What Do Investigative Reporters Do?

Exposing Scandalous Conduct Involves Hard Digging In Dark Places

With the recent Chen Yongzhou scandal, many have called for an “investigation” into the investigative reporting business.

I apply the term “investigative reporters” to those that often wade into the deeper, uncharted waters of the media’s realm. I have a hard time thinking of myself as an investigative reporter and I have always felt like a more appropriate description would be a reporter that investigates cases from time to time. The first of my investigations was the Wenzhou high-speed train crash.

For years, Caixin had a series of reports covering corruption within the Ministry of Railways. When the Wenzhou high-speed railway crash happened in 2011, we were ready with a trove of information—the cracked axle, the luxury cars—one finding after another, until the final disintegration of the Ministry of Railways. Another important facet to the high-speed railway crash story was that it occurred after the mainstream adoption of social media, with a tremendous amount of information disseminated through Weibo. The influence of digital media in this disaster was huge, ultimately even affecting the development of how the situation was handled. With this in the background, we came to the scene of the accident.

Hotel Sleuthing

Many media organizations offered identical coverage of the crash, and it was hard to find an edge. Some brave ones went so far as counting bodies at the morgue, others just wrote down what they saw at the scene and interviewed witnesses.

(AFP/Getty Images)
Workers clear wreckage of mangled high-speed train cars on July 24, 2011. The cars were derailed when hit from behind by another express train on July 23 near the city of Wenzhou. Thirty-six people died in the crash and 192 people were wounded.

But the biggest and most difficult question at hand was learning more about the cause of the accident. The high-speed railway crash was ultimately a culmination of smaller interwoven disasters, natural and man-made, directly exposing the ills of the Ministry of Railways. That was our focus.

One day on Weibo, I saw a widely forwarded photo in which the government investigation group was shown drinking at a luxury hotel. I recognized their faces and now I knew exactly where they had moved to.

That evening, I went to the hotel to try my luck.

Snowy Mountain Hotel is on the outskirts of Wenzhou in an area with few other buildings. When I took a taxi over there, I was immediately in awe of the number of security guards at the entrance. The hotel staff told everyone no more rooms were available. I had no idea that everything had already been arranged for the investigation team.

A security guard who had been staring at me from the minute I walked in told me to leave. I attempted to put on airs and said “I've come all the way from Beijing.” The man looked at me bitterly and, perhaps with a passing thought that I was the mistress of some leader, let me continue to sit in the lobby alone.

Who was I waiting for? How would I speak to them? Going for a stroll would be out of the question, so I sat on the couch looking at my phone, and thought about what I might do next.

Then my chance came. A few women in their early twenties were sent in to work on hospitality services, such as arranging meetings and the like. A person named Director Wang walked in and said to everyone, “You, you, and you—go to this room and print conference materials for the next meeting.”

I was delighted: I would enter the hotel posing as a conference assistant. But then, Director Wang changed his mind. He said only two girls needed to work on the printing materials.

I still headed to the conference room. The hotel was spread out over several detached buildings and it was not easy to find. I saw a building where several guests carrying brief cases were walking out and, trailing a bit behind, I followed them. Before I knew it, I was in a conference room corridor standing next to the room attendants and waiters.

What was I to do next? I hid by a door next to the stairs for a while until I heard a waiter run to pick up a phone. I slipped into an open conference room door where the meeting was taking place. I watched the investigators analyze the results of the investigation, feeling excited and nervous. I moved behind a door again and then quickly returned to the attendant’s room to plan my next move.

A man walked toward me and my heart sped up. He said, “Miss, where can I get a haircut here?” I replied, “Oh yes it’s a bit late right now.” “The hotel doesn’t have any services right now?” I said, “I don’t know, I’m new here.” My mind was blank, I didn’t know how else to respond.

Fortunately, he paced away back into the hall and made a phone call. I was really stuck in the attendant room and began to search what I could find inside the room.

The other attendants were busy cleaning up the end of the conference and a pile of debris was brought to the room. In addition to the investigation team’s schedule, there were other meeting notes that I rolled up into my jacket just like a thief.

More attendants came in. I had a sense that I had to leave the scene before I got caught, but before leaving I set a recorder down on the floor of the conference room, next to a door.

Walking back through the courtyard of the hotel, my heart was still thumping. By then it was past 9 p.m. and everything was pitch black. I hid in a corner of the yard, took out the pieces of paper that were in my jacket and read each one with delight by the glow of my mobile phone.

I had to go back and pick up the tape recorder later, and with all the cameras in the hotel I had to be careful. I looked around once again and thought about the information I already gathered. There was a hillside garden belonging to the hotel, and a swimming pool which was unfenced. I stuffed all the paper from the meeting, along with my ID card, into some bushes near a railing. I thought, even if I'm caught, my colleague can still come and pick this up.

I still don’t know what compelled me to act this way, it wasn’t something that I was used to doing. And I was overcome with panic.

After all of this, I sat on the ground in the courtyard, opposite the mountain, and looked at the neon lights of Wenzhou city from a distance. At that moment, I suddenly thought of my mother, and what she might think if I were to get caught—her daughter was not a glamorous reporter but someone getting into the work of a spy. Why was I taking this risk? What was the meaning?

But, if we didn’t get the story on the investigation, we might never know the real cause of the crash. I thought about the victims’ families. The day before, I visited a funeral home and saw the families of the victims crying together. I saw the pain and the anger of what they were going through. And I realized that for them, at least, the real story mattered.

After a few hours, I decided to pick up the tape recorder.

I did not expect it to go so smoothly. Seeing a waiter in the conference room walk out, I entered and successfully picked up the recorder. I was out of the conference room, and out into the open. After picking up the materials I hid in the bushes, I walked out of the hotel.

There were no taxis and I walked along the mountain road toward the town. On the way, I called my editor and she was very excited. She instructed me to be careful and to go back the next day.

I went back the next night, now with the hotel room numbers of every investigation expert. As I walked in through the lobby past the security guards, I put on an officious expression and moved swiftly upstairs.

For the first couple of doors, there was either no one or I was told to go away. Then at my fourth try, I knocked and a friendly person opened the door. The man, a member of the technical expert group from Southwest Jiaotong University, took me into the room but stressed he would only answer questions regarding technical issues and not the progress of the investigation. His bed was littered with survey files and his face looked gaunt from staring at a computer screen.

He did not tell me very much about the survey, but at least he was kind.

As I was leaving his room, there was another conference just beginning. I thought I would test my luck once again. But then while I was talking to a colleague on the phone, a security guard holding a walkie-talkie said fiercely, “I finally found you.” In the next ten minutes he gave me an earful: Yesterday they discovered some documents went missing, they checked the surveillance recording and they saw me. The consequence was that the guards’ bonus was cut and more guards were deployed to find me, and people like me.

Then, to my surprise, all he did was send me out of the hotel.

My quest at the hotel came to an end. But my journey as an investigative reporter had just begun.