INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM IN CHINA: Pushing the limits between the 1990s and 2013

This chapter is concerned with the relationship between investigative journalism and the Partystate in China between the 1990s and 2013, which covers the golden years of investigative journalism in China. From 2014, investigative journalism started disappearing in this country under the joint influence of tightening media control, news organisations’ market failure and digital technology (Tong, 2017). The chapter deconstructs the articulation between the development of investigative journalism and changes in social dynamics as well as delineating the strategies of investigative journalism in handling political interference during that period of time.

In general, China’s investigative journalism involves extensive investigation and investment of time and money to expose the misconduct of wrongdoers and the hidden problems of society. Between the 1990s and 2013, Investigative journalism was practiced in a series of struggle against control from political authorities over reporting autonomy. Making great efforts, investigative journalists had developed strategies and tactics and broadened reporting boundaries (Repnikova, 2014; Tong, 2007). It is argued that during that period, pushing the limits of reporting made it possible to continue the practice of investigative journalism, although it also dramatically transformed the landscape of investigative journalism on a national scale. In spite of that some news media had given up on investigative journalism in the face of political and economic pressure, some other news organisations had managed to continue the practice into the second decade of the twenty-first century (Tong, 2013).

Nevertheless, whatever autonomy for manoeuvre that investigative journalists may have, it has to be remembered that this was achieved merely because China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP) allowed it. A supportive stance of the central government in the 1990s had allowed investigative journalism to flourish, whereas a zero-tolerance approach on the part of the authorities since 2012 has undoubtedly suffocated the practice, no matter how hard investigative journalists might have struggled to survive.

The transformation of investigative journalism since the 1990s shows how journalists were proactive in seizing opportunities for the development of investigative practices and in increasing reporting autonomy. Investigative journalism emerged in China’s media landscape and grew rapidly when the central government was relatively kindly disposed towards its practice in the 1990s and the early twenty-first century. Meanwhile, its growth was stimulated in the fertile soil offered by market-driven incentives in China’s media industries. However, later on, more constraints and limitations on investigative journalism emerged, accompanying changes in political culture and market conditions. Under such circumstances, investigative journalists developed and adopted strategies to cope with the constraints while seeking as much autonomy as possible. When the boundaries of investigative reporting were pushed, investigative journalism proved its worth as an established paradigm of good journalism. Nevertheless, from 2012, little tolerance for investigative journalism on the part of the authorities has put an end to its practice, which may or may not return to this soil.

Political and market incentives in the 1990s

In the 1990s under the rule ofjiang Zemin, Chinese journalists enjoyed considerable journalistic autonomy. The rise of investigative journalism was thanks to the Party’s recognition of its importance in maintaining the purity of the Party as well as news organisations’ acknowledgement of the catalytic function that investigative journalism could have in improving profitability (Zhao, 2000; Tong and Sparks, 2009). These political and market-driven incentives were significant preconditions for the flourishing of investigative journalism in China.

The central government encouraged investigative journalism for two reasons. First, the ruling Party was facing a crisis of legitimacy, resulting from the emergence of increasingly serious social problems in the process of economic reforms (Guo, 2003; Heberer and Schubert, 2006; Potter, 1994; Sausmikat, 2006; Dickson, 2004). Deng’s famous “Cat theory”1 endorsed engagement in economic activities at any price, but one preeminent consequence of this was the spreading of fake products and cheating in business and commercial activities. This pressing issue reduced the public’s confidence in economic reforms and therefore also the party-state’s legitimacy to govern. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor started widening as a result of accelerating urbanisation and commercialisation in the 1990s and arising from unequal access to and allocation of social and material resources. Elites who enjoyed privileged access to such resources benefited most from economic reform. The underprivileged were instead deprived of resources and life opportunities leading to further marginalisation. The fact that the social benefits system also lagged behind the economic reforms made the situation worse, leaving a large number of ordinary people outside the social security system. Social problems, such as corruption and the collaboration between political and economic elites, also came to the fore bringing further pressure to bear on the political authorities (for the earlier discussion, see Liu, 2006; Liu and Li, 2006; Lu, 2002; Lyons, 1991; Sun, 2002; Wang et al., 2006; Wu, 2004; Gries and Rosen, 2004).

Second, there was a trend of spiralling decentralisation in the relation between the central and local governments as a result of decentralised financial and monetary policies and administrative practices adopted after the 1980s economic reforms Qin et al., 1999). Given the large territory China has, it was, and still is, challenging for the central government to ensure local governments do what they are expected to do. In such circumstances where the central and local governments each had their own respective interests, local governments would choose to overlook some of the instructions and policies emerging from the central government. Such decentralisation in the centrallocal government relationship presented another critical challenge to the rule of the CCP. These combined factors put pressure on the central party leadership to resolve these problems as soon as possible. A potentially effective solution was to turn to and exploit, the “public opinion supervision” (yulun jiandu) function of the press that was a long-established tradition of the CCP. This function of the Chinese press offered the grounds for a new political legitimacy for investigative journalism.

The 1990s witnessed a wave of media commercialisation and the appearance of media conglomerates under the administrative control of the central government (Zhang, 1993). Whilst Party organs proved to be losers in the market, the responsibilities of making profits lay on the shoulders of their subsidiary commercial newspapers and TV channels (Zhao, 1998). How to increase market share, nevertheless, was a pressing question for news outlets to answer. One prominent problem concerning commercial news outlets was the tendency towards homogeneity in their content. Trivial, human-interest, tabloidised and sensational stories occupied most of their coverage. This tendency prohibited commercial news media from expanding their market share since they targeted and competed for the same readership. With the historically shaped Confucian intellectual tradition of journalism (Lee, 2000), Chinas readers were expecting the advocacy role of journalism. Therefore, one way to meet the inherent needs of readers was to offer them stories that touched upon the social problems confronting ordinary people and which had the potential to help readers seek justice and solutions to these problems. Investigative journalism perfectly met this need.

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