Chinese Muckraking a High-Stakes Gamble

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 12, 2007

BEIJING -- A few weeks ago, Pang Jiaoming's career as a reporter ended, just two years after it began.

The Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department and the official All-China Journalists Association issued a directive ordering Pang's employer, the China Economic Times, not only to fire him, but also to "reinforce the Marxist ideological education of its journalists." In a separate notice to news organizations across China, Pang said, propaganda officials announced that he was also banned from further work as a reporter at other publications.

Pang's offense was a pair of articles reporting that substandard coal ash was being used in construction of a showcase railroad, the $12 billion high-speed line running 500 miles between Wuhan, in Hubei province, and Guangzhou, an industrial hub just north of Hong Kong. The ash is a key ingredient in concrete used for tunnels, bridges and roadbed, Pang wrote, and a substandard mix raised the specter of collapsing structures and tragic accidents.

Pang's report, which was published on the front page, illustrated the growing desire of young Chinese reporters to push the limits of the country's draconian censorship system. In a booming and fast-transforming economy riddled with corruption, they have found a fertile field for investigative journalism, along with readers increasingly hungry to know about malfeasance that affects their lives.

But his fate also dramatized how helpless China's journalists remain under the thumb of an authoritarian government that maintains a vast propaganda bureaucracy with unquestioned power to control what is published and decide who rises and falls in the news business.

Change has begun, with visible loosening since the 1970s. But the party's propaganda mandarins have retained the power to intervene whenever they decide to do so, and in the past several years they have intervened with increasing, although unpredictable, frequency. As a result, working as a reporter in China has come to mean succumbing as a compliant propagandist or dancing along the censors' red line -- making each story a high-stakes gamble on how far to go.

"China is a heaven for investigative reporting, since it has a lot of interesting things to cover, but it is not a heaven for Chinese investigative reporters," said Zhan Jiang, journalism dean at the China Youth University for Political Sciences in Beijing.

Pang, a slight Hainan Island native with a sparse mustache and hair hanging unfashionably down the back of his neck, had an unlikely background for someone trying to play the edge. He graduated in 2005 from the China Youth University for Political Sciences, which traditionally has been a training ground for the Communist Youth League once led by President Hu Jintao.

Nevertheless, Pang gravitated swiftly toward investigative journalism, focusing on economic corruption and environmental degradation.

Money wasn't the lure; Pang said he earned about $120 a month in salary and, with the per-word payments common in Chinese journalism, was able to add another $300. But Pang decided it was the work for him. Soon after starting, he wrote about pollution in Jiangsu province. Then he took aim at pollution in Shanxi province, coal mining corruption in Hunan province and abuse of pasture lands in Inner Mongolia. In his wake were dozens of local officials angered by the disclosures.

As a result, Pang became known at the Central Propaganda Department as someone willing to cross the line. His image was further defined by a sassy blog that featured drawings of the classic see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys.

Pang's latest gamble began in June, when several letters arrived at his newspaper's Beijing headquarters. Because substandard ash was used in the mix, said a writer working on the railroad project, concrete was getting stuck in construction site funnels. After looking into the problems that substandard ash could cause and getting his editor's approval, Pang boarded a train south and launched his investigation. What he found, he said, were five factories selling ash rated below the national standard for use in concrete. Pang said he witnessed the substandard ash being loaded into trucks and mixed into concrete for use on the railroad. He had samples of the ash analyzed by two laboratories, which found it did not meet China's standards, he added.


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