Professional journalism has made advancements in China over the past 20 years. But as journalists in China aspire to do strong and “independent” work in a newly complex media landscape subject to rigid political controls, the spirit of professional journalism lives a wandering existence. Professional journalism may thrive at this newspaper or that magazine for a time, but before long the inevitable happens — an order for suspension, the removal or “resignation” of core editors or investigative reporters. And the spirit moves on.
Through the 1990s, the professional spirit thrived at Guangdong’s Southern Weekly, where the editorial philosophy was an alloy of hope and realism: “There may be truths that we cannot speak, but we must never speak falsehoods.”
Over the next 10 years, as Southern Weekly suffered under relentless pressure from the Central Propaganda Department and its New Commentary Group, other publications matured as outlets for professional journalism. Hu Shuli’s Caijing magazine, which hit hard on business, finance and current affairs stories. The China Economic Times, published by the Development Research Center of the State Council, and home to investigative greats like Wang Keqin. And Cheng Yizhong’s Southern Metropolis Daily, which held China’s newspapers up to a new professional standard.
Professional success always meant courting political trouble, and in many cases editors and reporters left publications out of frustration and exhaustion, were sidelined or (often quietly) sacked. Still, journalists with a facility for “hitting line balls,” or skirting the edge of the politically acceptable, were in demand even if they were out of favor.
In 2011, Wang Keqin was forced to move on when China Economic Times disbanded his investigative reporting unit under political pressure. But Wang eventually landed at another commercial newspaper with big professional aspirations, the Economic Observer. Facing disagreements with the owners of Caijing over censorship and financing in 2009, Hu Shuli walked away from the magazine, a decision that cast a gloom over many aspiring professional journalists at the time. But Hu took most of her top editors with her, eventually founding Caixin Media, where she has continued to champion professional journalism.
The landscape of Chinese journalism is constantly shifting. Journalists with a sense of idealism and purpose come and go, and return.
The launch last week (yes, here comes the nut graph) of iSun Affairs (阳光时务周刊), a Hong Kong-based current affairs magazine with strong ties to the mainland’s professional journalism scene, is the latest evolution on China’s professional journalism landscape. The publication marks the return (in glory?) of several of China’s top journalism pros.
iSun Affairs is a welcome development, and the magazine is definitely something to watch very, very seriously. But its inaugural issue, which sometimes tends to overdramatize, also invites a cautionary note: keep it cool.
Topping the list of comebacks at iSun Affairs is Cheng Yizhong, who spent more than 5 months in detention in 2004 on trumped up charges of corruption stemming from hard-hitting Southern Metropolis Daily reports in 2003. Cheng made a quiet return to China’s media in 2006, heading up the Chinese edition of Sports Illustrated.
Cheng, now the CEO of iSun Affairs, tops the magazine’s masthead right after the publisher, Chen Ping (陈平), a Hong Kong media mogul who is a hard-nosed writer and commentator in his own right.
The next comeback is the editor-in-chief, Chang Ping (长平), an outspoken veteran journalist who in 2001 was removed along with CMP Director Qian Gang as a top editor of Southern Weekly. Chang has been under relentless pressure from the mainland authorities since 2008, when he wrote a number of hard-hitting editorials, including one dealing with unrest in Tibet.
Notable among the magazine’s senior editors is Deng Zhixin (邓志新), who until recently was editorial page editor at Southern Metropolis Daily, which has faced intensified control this year. A smart professional editor, Deng was also one of the core people involved in the groundbreaking 21st Century World Herald before authorities shut the weekly newspaper down in 2003.
iSun Affairs has roots stretching beyond the world of professional Chinese journalism. One of its “special contributors” is Ai Weiwei (艾未未), a contemporary artist and social critic who hardly needs introduction.
Worthy of special note, one of several authors of the cover story to the October 11 edition is Chen Ziming (陈子明), a political scholar and activist who understands perhaps better than anyone China’s immense political challenges and their personal repercussions (he spent 13 years in jail after his involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen protests).
Chen Zimin’s piece (page 34) is definitely worth a considered read. . . Which brings us to some other editorial points.
I won’t linger unnecessarily on the magazine’s cover. I’ll note only its strangely ghoulish feel. The black and orange contrast, with a kind of pre-Halloween feel, frames the chief image, a disturbing sea of anonymous, zombie-like Hu Jintaos wearing red armbands. The Gate of Heavenly Peace is barely visible in the distance, obscured by sepulchral clouds of pollution belched out by industrial smokestacks.
Over the top? Maybe just a little bit? There is sometimes a fine line between the sensational (“Wow!”) and the sensational (“Oh, give me a break!”).
The baleful imagery continues on the cover story spread (pages 26-27), a stormy image of the Great Hall of the People foregrounded by a roiling herd of sheep that seem to be emerging from it. My initial reaction — which may or may not be typical — was that there is nothing implicit here. It is an explicit statement, that the delegates to the upcoming 18th National Congress are simply feeble sheep herded there by powerful (but inscrutable, like the Hu Jintaos on the cover) Party elites.
This reading is reinforced, I think, by the headline and summary, which read:
The 18th National Congress Syndrome
The “great meeting” of the Chinese Communist Party sets the authoritarian machinery of the entire country into motion. What is it that makes this political party that “represents the fundamental interests of the masses of China” so fearful? Perhaps, the symptoms we see around the 18th National Congress are just a representation, and China’s political system is already desperately sick.
In very fine print beneath the byline for this section of the cover story is a disclaimer curiously insisting that the image of sheep emerging from the Great Hall of the People is not meant to be “political.”
Image: “Dream Travel,” sheep densely cover the Great Hall of the People. By Liu Ren. The artist explains that the image does not have political implications, and he hopes that the viewers can also find joy and delight in the dignified and solemn Great Hall of the People.
I’m sorry, Liu Ren, but one price you pay for putting your work out in the world is that you lose control over its implications. What are we, as readers, supposed to make of this patronizing disclaimer? Is it meant ironically? Is it a symptom of editorial indecision, perhaps? Of the nagging voice that said, “Maybe this is a bit much.”
I don’t want to beat up on the magazine, which I confess I enjoyed reading. But I do hope the editors can stay cool. And I hope they can turn conscientiously to their professional duty to be tough and demanding of everyone. Yes, even of celebrity dissidents like Ai Weiwei. I’m not interested in the Ai Weiwei on page 92 of iSun Affairs, who is thrown softball questions on serious issues — Question: Talk about the Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun incidents.
As a magazine based in Hong Kong but stacked with all-star mainland journalists and deeply engaged with mainland issues, iSun Affairs has exciting potential. I hope the magazine can live up to the call — taking us, as Chang Ping wrote in his editor’s note “on a new journey of reading.” To achieve truly professional work, and (perhaps more importantly) to serve as an example to aspiring professional journalists in China, they will need to tough, intelligent and cool.