Shakeup at China’s leading investigative magazine

You wouldn’t have heard it from her, but Hu Shuli resigned from her post as editor of Caijing magazine on Monday. The battle over political coverage and finances at Caijing (cai is  “finance” and jing is “economics”) had been reported for about three months, but the missing component in the coverage was Hu herself—she has never made a public statement about what was going on at what was most likely China’s most provocative yet mainstream magazine (it’s a biweekly.) Wang Shuo, Caijing’s managing editor, posted his resignation on his Twitter page. Wang said almost all the other top editors who hadn’t already left are leaving too. 

Caijing put the spotlight on corruption and took on political issues. I always saw it as a prime example of just how good journalism in China could be if a publication has good reporters and editors and enough political protection—not that it always stayed out of trouble. When I searched CPJ’s Web site, I found we had made 21 references to the magazine, the first in 2002—and they were usually in the context of some sort of reaction from the government over critical coverage. The magazine’s journalism was good enough for the Asian Wall Street Journal’s high editorial standards, and the two had an agreement to reprint each other’s articles at times.

The problem has been brewing for a long time, but reached something of a crisis point in mid-October. The Associated Press reported from Beijing that Caijing announced that Executive Director Daphne Wu Chuanhui and 60 to 70 employees who worked for her in the business department have resigned, but she declined to comment on the reasons for the exodus. Throughout the entire ordeal, Hu has never been quoted and has maintained media silence.

There was a swirl of e-mail messages in late September and October among China media watchers, but it was never clear what was happening at the magazine. The question seems to boil down to, “So why has so much of the editorial staff walked out—was it politics or finances?” Running after the story back then, I asked a friend in Hong Kong who asked not to be identified, and got this answer: “The decision is both, almost equal parts, but I can’t divulge anything without Shuli’s permission.” Other friends told me that trying to contact Hu with a CPJ e-mail address might make matters more complicated for her—access to is still blocked in China—so I backed off.

But some people are starting to talk, and from friends in Hong Kong and Beijing, one of whom worked at the magazine for a few years and has maintained contact with colleagues on the staff, here’s what I can piece together:

There are no “independent” media outlets of any sort in China. All news organizations have to be tied to a state entity in one way or another, and except for a few flagship organizations like Xinhua and China Daily, all are expected to be self-sustaining—basically, they have to make money. Caijing’s official link came through the Stock Exchange Executive Council (SEEC), an economic think tank with loose government ties. The SEEC Media Group Ltd., its publishing business, is registered as a company in Hong Kong. It first focused on straightforward economic reporting with titles like Securities Market Weekly.

But SEEC’s roots were in the south of China, in Shanghai and the special economic zone of Shenzhen, which abuts Hong Kong—areas aimed at exporting and international trade. They have been the financial centers for China’s economic growth for the last several decades. Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, less so Shanghai, became centers for aggressive reporting.  The Southern Media Group—particularly its Guangzhou-based Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis Daily)—is another example of an aggressive news group which aims its publications at the more globally connected audiences in the south.

The general consensus, at least in the English-language media coverage, is that SEEC’s profit taking from Caijing, which took away cash from the budget for news coverage, coupled with the owners’ aims to dial back the magazine’s coverage of corruption and malfeasance that made the government unhappy at times, proved to be a fatal combination for Hu and her staff. SEEC’s worried about the plans to cover the ethnic riots in Xinjiang in July—a hot-button issue for the government—most likely accelerated what had already become a downward spiral of internal dissent.

Not surprisingly, it was Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post that broke the news, in English, at least, that “The founder and editor of Caijing, the mainland’s most influential business magazine, has resigned to launch a new multimedia business venture, after she failed to patch up differences with the publisher over the direction of the magazine, according to staff members.” The SCMP also reported that Hu will head Sun Yat-sen University’s School of Communication and Design—in Guangzhou, not surprisingly. The paper quoted an anonymous university employee as saying that “Hu had visited the university on Wednesday and signed a contract on Friday.” The SCMP also said Hu’s team has already leased space in Beijing’s central business district, and “some of the business staff have already moved in, indicating that she has already received some initial investment” from undisclosed financial backers.

Caijing looks like it will stay alive for now, if only in a milder version of its feisty former self. But it won’t be able to rest on its laurels: “Hu said she was in discussions with a number of potential investors about forming a new multimedia platform that could cover the publication of business magazines, provide business news online and be involved with new media ventures,” according to the South China Morning Post.

And, just for the record, there is no mention of Hu and her staff’s departure on either the English or Chinese version of the magazine’s Web site.