Thank you, Chairman Han

At 10:49am yesterday, [CMP Director] Qian Gang (钱钢) wrote on his Sina Microblog account: “I’m shocked to learn that the investigative team at China Economic Times led by Wang Keqin (王克勤) has been ‘dismantled’ this morning. This needs urgent attention!” By 4:49 in the afternoon, this post had been re-posted close to 3,000 times, and had drawn some 1,200 comments. Opinion was overwhelmingly in support of Wang Keqin and his colleagues. These orders [against Wang's team] will, I’m afraid, draw a reaction those responsible never anticipated.

In fact, I seriously question whether the newspaper officials who made this decision are actually people of the 21st century, or media people [of the 21st century]. Naturally, some web users have already ferreted out the fact that the present chairman of China Economic Times, Mr. Han (韩社长), only stepped into his position a year ago. He has a background in publishing, having formerly been the general manager of Longmen Books, known as a publisher of children’s educational materials. In May last year, Bao Yueyang (包月阳) was replaced by Han as editor-in-chief and chairman of China Economic Times. [NOTE: Bao was removed following pressure stemming from Wang Keqin's investigative report on vaccines and corruption in Shanxi province]. Whatever else can be said, Chairman Han is a media man in a management sense — but in terms of his ideas, he is perhaps not.

At 3:03pm, I wrote on my microblog: “China Economic Times chairman Han Lijun (韩立军) is now well-known. He has used a crackdown on the internationally known Wang Keqin, who enjoys tolerance from high-level [government leaders], and his excellent but penniless team to make a name for himself. What an innovative stroke this is. Otherwise, who would ever know about Han Lijun? Still, further developments [in this case] will be beyond his control.” Almost immediately, someone responded to this post saying, “No idiot will make a name for himself by killing opinion leaders. Such actions will only draw contempt.”

I won’t, of course, cast doubt on the intelligence of Chairman Han. But I do think Han is operating by his own logic in taking these actions. I’ve said before that for some media units, knocking out good quality staff is a popular tactic. If it weren’t for the internet, these people would have a much easier time of it. I’m predicting that Chairman Han, ignorant as he is of the laws of the internet, will regret [his actions]. Living in a bygone age, these people mistakenly believe they can do whatever they like for their own personal profit, and they will pay the price for this.

As I wrote on my microblog, the breakup of Wang Keqin’s investigative team is not something intended by the high-level leadership. It should be understood as the intention of a handful of ignorant and incompetent people at the top of the newspaper. High-level leaders have voiced approval of the work Wang Keqin has done in recent years to uphold the public interest. They have at the very least not singled him out for trouble. Wang Keqin has worked as an investigative reporter in Beijing for more than 10 years now, and from his seminal work on taxi cartels in Beijing to today he has never been targeted with a libel suit, and the factual nature of his reporting has never been questioned.

Reporters have called to ask me about the state of investigative reporting in China and the predicament it faces. I respond that we should avoid this word “predicament.” And for this reason, I encourage against reading too much into this latest development, understanding it as necessarily a reflection of the worsening state of investigative reporting, or a sign that forces outside the paper have agitated against Wang Keqin. This should not in fact be the case. We should recognize that we’ve lately seen an upsurge in investigative reporting in many media, in financial media and commercial newspapers, and even at China Central Television, including such recent cases as tainted pork in China, and just this month revelations of counterfeit products by DaVinci furniture.

Not long ago, a very well-known artist went to visit Wang Keqin at the newspaper, and said he wanted to join his investigative team. Wang Keqin laughed and said: “The monthly wage is 1,700 yuan. is that OK?” Of course, as a veteran reporter, and as the head of a team, Wang’s salary is a bit higher than younger colleagues. But all told, he makes no more than 3,000 yuan a month, and that at 47 years of age. He has been unable to buy a house in Beijing, and among China’s famous journalists he is no doubt the poorest.

I remember three months back talking with the head of a magazine in Guangzhou about my positive view of the state of investigative reporting in China right now. I happened to mention that Wang Keqin made about 2,700 yuan a month, and this old press person said: “What? What? What did you just say? 2,700 yuan a month?” “That’s right,” I said calmly. But I know that many people have difficulty believing this is true.

I know it’s his values, and not material support, that have sustained Wang Keqin up to the present day, even though it is said that “without money nothing is possible.”

When friends say that being a journalist is a dangerous road, I respond that, given the chance, I will still choose to be a journalist in the next life. Because Wang Keqin and others like him have made China a more transparent place, and they have transformed the values of our people. In a significant sense, they have taken us from a culture of propaganda and exultation (歌颂型文化) to a culture of criticism (批判性文化). Therefore, I suspect that the changes Wang Keqin is now experiencing might bring him an opportunity for fairer pay and greater comfort. If that’s the case, then I suppose we have Chairman Hang to thank.

[This is a translated and edited version of an essay that appeared on July 18 at Economic Observer Online.

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