In China: Who, and what, to believe?

The New Express‘s campaign to get Chen Yongzhou, 27, released from police detention last week attracted international attention, including CPJ’s.  Chen had been picked up October 18 on “suspicion of damaging commercial reputation” with a series of stores alleging financial mismanagement and corruption at Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Co., China’s second-largest heavy equipment maker. On Wednesday and Thursday last week the Guangzhou-based New Express ran front page, big character headlines calling for their reporter’s release. The paper’s editors had thoroughly vetted Chen’s stories and they had found only one factual error, they said in support of his reporting.

And there seemed to be a pattern developing: Chen was the second reporter from the tabloid New Express to be pulled in by the police recently. Liu Hu was detained by Beijing police in late August in connection with comments on his Sina Weibo microblog that accused an official of wrongdoing and called for an investigation. Liu is still in custody, formally charged on September 30 with defamation.  Liu’s arrest appeared to be part of  the Xi administration’s ongoing crackdown on Internet rumors

As for Chen, on Saturday he admitted on national television that the stories with his byline were wrong. He said they had been written by someone else, a person not identified publicly so far by the police. Chen had been paid, essentially, to let someone else use his byline to write a series of investigative pieces that appeared over months. Who that person was, his or her motives and the source of the alleged misinformation are unknown.  Few details and no evidence of any payments have been made public.

Sunday’s edition of the New Express ran an apology: “To all walks of society we hereby express our profound apology,” it said in its front page notice. Before that, Chen had enjoyed a considerable degree of support from his colleagues. Soon after the arrest, the General Association of Press and Publishing (GAPP) said it “firmly supports the media conducting normal reporting activities … and firmly protects the legal rights of journalists.” And the government controlled All China Journalists Association were worried that Chen wouldn’t be treated “according to the law, guarantee the journalist’s safety and prevent extorting confessions by torture.” Many newspapers expressed support for Chen, or were at least dubious about the legitimacy of his arrest. And his case had gotten a lot of international coverage, much of it sympathetic to his plight.

What’s going on here? Skepticism seems warranted. In August, as the government’s attempts to control social media achieved a full head of steam, the official and staunchly conservative People’s Liberation Army Daily, for example, raised the issue of “positive propaganda and the public opinion struggle.”

That sort of approach was typical of the official media’s response to the government crackdown on rumors on social media platforms and within the section of the main stream press which dares to go beyond the strictly controlled party line. And with economic growth slowing, economic reporting has become politically charged reporting, an important part of that struggle for public opinion.

Partially state-owned, Zoomlion is a huge company whose shares earlier this year were at an 18 month low after it warned of an up to 80 percent drop in first-quarter earnings, according to Reuters.  Its shares slid to a 1½ year low after it warned of an up to 80 percent drop in first-quarter earnings, highlighting the struggles facing China’s heavy machinery sector. The Express News reports had helped drive the share price lower, too. Today,  Bloomberg reported the company’s stock jumped 4.8 percent in trading in Hong Kong after the paper and their reporter reversed their story.

Did Chen Yongzhou, who worked at Express News for about four years, simply take the money and enjoy the notoriety that came with the stories? Was his abject televised confession, complete with a perpwalk, an attempt to bring to an end a very bad decision? It is entirely possible. Chinese journalists are frank about criticizing their own profession and its practices, and corruption and payments for favorable coverage are common. And despite its claims to the contrary, did the paper use sloppy fact-checking and weak editorial procedures to verify their reporter’s story before and after his detention and subsequent arrest? That has certainly happened at newspapers far better than a provincial Chinese tabloid like Express News.

Maybe this is simply the story of a young reporter gone wrong. Or maybe a government attempt to cover up investigative reporting that was having a strong negative impact. Or maybe the story lies somewhere in between. What this situation needs is a good investigative reporter to get to the bottom of whatever it is that’s going on and explain it all. It’s hard to believe that is going to happen in China’s increasingly acrid media environment.