When the Sichuan earthquake struck in 2008, Western news organizations lauded the relatively transparent news coverage of the disaster by Chinese media. However, the focus was less on the intrepid reporters and TV crews that relayed stories and images of destruction around the country, and more on the government directive that relaxed media restrictions.
The bias inherent in that interpretation – that media in China is a top-down affair lacking journalists capable of independently chasing down and reporting stories – is understandable given state control of the media, but it is also very wrong.
"Investigative Journalism in China: Eight Cases in Chinese Watchdog Journalism" illustrates this point by providing a nuanced account of Chinese journalism since the mid-1990s with analysis of groundbreaking reportage by eight journalists.
The descriptions of the cases featured, with the exception of one, were written by the journalists themselves, and translated by David Bandurski of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center. China scholar and media analyst Martin Hala concludes each chapter with a discussion of the context and impact of each case. The result is a comprehensive summary of the evolution of the relative openness of the Chinese media.
Before China’s "reform and opening" process, journalism under the Chinese Communist Party took the form of "reportage literature" – long-winded reports taken from extensive interviews and research with a focus on content over style. Pioneering reportage literature author Liu Binyan of China Youth Daily revealed early the risks of pursuing social justice through journalism: He was expelled from the party due to two hard-hitting stories published in 1956.
Likewise, the current method of news management, "supervision by public opinion," shows there can still be negative consequences for journalists and others who expose injustices within the system.
Presented chronologically, the cases that make up the book provide an overview of the primary players, issues and restrictions involved in covering some of China’s most important news stories of the last fifteen years.
It rapidly becomes clear that, if Chinese media are silent on a current issue, it is not for lack of effort on the part of individual reporters. It makes for compelling reading to learn how intrepid writers and editors worked within the system, sometimes risking their jobs and more, to make their stories available to the public.
Consistent between cases are themes of corruption and the limits of the system. Reporters must always be careful of how their stories will be perceived by authorities, particularly when publishing unflattering information at politically sensitive times or when going after "live tigers," corrupt officials active in high positions.
Few of the stories profiled in this book were covered by foreign media. The one scandal that may be familiar to Western readers is the case of the AIDS epidemic in Henan province spread by contaminated blood donation equipment. However, overseas coverage failed to fully account for the hard-hitting investigative work and stories published by Chinese journalists.
Changes in restrictions on news coverage may be a sign that such exceptional efforts have had a real effect. At the same time, it would be a mistake to read too much into the contrast between the restricted coverage of the 2003 SARS outbreak and comparatively lax control during the Sichuan earthquake five years later.
Beijing allowed reporters more freedom to report on quake damage, but the boundaries became clear as attention turned to collapsed schools.
Control over discussion of these so-called "tofu dregs" buildings – and the official corruption that allowed them to be built – is proof, if any were needed, that it is ultimately left to the government to allow progress within the system. Some topics will always remain off-limits.
That in no way diminishes the efforts of these journalists, who have managed to push the limits and tell their stories even within a restrictive system. With the spread of the internet and other means of disseminating information, they and their colleagues will continue to play an important role in challenging and changing the state of the media in China.