Crusading editor fights new war on censorship

Chinese journalist who tested the limits of the law launches a new magazine
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The Independent Online

When Hu Shuli abandoned the editorship of China's most influential news magazine, it looked like a victory for the forces of censorship.

Ms Hu, a resourceful and dogged editor often described as China's most formidable journalist, had made her career by testing the limits of what is allowed in China's rigid media environment. Then it suddenly looked as if she had come up hard against those limits. There was widespread speculation that the iron hand of the censor was behind her departure from the hard-hitting business magazine Caijing. Her editing career seemed to be over.

But now the fiery 56-year-old is back. She has taken a job as editor of another magazine, Century Weekly, and the first issue has just hit China's newsstands. Those worried that crusading journalism may have died a death in China need not fear – it looks like Ms Hu is keen to continue her inimitable style at her new publication.

Caijing, a glossy business magazine in the Fortune or Forbes mould, took no prisoners in the way it exposed corrupt practices among dodgy corporations and money-grabbing government officials alike. It was an old-fashioned muck-raking publication in a country where no tradition of journalistic exposés exists.

Century Weekly looks set to continue in a similar vein, if Ms Hu's mission statement is anything to go by. "The task ahead calls for vision and strenuous effort," she said.

"What are our goals at Century Weekly? The answer is simple: Support professional journalism, push forward reforms in China, and protect the public's right to know while chronicling, objectively and thoughtfully, our nation in transition. We firmly believe this is a valuable and achievable objective at this critical stage of national history."

The debut issue of Century Weekly is slick – in fact, it looks very much like Caijing – and has a mixed bag of stories. There are reports about electric cars, corruption in football and an edgy tale about the controversial jailing of Li Zhuang, a Beijing lawyer representing gang bosses in Chongqing, who claims he was convicted after being denied due process.

Billed as a new publication, Century Weekly is actually more of a relaunch of an obscure magazine produced by a think-tank, the China Institute for Reform and Development.

The Communist Party has relaxed rules on reporting on some of the issues the magazine deals with, such as disaster coverage and corruption, although criticism of the party itself is not tolerated. Ms Hu has a helpful background in that regard, at least. She cut her teeth at the Workers' Daily, although her sympathy with the victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown cost her points with the leadership.

At its peak, Caijing was one of China's most profitable magazines, with a circulation of 225,000. When she left in November, Ms Hu took her team of highly motivated journalists with her, and accusations flew that censorship was the reason she abandoned Caijing. It was reported that the magazine was coming under ever more pressure from government censors, and Ms Hu and other executives of Caijing also complained that the magazine's owner, the Stock Exchange Executive Council, was tightening the purse strings and also trying to censor some financial stories, especially cover stories and investigative reports.

Initially it was announced that Ms Hu was taking over as the Dean of the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-Sen University. But eventually she re-emerged with the Caixin media group, which has more than 100 editorial staff and 80 working on the business side.

"Caixin aims to blaze a trail," said Ms Hu's associate Zhang Lihui, who added that the company's purpose was "comprehensive, in-depth and accurate news" – not always something readily available in China.

People are watching what happens to the new magazine to see what it says about the current state of play on censorship in China. While the government has done much to introduce financial reforms, political reform is not on the agenda, and it is quick to silence dissenting voices in the media.

Ms Hu signed off her mission statement in typically combative tone, and Chinese readers can rest assured that things will never be boring as long as she is still permitted to publish.

"We look forward to sharing our exciting journey with you," she said. "Enjoy the ride, because we are together."

Hu Shuli: Scoops and scandals

It remains a mystery how Hu Shuli, arguably China's most daring journalist, eluded the authorities for so long, given some of the stories she tackled:

2003 Caijing was the first mainland publication to report on the Sars epidemic, publishing a nine-page editorial calling for more transparency.

2005 Caijing broke an expenses scandal about Zhang Enzhao, then chairman of China's second biggest bank, including lurid tales of expensive golf trips to the exclusive Pebble Beach course in the US, travel to London for his wife and fees at expensive schools for his family. He was forced to resign.

2006 The health ministry admitted in Caijing that the organs of executed prisoners were sold to foreigners, such as rich Japanese, for transplant.

2008 After the devastating Sichuan earthquake, Caijing reported a cover-up of a report into corruption in the construction of public buildings.

2009 When the official Xinhua News Agency ran a detailed report of how China's Shenzhou VII rocket made its 30th orbit of the Earth, complete with dialogue between the taikonauts (astronauts) and ground control, Caijing pointed out that the craft was still on the ground. Xinhua later apologised, blaming a technical error.

2009 Caijing exposed how the area around the Xiang river has been blighted by pollution from the illegal extraction of non-ferrous metals.