Investigative Journalism in China: Eight Cases in Chinese Watchdog Journalism

By Keong, Wong Kok | International Journal of China Studies, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Investigative Journalism in China: Eight Cases in Chinese Watchdog Journalism


Keong, Wong Kok, International Journal of China Studies


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David Bandurski and Martin Hala (eds), Investigative Journalism in China: Eight Cases in Chinese Watchdog Journalism, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010, 184 pp. + vi

This well conceived, richly documented and highly engaging volume is a must-read for anyone interested in journalism and China. Eight of the ten chapters are case studies of investigative journalism highlighting different issues and challenges Chinese journalists confront in their valiant effort to try and serve the role of fourth estate in Communist-controlled China. The introductory chapter, while offering a synopsis of each of the chapters, provides a much needed historical time frame to situate the development of investigative journalism. It is a development that does not follow a linear progression and is deeply tied to the dynamic, often times contradictory, forces of authoritarian control of the media/press by the ruling, or pretty much, the only political party (Chinese Communist Party) and a marketplace economy that the CCP has tried to harness for China's economic development. The chapter also briefly touches on the Internet and the rise of citizen journalists performing their own investigations of alleged wrongdoing. The concluding chapter offers a fitting wrap-up by pointing to the continuing influence of the Communist leadership on watchdog reporting: Chinese investigative journalism that has manifested in yulun jiandu (or supervision by public opinion), yulun diaoxiang (guidance of public opinion), and yidi jiandu (extra-regional media supervision); and what some of the more dedicated investigative journalists did to get around governmental "supervision" or "guidance".

China is still communist, politically, and increasingly capitalist, economically, today. Media are required to follow the dictates of the Communist Party or government and expected to rely on commercial sources of funding, e.g., advertising, that emphasizes large audience. It is this political and economic mix that has increasingly shaped the character and practice of investigative journalism. But the book is quick to remind that this does not mean investigative journalism needs the introduction of capitalism to be practiced. While this suggests the universal call of journalism to give voice to the powerless and to uncover injustices perpetrated by the powerful, the book is equally quick to point out that Chinese investigative journalism has differences compared to the more liberal Western approach even though some Chinese journalists are known to watch and learn from the U.S. TV news show 60 Minutes. All this offers a good reminder that investigative journalism might be more openly practiced in the West (if it is actually pursued especially in this age of media commercialism and corporate media) but one would be remiss in thinking investigative journalism has been non-existent in Communist China prior to opening its doors to capitalism since the 1980s.

This is actually part of the message of a highly engaging, even scary, account of a case study on the spread of HIV through blood donations (Chapter 2). Months before a New York Times reporter covered the story and made it global, some Chinese reporters, especially Zhang Jicheng, already had done the hard work in their investigation that first took them to Henan, a remote rural area of China. In the end, the New York Times reporter was the only one showered with praise by Asia Society and awarded the Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence for Asian Journalism. This particular episode also points to a troubling irony. Even though Chinese reports on the matter had stirred up deep concern among a huge Chinese population it was not taken seriously by the Chinese government at the national level to take actions until the New York Times report appeared.

Sometimes, however, Communist leadership at the national level might have the will to involve journalists to help get them close to what the general public might be thinking, saying or demanding. …

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