and you want to continue to be profitable, you often end up in trouble. And Caijing is just the latest example of many, many, many, many, many, but it is very, very sad that things have come to this because Caijing definitely was some kind of beacon in a country that really lacks principled journalism.

BOB GARFIELD: Well Jeremy, as always, thank you so much.



BOB GARFIELD: Jeremy Goldkorn is the founder and editor-in-chief of Danwei.org, a website devoted to the Chinese media.