How Chinese reporters have turned to weibo to expose corruption

Spurred by recent successes, journalists have been increasingly using their real names on social media sites to expose official corruption

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 July, 2013, 10:41am

On a cloudy morning in early December, a deputy editor of Caijing magazine came up with a novel approach to expose official corruption, and his method has since gained popularity among journalists.

"Since so many people are using their microblogs to disclose corruption, why don't I try it using my real name?" Luo Changping , 32, recalled thinking, in his new book.

In December, Liu received damaging information about a then deputy minister for the National Development and Reform Commission, Liu Tienan. The information, which came from a former mistress to the official, showed that he had faked his master's degree, had affairs and took bribes.

One year earlier, Caijing, a respected business magazine, had published an article about a corruption case, without naming directly. The report, however, did not receive much attention from anti-corruption officials.

This time, Luo decided to take measures into his own hands using his microblog account, hoping to get the attention of the Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party's anti-graft watchdog.

"The biggest risk for me was being fired," Luo said. "But Liu could lose his top job and even go to jail."

In May, Luo's saw his efforts pay off. Liu was sacked and put under investigation by the CCDI. Speaking to local media, Luo said his success in taking down a corrupt official was an isolated case and unlikely to be duplicated.

However, his victory has emboldened more Chinese journalists to follow suit.

In mid-July, Economic Information Daily reporter Wang Wenzhi used his real-name microblog account to accuse the management of China Resources Power of agreeing to overvalue some coal mining assets in Shanxi province by five billion yuan (HK$6.3 billion).

As a result, China's State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission audited China Resources Group, the parent company of China Resources Power.

Wang said he posted the information because he and his family had received anonymous threats by phone after publishing a related investigative report in his newspaper in late June. He told local media that he felt safer after posting the allegation.

Days later, Zhou Fang , a Xinhua journalist made a microblog post saying that a certain ministry-level propaganda official had attended sex parties held by wealthy businessmen.

Professor Zhan Jiang , who teaches communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the rapid development of social media has resulted in an increased number of mainland journalists turning to microblogs to expose official corruption.

"Journalists have much more freedom to say what they want to say on social media than they have with the traditional media platforms for which they work. The success of Luo Changping has also encouraged other reporters to follow suit," Zhan said.

Shui Pi , editor in chief of the China Times, agreed: "Journalists' real-name accusations on microblogs are much more influential [than traditional reports] and can attract public attention and quickly develop into a news event."

"The swift reactions from relevant authorities, such as the CCDI, has also emboldened other journalists," Shui added.

However, the stakes for such whistle-blowing are high.

"These journalists might have done a careful risk assessment, either for their own safety or of their careers, before getting into such activism, because the targeted officials are not ordinary folks," Zhan said.

Many media insiders attribute Luo's success partially to the strong background of his magazine's owner, Wang Boming , who has close ties to senior party leaders such as CCDI boss Wang Qishan . Wang Boming has backed up Luo.

So far, neither Wang Wenzhi nor Zhou Fang appeared to have suffered any serious backlash. Sources close to Wang said he continues working as usual, although he has been warned about "violating discipline". Zhou said he was working as usual and denied a report about his dismissal.

Additional reporting by Raymond Li