'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.

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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."

The perplexing contrast might reflect the intense battle between conservative and liberal power within the central government. It might also point to an integrated strategy by the Party's Publicity Bureau-winning more popularity by being a bit more liberal in order to edge out independent media, who become more intimidated and likely to self-censor. If the latter is true, the winter of Chinese independent media may truly have arrived.

Jian Guangzhou is the third distinguished investigative journalist forced to end his career within the last year. In November 2011, Yang Haipeng (@武松手札), acclaimed as the best investigative journalists specializing in legal issues, left Caijing Magazine (@财经杂志). In July 2012, Liu Jianfeng (@V的刘建锋), famous for his coverage of Qian Yunhui's death and the uprising in Wukan, resigned from The Economic Observer (@经济观察报). The frequent departures reflect the huge pressure facing investigative journalists.

Under the current circumstances, where the government sees maintaining "social stability" as its priority, any negative news is seen as potentially destabilizing. Thus, investigative journalists, whose mission is to uncover the dark side of society, are seen as "dangerous factors" and often encounter obstacles when trying to publish their pieces. @雪峰NO1's comment is representative: "Now I'm used to an environment like this. I've had more articles killed than published."

Moreover, investigative journalists frequently find their physical safety threatened. The beating of journalists when reporting is almost an everyday phenomenon. Lamentably, Chinese journalism school has to include self defense as part of the curriculum. One journalism teacher (@新闻采写教师-王卫明) recently announced this "good news": "Good news! Martialist Zhao Jilong agreed to teach self defense skills (course topic: security issues for investigative journalists). Journalists are welcome to come!"

Thus, it came as no surprise when a research report showed that 55% of Chinese investigative journalists do not want to continue their careers at all or plan to quit within five years. Zhou Wentian (@舟亦洲), an investigative journalist previously working for the Oriental Daily, summarizes why investigative journalists tend to give up: "Chinese journalists, especially those doing investigation and emergent coverage, make a living in a profession for the young. It's not an exaggeration to call them 'cheap labor' ... The dream of journalism is just like poison. At last, journalists are left with wasted youth and poverty. So few investigative journalists retire at the normal age, either because the presses don't want old journalists or they die from overwork."

Yet, despite the unfavorable environment, some journalists still hold on to their dream of documenting China's fast-changing society and utilizing their voices to better it. Shen Yachuan (@石扉客), famous for his reporting of She Xianglin's misjudged case and corruption of police in Shanghai, is one of them. "Even though there are so many hardships, I still believe that China, in the next ten years, will be full of amazing stories with manifold facets. Media can change China. So, my colleagues, please continue for another ten years."

Even though Jian Guangzhou claims that "my dream is dead," he is determined to keep contributing to society, pursuing his dream in another form: "I will probably not be a journalist again, but I want to do the following: To get a doctorate, to complete a book criticizing the media industry, to found an NGO named 'independent journalists' investigation project' with the hope to financially support ten projects annually, in which independent journalists investigate social, environmental and developmental problems, free from all kinds of pressure."

Similarly, Liu Jianfeng also announced that he would become an independent investigative journalist. Despite all signs to the contrary, some continue to hold out hope that spring will eventually come for Chinese media.

Liu Jianfeng announced that he would become an independent investigative journalist, later tweeting that this meant he was pursuing his dream further, not abandoning it. Despite all signs to the contrary, some continue to hold out a glimmer of hope that spring will eventually come for Chinese media.

This article originally appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.