Cai Xin Pushes the Limits of Chinese Journalism

By Jessica Opatich

Caixin, one of China’s most daring magazines, has been relentlessly pursuing stories on soil pollution in China for years. Until this past April, the Chinese government had been withholding the results of its surveys, claiming “the information is an issue of national security.” Yet, Caixin reporters continued to doggedly investigate soil pollution.

How did the magazine continue to report on such an important story when the Ministry of Environmental Protection was blocking the release of information? Caixin’s environmental reporter spent countless hours interviewing farmers, local officials, and experts. “The government is not one block,” says Wei Han, Caixin’s deputy managing editor. “Different departments have different attitudes. There are still gaps for journalists to penetrate.”

But Caixin is bucking a system of government censorship and self-censorship that runs throughout China’s media industry. The challenges are huge, ranging from fending off bribes from corrupt officials to avoiding a complete government-imposed halt of publishing.

The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television keeps a watchful eye over what is being circulated in print and online. The government just published a new regulation restricting the press from publishing critical reports without employer approval. According to the 2014 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, China is ranked 173 of 180 countries. Counter to the “watchdog” role of journalism in the United States, state run media in China performs a different role—protecting the image of the Communist Party. Stories are largely positive. Yet, there are a handful of courageous news outlets challenging that role, and Caixin is one of the pioneers.

Caixin has taken the lead in exposing local issues, too. Officials of local family planning bureaus were exploiting China’s one-child policy, seizing children, and selling them to foreign families. News outlets in the United States race to break stories like this one. In China, no news outlet dared to report on baby-trafficking—except for Caixin.

The strategy is simply, “Be objective. Be honest,” says Han. The Chinese government expects a news outlet to “follow the rules and be a good child,” she adds. This means kowtowing to government pressure. There are stories that even Caixin cannot cover. Han admits, “[In China] there is no truly independent media—including us.”

Implicating high-level officials is especially hazardous. The highest-ranking target of President Xi Jingping’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign is Zhou Yongkang, China’s former public security minister. News outlets have been barred from mentioning Zhou’s name. But journalists at Caixin cleverly circumvented the rule by publishing a number of stories on Zhou’s closest associates. Zhou was never mentioned, but it was clear he was the focus of the investigation. Now, the man who could not be named no longer needed to be.

Toe-ing an ill-defined line is challenging, and often the boundary only becomes clear once it has already been crossed. “You need some wisdom,” notes Han. With Hu Shuli, relentless muckraker, at the helm, this is not something that Caixin is lacking. Hu established Caijing magazine in 1998. After strategic disagreements about the direction of the magazine, Hu and a number of reporters left in 2009 and started Caixin in a cramped office basement.

Now, Caixin Media, is one of the first residents in Building 6, which stands among a number of the contemporary, sleekly designed high-end office buildings that make up the airy Sanlutin SOHO pavilion in the Chaoyang District of Beijing.

The guiding principal is to provide an “objective and professional perspective in an independent manner,” says Liu Jing, the executive director of brand and communications. There are stories of “government officials dragging bags of money offering to buy all the editions [of the magazine],” says Wang Yuqian, a reporter. While many other publications agree to conceal negative stories in exchange for companies purchasing advertising space, Caixin flatly refuses. “We don’t do that,” says Liu.

Caixin has also been quick to take advantage of the internet. The company now boasts a diverse multi-media platform consisting of a weekly magazine, a website, online videos, and mobile apps. Han explained that even if the editors are certain a story will provoke the government enough for it to be taken down, the internet hardly ever forgets.

Caixin is testing the limits daily. “Readers are clever. They know what’s true and what’s false,” notes Liu. Caixin owes its success to its devotion to that readership. A top economic planning expert publicly discussed a Caixin cover-story on electric cars adding, “This is the magazine that everyone should read.”

Caixin continues to carve out its own space in China’s media landscape. Risks have been rewarded—for now.

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