Last July, veteran Chinese journalist Liu Jianfeng posted an announcement on the Chinese microblog Weibo, confirming his intention to become an independent investigator and writer. In a country where all media remains state-owned, Liu's plan was a bold one. He promised to produce four to six independent, investigative stories in the coming year, and to fund his costs by crowdsourcing. His financial target was 250,000 yuan (about US$40,000).
"I would like to be an independent writer and social issue observer. With the help of supporters, I will be able to conduct investigations and to reveal the problems during political reforms, and to tell people's stories during social changes," Liu said in his July post.
Liu's move was bold, not just because he had given up the benefits and security of working for traditional media, but also because of his outspokenness about wanting to leave behind the Chinese government's censorship and constraints, which he spoke about in a CPJ video a year ago. In the video, he said an independent organization of journalists modeled after ProPublica in the United States would be ideal, but difficult to fund in the current Chinese political environment.
"I didn't want to work with my hands tied any more," he said in a phone interview in early February. "I realized I could work individually and independently, without having to affiliate with any publication."
Liu's vision was made possible by the boom in social media and grassroots journalism in China. As can be seen in the often-freewheeling posts by citizens on Weibo and other platforms, "The public cares a lot about social issues," said Liu. "Under those circumstances, I felt I could do something."
Liu set up a store on Taobao, an eBay-like platform, where he offered customers "reading access" to his work for 100 yuan (less than $20). Those who pay get exclusive email access to his stories several days before Liu publishes them on his blog, which is fully accessible in China.
In October, Liu's supporters got access to his first new investigative work: a 30,000-word story on the confrontation between villagers and local government in eastern China's Shandong Province. A central character in the seven-year-old dispute was Chen Baocheng, a villager and journalist for Caixin magazine, who represented many other villagers opposing the government's plans to seize their land. Chen was detained after he tried to stop the government from bulldozing his house; he remains imprisoned, though the government backed down from destroying his home.
According to the sales records for Liu's Taobao account, 1,023 people bought "reading access" rights to the Shandong story and other stories he's investigating. Liu said he received additional donations, raising about $30,000 in total--less than his goal, but enough to support his work and living expenses for a year.
During his 14 years working for three traditional media outlets in China, Liu specialized in investigative reporting on rural issues. As chief investigative reporter at The Economic Observer, one of the top weekly business newspapers in the country, Liu could count on his articles reaching almost one million potential readers.
In contrast, his Shandong story has just 2,472 hits on his blog, in addition to the 1,000 or so who purchased advance reading rights. But Liu's actual audience may be significantly larger, he said. A search of the headline shows that many Chinese readers have copied the text and reposted it on their own blogs.
More important than the number of readers, he said, was that "both sides in the story read the piece, and agreed that it was executed with objectivity." The brother of Chen Baocheng, the journalist detained in the land dispute, posted the link to Liu's story on Weibo. Another Shandong journalist, Ji Xuguang--who has close connections with local government, and had tried, unsuccessfully, to mediate the dispute between the government and Chen--also posted the link on his Weibo account, despite the story's criticism of land seizures. But he quickly took down the link after feeling pressure from the government, according to Liu.
Liu's experiment is an intriguing one, say China watchers. Though citizen journalism is booming in China, and opinions are increasingly easy to find online, Liu is one of the few "producing serious and factual content," said Fang Kecheng, a former reporter with the outspoken newspaper Southern Weekly, who is pursuing a PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Besides him, there's barely anyone doing it."
Liu's reputation from his years in traditional Chinese media helped draw interest to his project. He said he was no longer satisfied trying to report within Chinese mainstream media. Although authorities in recent years have shown more tolerance, there are still red lines and censorship.
"I wanted to reveal the systematic problems behind the issues we investigated," Liu said.
Crowdsourced funding is not unprecedented for Chinese journalism. One funding site, Zhongchou, opened a section in November where journalists could raise money for special projects. According to the website, 14 projects--mostly on topics such as fashion, lifestyle, and technology--were funded. But according to news reports, authorities in Beijing shut down the journalism page just a month after it was opened.
Vincent Ni, a London correspondent for Caixin, one of China's most reputable business magazines, said the shutdown of the Zhongchou section might signal challenges for Liu and others who follow his example.
"If the nature of the reporting is ideologically sensitive, there will be regulations from the propaganda or security department to stop it," said Ni. "Also, those state-owned media that have vested interests, such as CCTV and Xinhua News Agency, may lobby the propaganda department to control news crowd-funding when they feel threatened" that their own audience will be drawn away by it, he said.
Another journalist, Yin Yusheng, started crowdsourced the funding of his own independent investigative projects in September, according to The Associated Press. In a Weibo post at the end of 2013, he said he had raised roughly 12,000 yuan (about $2,000) and had published two stories.
Liu Jianfeng said he hasn't faced any repercussions. He's currently working on three new investigations, but isn't sure when any will be ready for publication.
"It's a new thing. There's no rules or guideline for it so far," he said. "All I can do is to follow the law, do my reporting in a professional way, and stay low-key."