BEIJING — Chen Yong Zhou, a reporter working for Guangzhou city's New Express newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou, was detained recently by police who had arrived all the way from Hunan, 425 miles away. Chen was accused of damaging the reputation and commercial interests of Zoomliom, a Hunan construction machinery and sanitation equipment firm about which Chen had reported.
But it was three days later that things became even more dramatic. As the New Express and other media outlets were busy showing solidarity with Chen — convinced he was being persecuted just for doing his job — the reporter confessed on state CCTV television that he had been bribed to report false information. Not only was this a slap in the face for all those who rallied to support him, but Chen and New Express suddenly went from being victims to widely loathed figures across China.
In fact, outraged Chinese have used a particularly insulting term for Chen — “ji-ze,” or prostitute. Though it is vulgar, the name-calling actually nails the crux of the problem: In China, freedom of the press suffers from the ills of both money and power.
Journalists like Chen all too often accept “dirty money.” Five years ago, for example — ironically on China Reporter’s Day — many journalists acted particularly disgracefully when they took “hush money” to cover up a mine explosion in Shanxi province. Both actual journalists and others simply posing as reporters rushed to the site, not to report the disaster but to receive the “mouth-sealing fee” the mining company was handing out to conceal the disaster.
Holding out rice bowls
Reporters in China suffer a critical, and dangerous, quandary somewhat unique to their place in the world. Should they go against their conscience and accept bribes, or should they risk their lives to investigate and expose the truth?
Alas, reporters in China are even more notorious than those unconscionable mining company bosses, who characterize crooked journalists as “a bunch of beggars holding out a rice bowl called news.”
In 2002, 11 journalists accepted bribes to cover up a gold mine disaster in Shanxi, where local authority staff and the owner of the unauthorized mine wanted to avoid scrutiny. Instead of going to the mine to cover the incident, these journalists showed up at the offices of the local party committee and county government because they viewed these places as the real gold mine.
But even if there are some bad apples among Chinese journalists, they are perhaps no less wicked than those they work for. In 2007, for example, a reporter named Lan Chengzhang tried blackmailing an illegal mine. He then was beaten to death by the mine owner’s thugs. After the incident, the newspaper Lan worked for denied that he was actually a reporter for the paper. The employers for the 11 reporters involved in covering up the major mine disaster in 2002 did the same.
Strictly speaking, these reporters do not conform to the definition of journalists because in China they are often entrusted with multiple duties — such as being ads salesmen, dealing with publicity and receiving orders — in addition to their editorial tasks. The nature of these multiple functions creates obvious conflicts of interest. And it’s the newspapers that arrange their jobs this way.
The truth is that compared to the mouth-sealing fee-takers, the major press is much more unscrupulous that the individual journalists on their payrolls. For instance, a few years ago state media CCTV disclosed the controversial abuse of Baidu, China’s major Internet services company whose pay-per-click advertising system led to fraud. Baidu search results helped send junk information designed to mislead the public. When this was exposed, many people predicted that Baidu would have to pay a fortune to silence CCTV from further reporting.
Sure enough, as Baidu’s Chief Financial Officer Li Xin later confirmed, Baidu’s “marketing expenses” soared by more than 40 million RMB ($6.5 million) in the quarter following the scandal. The vast majority of these marketing-related expenses were given to CCTV.
Dignity and disgrace
Corrupting the press is of course shocking. But it’s even worse to silence journalistic endeavors by intimidation. It’s because legitimate reporters of the mainstream press are always afraid of “treading the red line” or “stepping onto a landmine” that crooked reporters are given the opportunity to do bad deeds. China has, unfortunately, too many journalists who either have no backbone or zero dignity.
At the end of the day the biggest disgrace is that a large segment of the press in China has lost any sense of shame. This is a disgrace not only for the press but also for the whole of society. In today’s commercialized society, there is nothing that can’t be bought. Officials can be bribed, as can journalists and their employers.
In the novel I’m Liu Yuejin, written by Liu Zhenyun, a policeman named Old Xie often arrests the bad guys he doesn’t know while letting go the ones he does. Though he has a conscience, he comforts himself with the knowledge that “all crows are black” — in other words, evildoers and evil deeds are everywhere anyway. Too many of China’s journalists embrace the same philosophy. .
• Hu Yong is an associate professor of the School of Journalism and Communication at Peking University.