A Chinese government newspaper has shuttered its investigative reporting department amid an ongoing crackdown against the media and human rights activists.
Under the leadership of journalist Wang Keqin, the China Economic Times unit had earned praise for its steadfast coverage of issues including official complicity in the fatal distribution of bad vaccinations and the suspicious death of a land-rights advocate.
The decision to shut down the two-year-old department was announced Monday at a meeting held by the paper’s Communist Party Committee—days after Wang published an article on his blog lauding the maturation of investigative reporting in China.
Wang, 47, and a 14-year veteran of the China Economic Times, wrote that Chinese investigative journalism had greatly improved over the past decade, “showing a higher and higher degree of professionalism” by reporters who are “receiving increasing attention and respect by general society.”
Though Wang has not spoken directly about the closing of his unit, he posted a quote by German poet Heinrich Heine on his blog Monday, saying “Where political power burns books, it will ultimately burn people also. Where political power begins to suppress the voice, if it is not stopped, its next step will be to destroy the witness!”
The decision was seen by many as an act of censorship in response to recent calls from the central government to maintain social stability amid fears that recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa could spark similar unrest in China.
Censors in China often work to purge information deemed threatening to the country’s ruling Communist Party.
The Wall Street Journal quoted Liu Jianfeng, a member of the investigative team who was present at the time of the announcement, as saying that the department was being closed “as part of a turn towards more economic reporting.”
“Actually, we did a lot of reporting on economic issues,” Liu told the Journal. “But we also did some other reporting that the government was opposed to.”
Zhan Jiang, a fellow at the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, criticized China Economic Times Chairman Han Lijun for trying to improve his stature within the Communist Party by dismantling the department.
“Han Lijun is now well-known. He has used a crackdown on the internationally known Wang Keqin … and his excellent but penniless team to make a name for himself,” Zhan wrote in an article on the China Media Project website.
“These people mistakenly believe they can do whatever they like for their own personal profit, and they will pay the price for this.”
Wang Keqin is widely regarded as the leader of the investigative journalist movement in today’s China.
Originally a farmer in China’s western Gansu province, Wang got his start in journalism writing propaganda for the local media before landing a job at the Gansu Economics Daily in 1989.
In 2001, during his time writing for the Gansu paper, Wang published a report exposing a securities company that had defrauded customers of millions of dollars by displaying stock tickers with fake investment returns.
Local officials reacted to the expose by shutting down the paper and banning Wang from returning when it reopened four months later.
But the story attracted attention from the China Economic Times and Wang was offered a senior position at the paper in 2002.
It was there that he wrote his seminal work, a six-month investigation into the exploitation of taxi drivers in Beijing which exposed a web of corruption involving not only the companies’ wrongdoing, but also that of the city’s municipal government officials.
Several newspapers had attempted to report on the problem, but had dropped coverage after facing threats from gangs presumably hired by the companies.
Wang’s report made waves, but was quickly pulled from all major web portals, and the Central Propaganda Bureau banned further coverage of the story.
In 2005, Wang published a story about an AIDS epidemic in central Henan province that resulted from the poor sterilization of needles used in collecting blood donations.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.