Investigative Journalism in China Is Struggling to Survive

State controls and economic pressures have stifled high-quality reporting in one of the world’s most important countries.

China’s crackdown on popular messaging and blogging apps puts them in a difficult place

China’s crackdown on popular messaging and blogging apps puts them in a difficult place. Rebel Pepper, December 2016. © Radio Free Asia

State controls and economic pressures have stifled high-quality reporting in one of the world’s most important countries.

Chinese journalists have long operated in an extremely restrictive media environment, but conditions for investigative journalism and liberal commentary in particular have deteriorated since 2013. That year, journalists at the respected newspaper Southern Weekly held protests in defense of press freedom but ultimately failed to curb censorship at the outlet.

Since then, the ruling Communist Party has put increasing pressure on journalists and commercial news outlets to self-censor and propagandize. Sleek state-subsidized media projects like The Paper have been encroaching on more independent-minded publications, while a series of new internet regulations are squeezing online media companies and bloggers alike.

Three key trends became clear in 2017:

  • Decline in the number of investigative journalists: There were only 175 investigative journalists in China as of 2017, a 58 percent decrease from 2011, according to a report coauthored by Professor Zhang Zhi’an and PhD candidate Cao Yanhui of Sun Yat-sen University. Some of the news industry’s leading lights left their positions during the year, including Beijing News publisher Dai Zigeng and editor in chief Wang Yuechun. In the heyday of the microblogging platform Sina Weibo at the start of this decade, journalists  skirted censorship at their formal news outlets by sharing information on their personal social media accounts. After a crackdown on celebrity Weibo commentators (“big Vs”) in 2013 and the rise of the semiprivate messaging app WeChat, large numbers of professionals and citizen journalists built their own “self-media” (zimeiti)—dedicated social media accounts that disseminate news to subscribers and sometimes raise money through advertising. Now that avenue is narrowing, too. Wen Yunchao, a blogger and activist in New York, says new rules for social media make it impossible for self-media to sustain themselves. “A few newspeople in China tried to use social media to report breaking news, but the [Cyberspace Administration of China’s] latest regulations constrain this possibility,” he told Freedom House. “That is to say, Chinese media professionals can’t earn enough from publishing on social media to continue their work.”
  • Smartphone news apps rise in popularity, party-state seeks influence: While news content producers struggle, the news aggregation app Jinri Toutiao has enjoyed explosive growth. The app added 40 million users in 2017, bringing its total to 120 million. Parent company Beijing ByteDance is currently valued at $20 billion. Jinri Toutiao is not a journalistic enterprise: Run by well-remunerated engineers, it reposts content from other media outlets and provides a platform for bloggers to share and monetize their posts, using algorithms to tailor users’ feeds to their interests and often placing a slice of state-sanctioned news at the top of a large helping of fluff. But with success comes trouble. The company faces lawsuits from several online outlets and provincial newspapers, which claim that Jinri Toutiao has no right to share their content for free. Moreover, the government has chastised ByteDance on several occasions for sharing “illegal” content. Jinri Toutiao and similar apps are required to use a “super algorithm” to put stories about President Xi Jinping at the top of everyone’s feed and include “New Era”—Xi’s latest propaganda theme—as a news section, according to Fang Kecheng, a former journalist at Southern Weekly and a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Censorship and financial woes challenge reach of public interest stories: The popular business publication Caixin recovered from a two-month ban on websites republishing its content that was imposed in October 2016, but the paywall it raised in November 2017 underscored its financial difficulties. “Like other traditional media, Caixin has been struggling to find a sustainable business model,” says Fang Kecheng. He understands the logic behind the paywall, particularly since Caixin focuses on business reporting, but warns that it cuts the public off from important content. “As far as I know, public affairs journalists at Caixin are very concerned about the paywall,” Fang noted. Commercial media known for more aggressive and investigative reporting in China, such as Caixin, are losing profitability due to censorship and the fact that news portals and other aggregators are obliged to favor state media.

Although those immediately affected by such trends are members of a relatively small community of intrepid reporters, the impact on news consumers is far-reaching, limiting the availability of high-quality journalism and accurate information on matters of public interest for tens of millions of Chinese readers and internet users, not to mention the wider world.

Even in the face of these challenges, muckraking reporters in China persist in their efforts to hold powerful companies and officials accountable for their actions. The international nonprofit Global Investigative Journalism Network recognized 13 examples of first-class reporting by Chinese journalists on social issues, unscrupulous business schemes, and abusive institutions in 2017. In a sign that at least some such stories are still able to break through censorship barriers and trigger national conversations, five of the 13 were also among the year’s top 10 “society news stories” listed by China’s Baidu search engine, and several of them sparked official investigations.

Still, one can only imagine the stories that would be brought to light, the officials who would be held to account, and the lives that would be saved if the country’s investigative journalists were given free rein to do their jobs.

Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin. Anne Henochowicz is a commissioning editor for the China Channel, an affiliate of the Los Angeles Review of Books.