Investigative journalist Luo Changping is this year’s winner of the prestigious Integrity Award in Berlin. The Beijing-based deputy editor of Caijing Magazine, is the first Chinese citizen to receive the award, which honours exceptional anti-graft activism and is handed out by the global governance watchdog Transparency International on Friday in Berlin.
The 33-year-old risked his career and freedom last December when he accused Liu Tienan, the deputy head of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, of corruption.
The young journalist accused Liu of abusing his position as party head of China’s National Energy Administration to enrich his family. Luo also reported that the official threatened to kill an estranged mistress in Japan. The NDRC dismissed the report as “rumours” until in May state media reported a corruption investigation into Liu, which is still ongoing. Liu has been dismissed from his post.
Luo’s success has inspired other journalists to expose corrupt officials. Liu Hu, a reporter with the New Express in Guangdong, accused Ma Zhengqi, deputy director of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, of graft. But Liu Hu has since been arrested on defamation charges.
Chen Yongzhou, another New Express reporter, was detained last month on charges of harming a company’s business reputation after publishing a series of incriminating articles on Zoomlion, the nation’s second-largest maker of construction equipment. Chen was paraded on national television last week, where he admitted to accepting bribes for publishing articles critical of Zoomlion.
Luo shared his somewhat bleak views on the state of Chinese journalism with the South China Morning Post in a short WeChat conversation from Berlin, where he is set to receive his award later on Friday.
1. How do you see Chen Yongzhou’s fate?
There are four aspects to Chen Yongzhou’s case: the dirty battle between Zoomlion and Sany, Sany paying the media to attack a competitor, Zoomlion’s use of the police to counter attack and CCTV’s forceful intervention.
These bring up four separate questions: 1. Has the journalist received money? 2. Is his reporting accurate? 3. Have the police been bought? 4. Has the judicial process been fair?
Even though these four questions are not at the same level, the one that is able to determine the narrative, will stand out.
If one assumes Changsha police worked for Zoomlion, then CCTV served as a "beautician" for Changsha police. By now, Zoomlion, Changsha police and CCTV have set the agenda; this type of pressure has become common practice. When Ms Hu Shuli wrote that “rent-seeking in journalism cannot be tolerated”, the industry reacted, but the agenda has ended up looking at only one of the four issues at hand.
My assessment of this incident is that Chen Yongzhou’s case has become a classic case of mutual harm; no one is the winner here. It wasn’t the newspaper or the reporter who hurt the business reputation of Zoomlion, it was the company itself and the police. This is the sad situation we are in, professions like that of reporter or medical doctor deserve respect. The systemic corruption in China is a reflection of social collapse.
2. After you reported on Liu Tienan, several journalists have reported on other officials and have ended up being criminally detained. How do you see this?
Before and after I reported on Liu Tienan, several journalists reported on officials. One case was Ji Xuguang and Zhu Haifeng reporting on Chongqing officials including Lei Zhengfu . Then, there was Li Jianjun and Wang Wenzhi, who reported on Huarun’s Song Lin . Thirdly, Liu Hu reported on four officials at a provincial ministerial level  including two former public security department heads. Then, there was me reporting on Liu Tienan.
In each of the first two cases, two journalists joined forces – even though there was a later conflict between Ji Xuguang and Zhu Ruifeng. Liu Hu also wrote about Song Lin in the past. In my own experience of more than 10 years as an investigative reporter, other than indecent videos like Lei Zhengfu’s, there wasn't enough evidence in other cases to prove wrongdoing. This is not my individual assessment; journalists who pursue investigative reporting are few. Having said that, I would never report an official purely because of his work style. If you want to report an official, you have to report him for financial corruption.
Through Chen Baocheng’s case , we have seen that Ji Xuguang closely co-operated with local governments, and he has since been largely dismissed by the ‘weibosphere’. Li Jianjun is hiding abroad, but he has said himself that he has received funds from some parties involved in the case. The consequences were worst of all for Liu Hu, I am very distressed about that, and I can only hope that he will face a fair and transparent legal process. As a warning, I’d say one cannot report four provincial ministerial officials, especially not a head of provincial public security.
3. Do you have any regrets about reporting on Liu Tienan?
I don’t think reporting on Liu Tienan was a mistake, at least no one except Liu Tienan and his family have said I was wrong so far. I am currently writing Diary of a Blacksmith [wordplay on Tie’s name], I want to explain all the twists and turns of the case and some concerns remain. I don’t encourage journalists to use their real names when reporting on an official; even I don’t think I can repeat my success. Many aspects came together by chance; a wrong step could have led to failure. This is not a game a reporter can play. At least, throughout the process, I have maintained my independence, and not tied up with anyone else. Lastly, maintaining a certain visibility is also a means of self-protection.
4. How do you see the future of the press in China? Will the commercial model change?
Given the current policy situation, I don’t think the Chinese press will change much, especially as far as the traditional media including print and broadcast are concerned. They will continue to exist under the traditional model of management and control. Commercially, many traditional media outlets – except those party papers receiving financial support – will face economic pressure. Members of the media industry are increasingly resorting to extortion. Of course, we can see other progress in the rapid development of social media. Weibo has to a certain extent allowed freedom of speech. WeChat has to a certain extent fostered freedom of association. This is progress. This is why I am not terribly pessimistic.
5. Media scholar Zhan Jiang said recently that investigative journalism had reached its peak years ago. What do you think?
The position real investigative journalism is in is not ideal. The environment is getting worse, the space is getting smaller. Ten years ago, the media’s “supervision by public opinion” had a role to play. But today, the same reports have no repercussions and will not get the same official response. Moreover, there is a chasm in the ranks of investigative journalists. Too few are willing to do the job and be good newsmen. If the support for in-depth investigation by news outlets is shrinking, I hope that non-profit investigative reporting can develop more quickly.
Watch: A portrait of Luo Changping