Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Chinese Are Gradually Learning the Virtues of Political AND Economic Freedom

The Thin Chinese Line

By John Pomfret January/February 2008

Foreign Policy Magazine

Caijing, Issue 196, No. 21, October 15, 2007, Beijing

“Yearning for Reform." It's not exactly the type of headline you'd expect to see on an opinion piece written by the editor of a Chinese publication. But that's what Hu Shuli titled the lead editorial of the October 15 issue of Caijing magazine. Written in the run-up to China's Communist Party Congress, she argued convincingly that China needs democratic changes, and it needs them now. Exactly what the party leadership should do, Caijing left us only to guess. Still, the fact that a mainstream Chinese publication openly embraced democracy means something in today's China.

Although unusual for most Chinese media, Hu's gutsy editorial was typical fare for the readers of Caijing. An amalgam of Forbes, Fortune, and BusinessWeek, with a muckraking edge that makes it hard to categorize, Caijing is China's leading financial magazine. With a circulation of about 100,000, Caijing focuses most of its energy on battling the crony capitalism widespread in China's business world. Occasionally, it takes even bigger risks by tackling Chinese government officials themselves, such as with the magazine's in-depth and influential coverage of the SARS epidemic in 2002.

With the tightening of restrictions on the Chinese media due to the insecurity and lack of vision of Hu Jintao, China's current president, Caijing has often found itself the only media outlet in China that's covering important stories that make headlines in the outside world. It alone profiled Jiang Yanyong, the whistle-blowing doctor who accused Chinese authorities of lying about the extent of the SARS epidemic. In June 2005, it broke the story of Zhang Enzhao, the former chairman of China Construction Bank who had mysteriously "resigned" his post a month earlier and was under investigation for corruption.

That story was revelatory for the Chinese press; the confirmation that Zhang was in trouble came from a court case filed in the United States. Chinese reporters realized, said one former editor, that "even if the Chinese government kept quiet about cross-border scandals and shut up all domestic sources, there's a sea of open information beyond China's borders that is fair game to anybody with good language, investigative, and research skills."

Caijing's investigatory zeal has helped prompt significant change in China. In 2001, the magazine reported that Yinguangxia, the second-largest company on China's stock exchange, had falsely reported hundreds of millions in profits. Although some government officials backed the company and wanted to censor the article, Caijing used a fake cover to trick those officials into thinking the magazine was publishing something else. After the story ran, the Communist Party turned around and embraced the idea that listed companies needed to be regulated; it passed laws to regulate China's stock markets and issued regulations allowing classaction lawsuits. "We focus on the role of watchdog more, thinking about pushing transparency and honoring the public's right to know," says Hu, Caijing's editor. "We'd like to think of ourselves as woodpeckers, chipping away at China, trying to prevent the country from slipping into the trap of crony capitalism."

Hu also has backup. Caijing's publisher is Wang Boming, a garrulous scion of China's Communist aristocracy. Wang's father, Wang Bingnan, was a former deputy foreign minister and worked closely with then Premier Zhou Enlai. Wang is on a firstname basis with many senior Chinese officials; something that can come in handy when Caijing butts its head against China's censorship rules.

A graduate of Columbia Law School, Wang returned to China in 1989 with the dream of founding China's first stock exchange. He succeeded, twice; exchanges were started in Shenzhen and Shanghai. With that work done, Wang started an investment firm and a media company he called seeC and began publishing magazines.

In 2003, Wang engineered to have seeC's advertising and distribution business listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, marking the first time that a Chinese media company had placed its shares abroad. That financial success means that Caijing boasts the country's biggest editorial budget per journalist, giving its staff plenty of time and resources for the investigative long-form journalism that has become its hallmark. It also means Caijing's journalists are paid well enough to avoid the normal practice among Chinese reporters of accepting a payoff in return for favorable coverage.

Thanks in part to Caijing, the range and depth of topics that are regularly explored in the pages of China's press and on its airwaves has increased. Social issues such as premarital sex, homosexuality, AIDS, domestic violence, corruption, and illegal land sales by Communist Party functionaries-all taboo in the past-can now be explored with unprecedented candor.

In October's editorial, Hu addressed her argument to China's political and economic elite, among whom the idea of democratic reform has lost traction because many fear losing the enormous gains they've made in recent years. "Some argue that pushing forward with political reform will be destabilizing," she wrote. "Yet, in fact, maintaining the status quo without any reform creates a hotbed for social turbulence."

But is anyone at Party Central listening? I think not. Caijing may have helped contribute to an information revolution in China, but the political revolution is still a long way off. Communist Party censors routinely shutter wayward newspapers, fire gutsy editors, and jail recalcitrant reporters. And though gutsy editors like Hu Shuli occasionally dare mention the need for political reform, there's no sign that the Communists are willing to change their one-party ways.

So far, Caijing has escaped the often cruel fate of a Chinese periodical: a padlocked front gate and a silenced printing press. But Caijing, like other Chinese media, also pulls its punches. The Tiananmen Square crackdown is off-limits. So is reporting about the practices of Falun Gong. And during the SARS epidemic, the magazine killed a major investigation into the failure of the party secretary of Guangdong Province to deal with the disease when it first erupted in November of 2002.

Is the plucky Beijing weekly a sign of China's future, or just pretty window dressing tolerated by a party that understands the uses of a loyal opposition? As a cautious pessimist about the cause of political change in China, I sadly vote for the latter. Caijing pulls its punches because it must. In a country with an eager supply of informants and a journalistic ethos more focused on printing puff pieces for cash, Caijing may be a rare bird, but it's one that seems fated to live caged.

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