Newswatch | Newswatch

You are here

And now private sector companies gun for journalists in China

Under attack from both sides: Chinese journalists are increasingly finding themselves the targets of threats and censorship by private-sector companies (and some state companies as well). Several cases with serious implications for press freedom in China have illustrated this privatisation of censorship and violence against journalists in the past few weeks. The phenomenon is not new, but it is tending to grow in an alarming manner.

Chinese journalists are increasingly finding themselves the targets of threats and censorship by private-sector companies (and some state companies as well). Several cases with serious implications for press freedom in China have illustrated this privatisation of censorship and violence against journalists in the past few weeks. The phenomenon is not new, but it is tending to grow in an alarming manner.

In one case, two journalists had a run-in with the police for writing a story about a biotech company. In another case, a respected Beijing journalist was physically attacked a few weeks ago after several articles about doctors and health sector entrepreneurs had a big impact.

Often accused of corrupting local media, many Chinese companies are nowadays using their influence over the authorities (including the police and Propaganda Department) to avoid negative coverage. Paradoxically, this is taking place at a time when the Chinese public is taking more interest in consumer rights and the quality of goods and services.

“We urge the government to take energetic measures to protect Chinese journalists who sometimes put their lives in danger to cover these companies,” Paris-based press freedom group Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said. “We welcome the statement that the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) issued on July 30 expressing its support for journalists. It is time the authorities investigated all these cases thoroughly.”

RSF has gathered information about all the main press freedom cases involving Chinese companies.

One of the latest was the interrogation of journalist Liu Hongchang on August 9 by police, over an article he wrote together with a colleague, A Liang, about the internal problems of Hanlin, a Laiyang-based company based in Laiyang, in the eastern province of Shandong, and its ambitions to become a biotech giant. The article was posted on the website, which was ordered to withdraw it after the Laiyang Propaganda Bureau alerted the authorities in Beijing.

The police who interrogated Liu Hongchang questioned him above all about his sources and the bribes they suspected he and A Liang were given to write the article. A Liang was not interrogated because he was absent from Beijing at the time. The police threatened to issue a warrant for his arrest if he did not respond to the summons. Several Chinese journalists have publicly expressed their support for Liu Hongchang and A Liang and accused the police of violating press freedom.

Dangerous for health, dangerous for journalists

RSF is reiterating its call for an exhaustive investigation into an assault on Fang Xuanchang, a science reporter for the magazine Caijing, as he was returning home on June 24 in Beijing. Beaten over the head and back with a steel bar by two unidentified assailants, Fang had to be rushed to hospital. Until now, the police have conducted no more than desultory enquiries into what appears to have been a murder attempt.

Fang told the US magazine Foreign Policy ( that his mysterious assailants clearly tried to kill him. But who tried to kill him and why? Fang does not know the identity or motives of his attackers but he has some theories. He thinks for example that they might have been hired by a doctor he criticised in one of his articles. Fang has written about medical charlatans, fake discoveries and the questionable practices of several small health-sector companies.

There are other possible motives for the attack. Fang exposed the presence of genetically-modified cereals in China. In a TV programme, he challenged a scientist's claim to be able to predict earthquakes. And he exposed a doctor who claimed to have found a miracle cure to cancer.

In another case, on August 13, the Propaganda Department imposed censorship on reports about Synutra, a brand of milk-powder produced by a company based in the northeastern city of Qingdao. Several media reports had blamed the powder for hormonal problems in young girls. The health ministry issued a denial on August 12, claiming that the powder had been analysed by nine experts and that no link with the hormonal problems had been established. Thereafter the media were told they could only use the official news agency Xinhua's dispatches on subject.

Meiri Jingji Xinwen (National Business Daily), a newspaper based in Shanghai, has also paid the price for questioning a product's quality. A Hong Kong-based newspaper claimed in June that Bawang, a famous herbal shampoo endorsed by film star Jackie Chang in ads, contained a very high level of a carcinogen called dioxane. After Meiri Jingji Xinwen reported these allegations, four people from the Bawang company stormed into its offices on July 30 and threatened the editor and staff.

In May this year, Bao Yueyang was moved from his job as editor of the newspaper Zhongguo Jingji Shibao (China Economic Times) to another post within the Development Publishing Company as a result of his coverage of allegations about contaminated vaccines in Shanxi province. It had been a big story in the Chinese press since March until the authorities restricted reporting on Chinese websites and ordered the traditional media to just use Xinhua's dispatches. Bao, who refused to comment on his demotion, had a reputation for encouraging his reporters to investigate sensitive issues.

Censorship favouring companies

Here are some other recent cases in which the authorities have protected companies and businessmen at the expense of media freedom:

Tang Jun's spurious doctorate claim The Propaganda Bureau in Beijing banned the media on July 12 from repeating allegations that Tang Jun, a former CEO of Microsoft's operations in China, had not obtained the US university doctorate listed in his résumé. The allegations caused a major stir online and led journalists to check the authenticity of the diplomas claimed by other prominent Chinese figures.

The magazine Business Watch was suspended for a month in early May over an article it had published in March about the state power company Grid Corp. The authorities did not like the magazine's user of internal company documents for the story.

Explosion in a Nanjing factory When there was an explosion at a Nanjing factory with a toll of 300 injured and 10 missing on July 28, a Jiangsu TV crew went there and began broadcasting reports until an official intervened and told them to stop, threatening them with “serious problems” if they did not. The footage that had already been broadcast was then removed from the Internet.

When Chen Xiaoying, a reporter for the newspaper Zhongguo Shibao (China Times), arrived at the place in Shenzhen where she was supposed to meet an anonymous source on July 29, a man punched her hard in the face several times. She had gone there because she had been told she would be given information about the Shenzhen International Enterprise Co., a company she had already written about on July 8. Chen thinks the attack was linked to that story, in which she suggested that the company's CEO was involved in illegal activity. The CEO had told her after its publication that: “This kind of story will not be good for you.” The company denied any role in the assault.

Exemplary support for Qiu Ziming

Cases of this kind can sometimes have a happy ending. Economic Observer reporter Qiu Ziming went into hiding in July after being placed on a list of most wanted criminals by the police in the eastern province of Zhejiang, for allegedly defaming Kan Specialties Material Corporation, a Suichang-based company that is one of China's biggest battery manufacturers. The Zhejiang authorities finally rescinded the warrant for his arrest on July 29 after he won a great deal of support online thanks to his blog, in which he said he stood by the allegations of improper practices that he had levelled against the company.

Date posted: September 7, 2010 Date modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 224