The highs and lows of investigative reporting in China

Veteran investigative journalist Wang Keqin has always been positive about his chosen career, characterizing media restrictions in China as a cycle with ups and downs. In an interview for CPJ’s October 2010 special report “In China, a debate on press rights,” he told CPJ that “there was a big fall-off in reporting freedom in 2008 and 2009” because of the Olympics and the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule. But he and many of his colleagues in China anticipated a corresponding loosening of restrictions to follow, pushing the industry toward greater freedom and professionalism over time.  

Last week, he had the same message. On July 15, the Hong Kong University-based China Media Project published “Muckraking on the rise in China,” a partial translation of a longer review of Chinese investigative reporting that Wang had posted on his blog on July 12. Wang looks back at 2010 as a “peak” point for in-depth journalism which “pushed investigative reporting in China to a new high.”

The latest development, however, marks another low: Wang’s investigative reporting unit at the China Economic Times was reported closed on Tuesday, and he has declined interviews with international reporters on the subject.

Yet at least one of his colleagues remains optimistic. In the Beijing-based Economic Observer Wednesday, journalism professor Zhan Jiang described the news of the Times’ restructuring spreading on social networks. Within eight hours, the report “had been re-posted close to 3,000 times, and had drawn some 1,200 comments. Opinion was overwhelmingly in support of Wang Keqin and his colleagues,” Zhan wrote, according to a Media Project translation.

In “Press Rights,” CPJ found that digital media enhances support for journalists and their rights. That support has significant limits, and falls short of challenging state censorship. But it has established some popular awareness of media freedom. Zhan Jiang, who was also interviewed for that report, writes in Wednesday’s article: “I’ve said before that for some media units, knocking out good quality staff is a popular tactic. If it weren’t for the Internet, these people would have a much easier time of it.” 

Wang Keqin is an exacting reporter with tremendous integrity. If authorities are trying to silence him, it is indeed a blow for press freedom. But he and his supporters will be hoping that the next peak for China’s investigative journalism will be even higher.