Written by Maria Repnikova.

The recent corruption confession by Chen Yinzhou, a Guangzhou-based journalist at New Express, has sparked a debate among China’s media professionals and scholars about the nature of corruption in the journalism industry and what can be done about it. Initially perceived as a victim of pressures from a powerful company, Zoomlion, Chen Yizhou quickly turned into a villain after publicly admitting to accepting large sums of money in return for smearing the company. Shortly following this revelation, Hu Shuli, the editor-in-chief of Caixin and a renowned media personality in China, published a powerful op-ed, titled “There is No Room for Greed in Gathering News.” She called for journalists to practice self-restraint, arguing that their individual corrupt activities poison the entire industry and weaken the media’s societal significance. She stressed professionalism as the sole safeguard for journalists operating in a sensitive political environment, while hinting at better rule of law and media independence as conducive to a more transparent media industry.

Despite Hu Shuli’s plea and the ongoing debate about the wider significance of Chen Yinzhou case, corruption in the Chinese media industry is unlikely to be a fleeting phenomenon. First, it is an endemic problem that encompasses most of the media industry. Second, current regulatory approach only targets the journalists, thereby only partially addressing the issue. In addition, most present-day Chinese journalists lack the sufficient training and role models to adapt the norms advocated by Hu Shuli.

As for endemic corruption, Chinese media scholars, such as Zhao Yuezhi, have previously cautioned about it being one of the negative outcomes of media commercialisation reform. Chen Yinzhou example startled many in the industry in part because of his surprising and dramatic televised confession, and in part because many felt let down and misled by him. Beneath this seemingly isolated example, however, is the corruption web that spreads from the micro to the macro-levels of the industry. My interviews with journalists and editors from popular mainstream media outlets in Beijing found that it is very challenging to “stay completely clean.” Any press conference provides for a free lunch or a transport, many officials and company managers offer small gifts or red envelopes, and so on. Many interviewees admitted that while they are against corruption, they often go along with these offers out of fear of losing out on a story or on interviewee’s trust. As with other forms of corruption, therefore, targeting this endemic practice and a widespread acceptance of it is more challenging than dealing with high-level cases. Similar patterns can be observed in Russia and other countries with deep-rooted culture of corruption in the media industry.

As for the party-state’s regulatory approach towards media corruption, the General Administration for Publication and Press (GAPP) has primarily been targeting journalists and media outlets. In recent years, the state agency created more mechanisms for the public to verify journalists’ identities, as well as imposed harsher punishments on corrupt journalists. The state’s approach, however, appears as one-sided, considering that journalists’ corruption is often facilitated by other actors, including officials and business people. While journalists might be more apprehensive about engaging in corrupt activities as a result of tighter restrictions, lucrative temptations will persist and can win over the fear of repercussions.

Some journalists and media scholars have been speaking out against this regulatory approach. For instance, after the cover-up of Weixian disaster, a large-scale mining accident, which involved corrupt journalists from state media agencies, media law scholars and advocates, including Sun Xupei and Zhou Ze argued that media needs more independence and legal protection rather than just harsher punishments.[1] These advocacy efforts in favour of legal protections for the media, however, have thus far not yielded substantial results. Legal protections could spark more contentious behaviour by journalists, which may not be welcome, especially as the party-state is attempting to manoeuvre and to manage the new media landscape.

Finally, while it is sensible for Hu Shuli to advocate for self-restraint and higher ethical standards across Chinese media, most journalists lack the conditions available to Hu Shuli’s subordinates and colleagues. Having met a number of Caixin and Caijing’s journalists and editors, I was struck by their high level of education, as well as professional and ethical awareness. One of the editors at Caixin told me about an ethics code they adopted from the New York Times, which completely outlaws any corrupt activities. Many of these professionals have spent time at prestigious institutions abroad and perceive themselves as more Westernised and independent in comparison to their “mainstream” counterparts in the industry. Having the leadership of Hu-Shuli and other ethically minded editors, such as Luo Changpin, the editor at Caijing, also elevates these journalists’ sense of confidence and purpose. Indeed, Hu Shuli is correct in saying that professionalism can help avert certain political pressures. My research shows that investigative journalists often use ‘professionalism’ as a rhetoric to gain trust of their interviewees. Nonetheless, most journalists face a challenge in even determining the exact criteria of professional reporting, which remains a rather vague concept, not to mention actually practicing it and using it to their advantage. More interactions between the elite professional journalists and their mainstream, more “corruption-prone” counterparts could spur more mutual understanding and facilitate transmission of norms from the former to the latter.

To conclude, the issue of Chinese media corruption deserves more attention both within and outside of China. Already several years back some interviewees told me that its one of the biggest problems facing Chinese media industry. Chen Yinzhou case brought this issue back into the public domain, More debates are likely to follow, and similar demonstrative cases of journalists’ corruption are likely to be used to scare off the journalists from being dishonest. The deep routed problems behind it, however, including its endemic nature, lopsided regulation, and the large ethical gap between the few professional outlets and the rest of the industry, are likely to persist.

Maria Repnikova is a Post-doctoral fellow at the Asan Forum, a new journal on Asian politics, and a visiting research fellow in the Government Department at Georgetown University.

[1]     Ma Changbo, ‘Tunlan Kuangnan: “an jian shengzhang” de lei yu tong’, (Tunlan mining accident: The tiredness and pain of the provincial governor), Nanfang Zhoumo, 26 February 2009.

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