This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Less than a decade ago, Ji Xuguang was a top Chinese investigative reporter, building a career investigating crime and corruption for several years after landing his first job at the Yangcheng Evening News in the southern city of Guangzhou in 2001.
But his role in reporting the Lei Zhengfu sex tape scandal of 2012 catalyzed a chain reaction that was to see him fleeing China with his family just two years later.
The compromising photos and footage of Lei cavorting with 18-year-old Zhao Hongxia rocked China’s internet, and the former party secretary of the Chongqing’s Beibei district was handed a 13-year jail term in June 2013 for bribery and “taking advantage of his position.”
The sex video of Zhao and the paunchy official sent waves of scandalous delight and anger over official misbehavior across the Chinese internet. It was first published on the whistleblowing website Supervision by the People.
But since President Xi Jinping took power in November 2012, investigative journalism in China has declined to the point of non-existence, journalists told RFA on World Press Freedom Day.
In 2014, Ji Xuguang took his wife and children to the U.S., fearing for their safety in the wake of a nationwide crackdown on freedom of expression.
Today, he feels that investigative reporting in China is a thing of the past.
“It was pretty dangerous even back then,” Ji said. “Now, nobody knows what the future holds. We’ll have to see. Nobody is talking about journalistic ideals in China right now.”
In the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2019 Press Freedom Index, China fell to fourth from bottom out of a total of 180 countries.
Presenting its report, the group said China under Xi Jinping is getting close to a contemporary version of totalitarianism.
Several former investigative journalists contacted by RFA for this report disclosed that they are no longer working on journalistic projects, but have taken on public opinion research work instead since Xi took power.
But public opinion research is also increasingly subject to censorship and retaliation by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which insists on controlling every aspect of public speech and opinion.
The former journalists also declined to use their real names for the purposes of this report, in a bid to avoid official reprisals.
“[The industry] is on its last legs now,” Ji told RFA. “Nobody can survive unless the Chinese Communist Party decides that they can.”
“This is the tragedy of journalism in China.”
The government has also launched a number of administrative assaults on journalists, aimed at controlling who may or may not enter the profession.
In 2014, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television announced that all Chinese journalists would need to pass a national exam in order to renew their accreditation, in order to “consciously maintain the Marxist view of journalism.”
In 2016, Xi warned that China’s media was part of the ruling party family, and that all media operating in China must safeguard the authority of the Communist Party central committee, and adhere to “the correct direction” in forming public opinion.
State-sponsored “investigative journalists” are now required to be fully paid-up party members in good standing, ahead of any professional considerations.
Many journalists trace the rot back to January 2013, when an op-ed article in the formerly cutting-edge Southern Weekend newspaper was forcibly altered before publication, transforming a call for constitutional government and freedom of expression into a paean to the ruling party, and sparking a journalists’ strike and days of street protests.
“Everyone is saying that the media is a declining industry,” Chinese journalist Li Xiang told RFA. “I think it is true.”
“The media in mainland China is in a really sorry state. You could say that things have been totally different since 2013,” Li said.
Research published by Zhang Zhian, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University, in 2017, indicates that there has been a serious brain drain out of the news industry in recent years.
And recent government statistics show that only one out of every 1,300 Chinese journalists is an investigative reporter.
According to Zhang, investigative reporting in China has come under pressure from all sides in recent years.
The rise of social media has weakened the cultural authority of traditional media, lowering the cultural status of journalists.
Meanwhile, declining circulation of traditional media and falling advertising revenues have led to the axing of investigative and “in-depth” reporting departments at major newspapers, Zhang found.
And the strengthening of party and government propaganda controls has meant that media outlets are required to self-censor reporting on sensitive social issues, as part of the government’s “stability maintenance” strategy.
In 2016, journalist Zhao Lei was working as an intern on the investigative reporting team at the Beijing News, during which time the paper’s investigative output shrank considerably, she told RFA.
“I remember that before the end of 2016, the scale of the newspaper’s [investigative] output was very large,” Zhao said. “You could still run negative investigative reports in Beijing back then, for example, about deaths in the mining industry.”
“But things were looking a lot less optimistic by 2017, and by 2018 the controls on reporting were even more obvious,” she said, adding that the department saw the loss of six or seven full-time investigative journalists prior to 2016, all of whom were replaced by younger, less experienced staff.
She said one of the casualties was an in-depth look at the “Me Too” movement in China planned by the editors at the Beijing News and then spiked after a warning notice from the propaganda department.
“All we had to do was touch on the topic, and then the ban would follow very soon after,” Zhao said. “So then we didn’t touch on it, and we reported very little about the Me Too movement.”
Many in the industry now believe that investigative journalism saw its peak in the early 2000s, with exposes such as the scandal surrounding the death in custody of Guangzhou-based migrant worker Sun Zhigang, and a series of painstaking reports indicating a miscarriage of justice in the Nie Shubin murder trial.
But by 2012, the chill had begun to bite, with the departure of Jian Guanzhou, the first journalist to name Sanlu as the source of contaminated milk powder in a story for the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post in September 2008.
Jian quit, saying that his ideals were dead, while his colleagues cited growing oppression at the hands of the ruling party.
Former top investigative journalist Wang Keqin, whose articles exposed a string of scandals and social issues over several years, also quit the job in 2012 for a non-profit role helping pneumoconiosis sufferers.
Wang declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Thursday.
“I have been away from the job too long, so I can’t comment,” he said.
Whistleblowing journalist Liu Hu, a former reporter with Guangzhou’s Modern Express newspaper who was detained for nearly a year on “defamation” charges after he probed a number of high-profile corruption cases, quit his job in 2015 to go freelance.
“Controls on public opinion in China mean that the media fails to report certain things,” Liu said. “This means there is less that is worth reading in the market-oriented media, causing those publications to lose readers and subscriptions, which reduces their appeal to advertisers.”
“When income falls, the media outlet either has to downsize or cease publication entirely,” he said.
Reported by Jia Ao for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.