The Demise of Watchdog Journalism in China

As unfettered capitalism reached a fever pitch in China in the early 2000s, a boom in investigative journalism was hailed as the most salient example of growing citizen power. National politics, which had disappeared from public conversations after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, again felt immediate and personal.

A middle school student at the time, I spent weekend afternoons poring over Southern Weekly, the standard-bearer of investigative journalism, devouring exposés of urban crimes and corporate scandals, a reality that was worlds apart from my cocooned life in a university neighborhood.

The newspaper’s journalists, heralding the new era, wrote in a 1999 editorial that investigative journalism should “give power to the powerless, and motivate the pessimists to march on.”

But we don’t hear that pledge, or anything like it, today.

More than five years into President Xi Jinping’s rule, the more insidious implications of his authoritarian revival are coming into focus. One casualty is investigative journalism. Having suffered a decline as rapid as their rise, muckraking journalists feel lost.

And these sentiments are widespread, felt beyond the world of journalism. State oppression has decimated civil society and negated years of social progress, casting a pall on the public mood. The diminished spirit threatens to stifle innovation, professionalism and the long-held “can-do” ethos among the Chinese. The consequences may be ruinous to the leadership’s aspirations for China to become an economic superpower.

The Demise of Watchdog Journalism in ChinaThe investigative journalism boom had emerged from a propitious alignment of political and social conditions. The government had decided, as part of a vast rollback of economic control, to cut subsidies to state newspapers, forcing them to seek more of their revenue from sales. Editors, in turn, felt they had a license to push boundaries. Sensing a public appetite for hard-hitting watchdog journalism, they encouraged reporters to pursue stories with an eye to social impact.

The fruit of this labor fueled hope among citizens for social change. Reports disclosing the true scale of the 2003 SARS epidemic pressured evasive officials into taking action. An inquiry into an unexplained death in police custody led to the scrapping of a nationwide illegal detention system. All over the country, corrupt bureaucrats were brought down for crimes from illegal urban demolitions to embezzling state funds that they could no longer sweep under the rug owing to the new army of whistle-blowers.

Riding on those successes, regional newspapers like Southern Weekly, Southern Metropolis Daily, and Dahe Daily rose to national prominence. Despite their government affiliations, these papers enjoyed relative freedom thanks to liberal-minded political leaders who considered investigative reporters political allies. The few muckraking journalists who lost their jobs in these years were far outnumbered by those who carried on, united in their belief in the importance and power of their work.

As censorship increased under Mr. Xi, investigative journalism lost its edge — and then its audience. Dwindling revenues forced newspapers to lay off investigative journalists and, at times, to eliminate entire departments. The number of investigative journalists dropped by more than half in six years, to a total of 175, according to a report from Sun Yat-sen University in December.

For the journalists who have remained, survival has hinged on their ability to navigate this new reality. When Mr. Xi started his high-profile anticorruption campaign in 2013, many investigative journalists had taken it as a cue for action. The optimism changed to fear when those who ousted corrupt officials not on the Communist Party’s target list landed in prison, while the reporters revealing corruption evidence of already disgraced cadres were commended for their political loyalty.

On rare occasions, investigative projects can still influence national policy, especially when they focus on issues already on the political agenda. A 2015 documentary on China’s catastrophic air pollution was allowed to circulate for days as an implicit rebuke to local officials who failed to rein in polluters. A more recent film on plastic recycling was credited with speeding up a government ban on the imports of some foreign waste.

But the scarce triumphs barely console investigative journalists. In an essay, Chu Chaoxin, a prominent political reporter, pleaded with readers “not to call him an investigative journalist,” saying that what he can accomplish no longer qualifies him as one.

Tuning out is increasingly the choice of disaffected young journalists. Where there had been idealism and mettle a decade ago, there is now a breezy acceptance of the status quo.

And the feeling of resignation in response to the oppression under Mr. Xi is so widespread among young people that it has a label: the Buddhist youth attitude. It denotes a noncompetitive, laissez-faire existence based on the idea that little that is out of reach is worth striving for.

Millennial journalists have reluctantly embraced the Buddhist attitude. After all, their preparation for professional life — a rigorous education that valorized hard work, experience in liberal societies overseas, inspiring stories from older journalists — hardly prepared them for what surrounds them now: the gleaming fortress that is Xi Jinping’s New China, where alternative social visions are methodically suppressed, and individual ambitions have no place, except as bricks in the wall.

In his words and actions, Mr. Xi seems to believe that nationalism and top-down financial largess will spur writers, scientists and entrepreneurs into helping China achieve national greatness. It is a misguided belief.

It is no coincidence that the golden era of investigative journalism accompanied an all-around flourishing of society. The scandals that journalists uncovered prompted animated conversations on college campuses. The transparency that reporters’ work fostered put businesses on firmer footing in navigating mercurial markets: some of China’s largest conglomerates, like the e-commerce giant Alibaba, were founded in that period.

The principles and beliefs that took root at newspapers more than a decade ago did not remain in the newsrooms. And in tearing down the social ecosystem that investigative journalists helped build, Xi Jinping may be draining not just the vitality of society, but also his vision of the country’s future.

Helen Gao is a policy analyst at a research company and a contributing opinion writer.

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