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China 2.0

Off-Duty Reporters Are China's Newest Whistleblowers

Recent cases of official malfeasance in China have been exposed not by newspapers but by reporters writing on their personal microblogs.

Watchdogs 2.0
Watchdogs 2.0
Hua Ti

- OpEd -

BEIJING - Several months ago, reporter Luo Changping accused two top government officials of corruption: Liu Tienan, former vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, as well as the head of the State Energy Bureau. Confident that the magazine where he works, Caijing, would lack the courage to name the men, Changping turned to his personal microblog using his real name. Tienan is now under arrest and being investigated.

And recently, Economic Information Daily reporter Wang Wenzhi exposed serious violations perpetrated by several high-ranking executives — including Song Lin, chairman of China Resources, a state-owned enterprise (SOE) listed on the Fortune 500. But like Changping before him, his reporting appeared on his personal microblog account, not in his employer's print product. Again, investigators took notice.

According to Wenzhi, Lin and some of his colleagues were responsible for losing several billion RMB in national assets through dirty dealings during the merger and acquisition of Shanxi Gold and Coking Group. Not only is Lin accused of dereliction of duty, but he also reportedly received a huge amount of money.

China Resources is a central SOE in which Lin has a high-ranking vice ministerial position. Since taking office, China's new leaders have unequivocally broadcast their intention to “crack down on the tigers as well as the flies” — meaning both major and minor offenders — saying they are determined to fight graft. The storm followed the thunder right away. In the last six months alone, 10 officials of similar high rank have fallen from grace. Such efforts demonstrate the Chinese government’s commitment to punish corruption.

Relevant investigative departments will determine whether Wenzhi's reporting about the China Resources managers is accurate. According to the People's Daily, China's Central Discipline Inspection Commission, the Communist Party's anti-graft watchdog, responded very quickly to open a case. China's central anti-corruption mechanism reacted even faster and more aggressively than in the Liu Tienan case. In other words, the government seems to be working with — or at least listening to — the social anti-corruption forces.

And curbing corruption within any institution or society does require enormous collaboration. The government simply can't fight it alone. If it could, reporting mechanisms such as call-in hotlines wouldn't exist. In many countries, a civilian who blows the whistle on corruption can even be given a huge reward.

A country belongs to each of its citizens, and when their “home” is not clean, they have the right and obligation to tidy it. A reporter is first a citizen, so to denounce wrongdoing using his real name is an inalienable right.

Clearly, the recent exposés from these journalists target senior officials and SOE executives. Officials are civil servants whereas SOEs are the people's property. It's the journalists' duty to tell the public loudly if they find any corruption by these people.

In recent years, scandals involving SOEs have continued to surface. For instance, the astronomically priced chandelier incident involving Sinopec, China's major oil and gas company, utterly disgusted the public. Over and over again, similar events have highlighted the serious problem of insider control.

Insider control of SOEs leads to the loss of property rights and exacerbates the unfair allocation of social resources. How to effectively improve SOE managerial structure is a weighty and important topic. So when reporters grasp facts and materials and make public allegations about official corruption, it serves as a very valuable external monitoring force.

Journalists have professional investigating skills as well as advantages in collecting information. It is inherently the media's duty to be the watchdog of public interests and is only right that they speak out against wrongdoing by governmental officials. But the very fact that these exposés by non-anonymous journalists can become such hot news items is an indication that the Chinese press traditionally has not been effective.

What happens if an accusation by a journalist operating on his own proves to be false after a fair and truthful investigation? Can the reporter, as a whistleblower, be charged with defamation?

I am personally convinced that a non-anonymous whistleblower should be forgiven based on the idea that watchdogs of public resources should have immunity. Because only if they are protected can the public's enthusiasm for keeping an eye on those in the position of dominating public resources be maintained. It is fundamentally conducive to safeguarding public interests.

In the case of officials being wrongly accused, they can clean their name easily in today's highly developed social media environment and can avoid a damaged reputation.

On the contrary, if whistleblowers were punished, there would be a dangerous chilling effect. Nobody would dare to speak out about suspected corruption, and this certainly wouldn't be good news for protecting the public interest.

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Image of Colombian President Gustavo Petro speaking during a press conference in Buenos Aires on Jan 14, 2023

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Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
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