David Hearst: There are boundaries that journalists are not supposed to cross, but the state's version of events is starting to be challenged on social media
It's known in China by a term used to describe a shot in table tennis. Da cabianqiu is the phrase for playing a line ball, a ball so close to the edge of the table that it tests the limits of the permissible. It's an image that defines what some Chinese journalists are trying to do today.
Chen Yongzhou, 27, is one of them. He wrote a series of stories earlier this year about the financial affairs of a construction machinery company, Zoomlion, based in Changsha, in central China. His reports alleged that the company exaggerated its profits, bumped up its advertising fee, and was involved in widespread sales and financial fraud. Zoomlion's shares, which are listed on the Shenzhen and Hong Kong stock exchanges, tumbled.
Then, unusually, two things happened. Chen was arrested by police who arrived in a company car owned by Zoomlion. Usually the police use their own transport. The charge under which the investigative reporter was being held was "suspicion of damaging commercial reputation". Instead of disowning its cub reporter, his newspaper, the Guangzhou-based New Express, stuck by him – at least initially. They ran a front-page story under a banner headline "Please release him" and repeated that with another front page call: "Again, please release him". A senior executive for the New Express denied Zoomlion's accusation that Chen's reports were fabricated. He said: "We did not discover Chen did anything that was against professional ethics and laws."
The reaction to Chen's arrest was unprecedented. For a while, the third largest newspaper in the province and a significant number of journalists openly challenged the actions of the police, an important local employer, and by extension the actions of the provincial authorities. The All-China Journalists Association urged local authorities to provide a convincing explanation of Chen's detention.
Further, it was claimed on the internet that the company was well connected, politically. According to reports, Zhan Chunxin, the chairman of the board of Zoomlion is the son of the former director of Hunan provincial high court, and his wife, Wan Ziaoli, is the daughter of the former second party secretary of Hunan province.
The riposte came swiftly. Chen appeared last weekend, his head shaven to denote guilt, in a nationally televised confession. In his confession, he stated he had been bribed by a commercial rival to Zoomlion and said he did not even read some of the reports that were written in his name.
This struck colleagues as a curious extra detail, because Chen was known as a compulsive checker of his facts. Was he trying to indicate that his confession was forced out of him, in return for a more lenient sentence? Within hours of Chen's confession, his newspaper New Express retracted, apologising for failing to check Chen's reports. Referring to its banner headlines, the newspaper's statement read: "After the incident, our newspaper took improper actions, seriously damaging the credibility of the media and this is a profound lesson for us."
Chen's fate divided his Chinese colleagues in Nanjing who participated in a week-long exchange programme with foreign journalists organised by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Some believed what Chen had originally written and concluded he had been thrown to the wolves. The majority, however, thought his confession was genuine and that he had accepted bribes by a rival firm to write stories that would benefit it commercially. It happens all the time, one said. The internet is full of lies.
All, however, accepted that in their own professional lives they worked under very specific constraints. They survived by observing the red lines that people like Chen, innocently or not, had crossed.
These red lines were plain for all to see. The day that foreign journalists arrived, Beijing announced that Nanjing's mayor had been arrested on corruption charges. Before this scandal, the Nanjing Daily would carry a full 800-word report a day on its front page about something the hyperactive and ever-present mayor said or did. As the cloud moved over his head, the mayor was relegated to page two. During the whole of the week following his arrest, the city's main paper only devoted a small 250-word story on the man who had only too recently dominated their pages. The ex-mayor had not only become a non-person. He had become non-news too.
"It's a shame for the city. People don't want to talk about it, not because they are frightened. They just want to keep away from the issue. There is a culture or tradition here of avoiding talking about issues like this," one journalist said.
So little trust in placed in official media, and even newspapers with private funding, that Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, has assumed an inordinate role in the life of the average Chinese internet user. Of the country's 500 million internet users, 300 million of them have Weibo accounts.
There is however an essential difference between Twitter and Weibo. One has been shaped by the traditional media, and is an extension of it. Weibo, on the other hand, fills the gap between the official account of things on the mainstream media in China and what actually happens on the ground. Within three days of a high-speed train crash in Wenzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province, the Weibo account for the crash had 10 million users online.
The authorities recognise this and attempt to use microblogging to hone their government communications. In 2009 there was a problem about rural pupils attending school. Using microblogging they found that the problem was that pupils could not afford the school meal. The answer was to launch a nutrition project for rural schools.
The speed with which Weibo reacts to the news undermines efforts to maintain a consistent official line. An unexplained absence by the president-elect Xi Jinping last year sparked rumours on the microblogging sites which were deleted by the state censors. Chinese microbloggers got around the problem by using English words which evaded the digital dragnet, but conveyed the same meaning in Chinese: "Where's he?"
The arrests of microbloggers on Weibo are only one part of an increasingly active tug-of-war between the Chinese Communist party and China's market-driven and increasingly questioning media. Even if those challenges are happening at the fringes, they are still happening and more frequently than before.
Chen Yongzhou has been declared guilty before any case has been heard in court. The clean-up on the internet has already begun. The links in the South China Morning Post that deal with his original allegations and the front-page pleas by his newspaper are already unobtainable. All that remains are his confessions of guilt. The record may be wiped clean, but the challenge that he and others posed remains. It is one that the authorities will find it increasing hard to answer.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013