‘A Power Capable of Making Us Weep’

Journalism Under Attack

This September, the editors of the online edition of the 21st Century Business Herald—a leading Chinese business newspaper based in Guangzhou and owned by Southern Media Group (Nanfang Baoye Jituan)—came under investigation on charges of extortion. The case, which the Shanghai police called “a massive extortion scheme in which a media outlet, under the pretext of performing the role of public watchdog, made millions by illegally selling coverage.”

The most astonishing development yet came on September 25, when the Shanghai police arrested Shen Hao, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, along with Chen Dongyang, its general manager, in Guangdong province. The two editors are currently being held in police custody. As former news editor of Southern Weekend as well as the 21st Century Business Herald, Shen is a highly respected figure in Chinese media circles, and many have found it hard to accept that a journalist with such a sterling reputation, who served as a model for countless aspiring reporters and editors, would suddenly fall to the status of “criminal suspect.”

“Today, the journalist who wrote the words ‘there will always be a power capable of making us weep’ and ‘even if journalism goes extinct, it will leave behind countless disciples’ has lost his freedom,” Caixin reported.

“There will always be a power capable of making us weep” refers to the widely quoted title of a 1999 Southern Weekend New Year’s editorial written by Shen Hao, celebrating the power of journalism and the reading public. Southern Weekend’s annual New Year’s editorial, which expresses the magazine’s hopes for China’s development in the upcoming year, is always eagerly anticipated by Southern Weekend’s readership, and when in 2013 the Guangdong Propaganda Department forced the newspaper to withdraw its editorial and swap in a diluted version, it created a loud public outcry.

Shen Hao’s other inspiring statements, including “even if journalism becomes extinct, it will leave behind countless disciples” and “may the powerless find strength, may the pessimists march forward,” reflect, to use Shen’s own words, “the idealistic spirit of the generation of journalists who worked at Southern Weekend during the 1990s.” Shen’s fall from grace is a sign that that era is gone forever, that the curtain is closing on the golden age of commercial media in China.

Gong Xiaoyue, formerly of Southern Media, wrote on Weibo on September 26: “Fourteen years ago Shen Hao, Cheng Yizhong, and I were promoted to section-level cadre (chuji) in Southern Media Group. Later, Cheng was wrongly convicted on corruption charges and no longer allowed to work in the state-run media; now Shen has been arrested too. I was forced to leave the editorial department three years ago, and last year I was completely driven out of the industry. It looks like I’m the luckiest of the three of us. Back then we liked to talk about how the media would transform China. Now, a decade later, it’s clear that China has transformed the media.”

Cheng, the founder and former editor-in-chief of the outspoken Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily, was detained for five months in 2004 on trumped-up charges of corruption after the paper published daring reports exposing government flaws, among them the SARS epidemic and the violent death in detention of the college-educated migrant Sun Zhigang in 2003. Cheng was only released after the intervention of retired liberal leaders. These days, it is doubtful anyone in a powerful position would step up and speak out for Shen; not even the big V’s on social media do so.

In the course of “being transformed,” the media has proved a more and more difficult environment for idealists. Among the older generation of journalists who worked during the nascent period of the commercial press, few were able to escape the industry unscathed. Now, under the triple assault of political tightening, commercial pressures, and the rise of the new media, journalists have even less of a safety net. Jiang Yiping, a highly respected journalist and former editor-in-chief of Southern Weekend, recalls that when the newspaper’s founder, Zuo Fang, retired he told Jiang with a smile: “I’ve landed safely. I hope you will too.” According to people who were present, when Southern Media Group’s former head, Fan Yijin, gave his farewell speech he expressed the same sentiment even more anxiously.

When Fan was in charge of Southern Weekend, he once remarked that running the newspaper was like “trying to solve an equation with three variables”—adapting simultaneously to political control and market demands, while at the same time upholding one’s own journalistic ideals and not failing one’s duty in this historical moment. The question now is: What if no solution exists? Who will be able to land safely?