A top Chinese investigative reporter who first exposed the scandal of melamine-tainted infant formula in 2008 has quit his job, saying his ideals have been crushed.
Jian Guanzhou, the first journalist to name Sanlu as the source of contaminated milk powder in a story for the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post in September 2008, announced he was leaving in a post this week on China's popular Sina Weibo microblogging service.
"I have been at the Oriental Morning Post for 10 years, during which I have poured the most precious years of my youth, my sorrow, my dreams and feelings into the purest of ideals," Jian wrote.
"Now my ideal is dead, so I'll get going. Take care, brothers!"
A thoughtful-looking man in his 30s, Jian shot to national fame after he began investigating home-grown dairy giant Sanlu for possible contamination of its infant formula, after 14 babies in Gansu province were found to have kidney problems.
Jian deduced that what the cases had in common was their use of Sanlu powder, publishing his conclusions on his paper's website in spite of huge pressure from powerful company executives.
Jian was lauded for doing so even by China's tightly controlled state-run media.
'Sense of responsibility'
In March 2009, he told the state broadcaster China Radio International what led him to take up his profession in the first place.
"Journalists do not earn a high income," he told the station. "It's not the best job from the economic perspective. And it's laborious and dangerous. But why do so many people still yearn to join? The answer is the strong sense of responsibility."
According to the article on CRI's website, new food safety legislation passed in the wake of the melamine scandal, in which at least six infants died and 300,000 became ill, made Jian "feel hopeful."
"I still have faith in the future," the station quoted him as saying then.
Matter of conscience
Calls to Jian's office number went unanswered this week.
But activist Zhao Lianhai, whose child was made ill by melamine in tainted milk formula, said he believed Jian had quit his job as a matter of conscience.
"My guess about why he left his job is that it takes a lot of suffering to maintain one's conscience under the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party, whether one is a journalist or even an ordinary citizen," Zhao said.
"It's not just Mr. Jian; there are many other people who work within the system who eventually choose to leave it."
"It is very tough if they remain; they have a very deep understanding of the system, and they will put all their energy into it and end up feeling completely powerless."
"I can really understand this."
'Oppression and tears'
Wang Ganlin, who heads the in-depth reporting team at the Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News, said public supervision of the government shouldn't be allowed to rest entirely on the shoulders of individual journalists.
"We really lack conscience in this country; that's why it's so precious," Wang said. "Personally, I can say that investigative journalists, journalists in general, are a pretty disillusioned bunch, because we are seeking ... justice and fairness."
"What we get instead is oppression and tears."
He said the only way forward was to protect freedom of speech through legislation.
"We have watched in great disillusionment as our neighbors in Burma have thrown off their news censorship system," Wang added.
Meanwhile, veteran investigative journalist Wang Keqin said yet another top reporter had left his job. "The chill winds of autumn are blowing, and winter is nearly upon us," he said.
While journalists like Jian, along with millions of Internet users, continue to test the limits of permissible expression by drawing attention to incipient scandals or launching campaigns via domestic microblogging platforms, the ruling Chinese Communist Party maintains a tight hold on the flow of information, especially in the mainstream media.
Detailed party directives—which can arrive daily at editors’ desks—restrict coverage related to public health, environmental accidents, deaths in police custody, and foreign policy.
The authorities also retain blocks on foreign social media platforms like Twitter and have tightened controls on investigative reporting and entertainment programming in advance of a sensitive leadership transition later this year.
The suicide last month of a top features editor at the People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party official newspaper, sent shock waves through the tightly controlled world of China's state-run media.
Xu Huaiqian, 45, was the editor of the "Dadi" cultural supplement of the paper when he took his own life on Wednesday after suffering severe mental health problems, friends said.
Some microbloggers made an immediate link between Xu's reported depression and the huge mental pressure on journalists under China's draconian controls on its media.
And in July, the authorities removed from their posts top editorial staff at a Shanghai newspaper and the editor-in-chief of a cutting-edge Guangzhou newspaper.
The 2011-2012 survey of global press freedom carried out by the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders put China 174th out of 179 countries and territories for journalistic autonomy.
Reported by He Ping for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Wei Ling for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.