'The Dream Is Dead': Why So Many Chinese Journalists Are Quitting

A reporter's high-profile resignation has provoked pessimism about the future of China's news media.

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Reporter Yang Haipeng, who in November 2011 quit Caijing Magazine.

Recently, Jian Guangzhou (@简光洲), one of the most reputed investigative journalists in China, quit the Oriental Daily (@东方早报) and announced he was ending his reporting career. Even though the specific reasons for Jian leaving his job remain unclear, one of his tweets on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, revealed frustration and desperation behind the decision. "My ten years with the Oriental Daily have been the most precious in my life, which gave me all the sadness and happiness, all the dreams. I suffered and endured everything because of the dream I had. And now, the dream is dead, and I choose to leave. Take care, my brothers!"

Jian came to fame after a report he published on September 11, 2008, titled "14 infants in Gansu Province are suspected of falling ill with kidney stones because of Sanlu milk powder," generated a domino effect. Further investigation showed that Sanlu, a widely-trusted brand, added large amounts of melamine, a kind of chemical raw material which is prohibited in food industry, to its products. It turned out that almost all the big brands in China's milk industry were involved in the illegal enterprise, only differing in the extent, and about 40,000 infants all over the country were affected. Milk pollution is regarded as China's severest food security scandal in recent years.

By providing this type of audacious coverage under huge pressure, Jian has come to be perceived by many as the "conscience of China." This symbolic layer to Jian's reputation makes his departure rather heartbreaking to many, and has provoked deep pessimism about the future of China's news media.

Jian's resigning is just one of several "personnel earthquakes" that have struck the Oriental Daily in 2012. Founded in 2003, the newspaper has built up a reputation as one of the most important independent, liberal media brands in China, largely through its in-depth investigative coverage and outspoken editorials. This reputation also makes it among the most vulnerable to government censorship.

On July 18, the publication's president and vice editor-in-chief were dismissed for unspecified reasons. Some rumors said the direct cause might be the Daily's interview with Sheng Hong (@盛洪微博), president of Tianze Economics Institute, which was published in May. In the interview, Prof. Sheng acutely criticized the monopoly of state-owned companies in certain markets.

The misfortune has also befallen other media brands. On July 16, the editor-in-chief of the News Express Daily (@新快报) was forced to resign because of unspecified "sensitive" contents it had published. On August 23, the Oriental Vanguard (@东方卫报) published on its front page a feature article titled "Liu Xiang knew, officials knew, China Central Television knew, only the audience was waiting vainly for the legendary moment." The article said that official heads of the Chinese Olympic Team, China Central Television (CCTV) and Liu Xiang himself had all known beforehand that his severe injury might render him unable to finish the preliminary heats of the Olympic Men's 110-meter Hurdles, and CCTV had prepared four commentating plans accordingly. The report caused the editor-in-chief, the assistant editor-in-chief and the so-called "news supervisors" (新闻总监) to be dismissed.

Although the government's control over news media has always been tight, the range and intensity of the purge this year has been rarely seen, suggesting that the censors' controlling hand is tightening. As Wang Keqin (@王克勤), a former investigative journalist famous for his coverage of AIDS spread and illegal mining plants, comments, "It's getting colder. The winter is approaching."

Wang's comment is especially profound considering that earlier this year, many claimed that "the spring of Chinese media" was coming after the state-owned, usually conservative People's Daily (@人民日报) published a series of op-eds calling for political reforms, widely read as a hint that China's news-control bureaus were liberalizing. However, this interpretation proved too optimistic, with purges beginning in July.

The strange dichotomy between the liberalization of official media and the increasing oppression of independent media can also be found in social media. On one hand, the Weibo account of the Party mouthpiece People's Daily has shown a degree of humanity and independence that has pleasantly surprised netizens, and the account of Xinhua News Agency (@新华社中国网事) bravely challenged military authority when it reported on a military officer beating a flight attendant. On the other, journalists in independent media are being deprived of freedom of expression. @新闻已死 provides the evidence: "I hear that all the professionals working for the Nanfang Daily are required to report their Weibo accounts, even the passwords, to their superior."

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Yueran Zhang is a Chinese writer based in Durham, North Carolina. He contributes regularly to Tea Leaf Nation.

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