exposed by muckraking Chinese journalists
Yang Libing (with his
son) holds up a photo of his missing daughter, Yang Ling.
By Adrienne Mongon, NBC
News 17th May 2011
PROVINCE – Until this year, Yang Libing, whose daughter was taken from him
by family planning authorities, would receive visits from one or two Chinese
journalists every year.
"They would come
to interview me about my daughter," he recalled emphatically.
"But nothing ever came of those reports. Still no one did
In 2005, family
planning officials in Longhui County, Hunan Province, took away Yang's
daughter, Yang Ling, when she was eleven months old. They
accused him of not registering her birth, thereby breaking the strict,
nationwide one-child policy – even though she was his first and only
The authorities sent
his daughter off to an orphanage. From there, Yang believes she was
adopted by an American family, with the family planning officials receiving
a few hundred dollars in return.
Yang has not seen her
"I wish I could
tell her that I didn't give her away," he told NBC News in an interview
at his spartan home in the mountains of Gaoping. "It wasn't a
case of not wanting her. I didn't reject her."
Yang's story has the hallmarks of a great tragedy, embodying many
controversial issues that touch a raw nerve in China: local corruption,
brutal enforcement of the one-child policy, the policy itself, child
trafficking, and poverty.
And yet, despite
stories by local journalists and a long feature printed in the Los
Angeles Times two years ago, his story never seemed to catch on.
Then last week, the
highly respected independent
Chinese weekly news magazine, Caixin Century,
ran a 15,000-word
investigative report that featured Yang and several other families in
Gaoping whose children suffered the same fate.
This time, the tale of
baby-trafficking by corrupt family planning officials electrified China's
media. Even the state-run newspapers covered the story, some reporting
that an official investigation was underway.
Within a day of
publication, teams of local and foreign journalists (including NBC News)
began tramping into the lush, terraced hills of Longhui County, perhaps the
poorest area in all in Hunan – which is already one of China's more
So why did the story suddenly capture the media's attention now?
An obvious reason is
that Caixin has a sterling reputation for its investigative journalism.
Furthermore, the report was richly detailed and well-researched, the product
of four years' long work.
"A few years ago,
the story was told very simply," said Shangguan Jiaoming, the Caixin
reporter behind the Hunan story. "My report includes a lot of
detail and analysis."
Moreover, Caixin is
homegrown, i.e., its reporting is done by Chinese in Chinese.
"It really shows
that however much foreign correspondents report on China, unless a story
gets picked up by domestic media here, there isn’t much...we can do to
improve the lives of people here that we interview,” said Melissa Chan,
the Beijing correspondent for al-Jazeera English. (Just as it does in
the Middle East, al-Jazeera has a reputation in China for moving quickly and
aggressively to cover politically sensitive stories. Chan's report can be
Another reason is the
growing popularity of microblogs like Sina.com's Weibo or Twitter.
Although the latter is blocked in China, it can be accessed via virtual
private networks (VPNs) that bypass the firewall – a tool widely used by
the same crop of intellectual and professional Chinese elites who comprise
news of the Caixin report spread like wildfire. As with many stories
of this nature, anything that survives Internet censors for even a few hours
can gain traction and reach readers across the country.
But there's another
reason – one which might seem a bit surprising given the repressive trend
of cracking down on dissidents, activists, and media (especially foreign) in
China during recent months: good old-fashioned market competition.
mid-1990s, commercial media in [mainland] China has become much more
competitive," said David Bandurski of the China
Media Project at Hong Kong University. There was no "media
market" or "ad-driven publications" before then. Much
of that transformation came about because then-Premier Zhao Ziyang pushed
for a more open, liberal press corps – one which would try to use public
opinion to monitor political power rather than serve as a means to
"marshal public opinion."
The trend sustained
itself even after Zhao was sacked from the Communist Party for supporting
the students leading the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Some of the more
remarkable stories broken by domestic Chinese reporters include the AIDS
villages in Henan Province and the SARS crisis. The former story, in
particular, was reported a year before it appeared in Western media like the
New York Times.
commercial media: driven and aggressive
"The reality is that commercial media – as opposed to state-run media
– has to sell to readers, they have to have a different look, a different
appeal," continued Bandurski.
As a result, the
commercial news organizations command circulation figures enviable by
publishers anywhere in the world.
Although it has not
been possible to audit circulation data, Bandurski reckons that, based on
China Press Yearbook statistics, "In every case, if you look at the
Party-run paper and the corresponding commercial spin-off in any
region," the latter outstrips the former in terms of readership.
Gaoping look at a copy of the Caixin Century.
"For example, in
Wuhan (a second-tier city with a long intellectual history), the commercial
paper has 1, 2, or 3 million circulation," he said. "No
Party newspaper has a circulation like that."
Among those that
produce some of best, influential, tough, in-depth investigative reporting
and Beijing News in Beijing and the Southern group in Guangdong
Province, which publishes Southern Daily and Southern Weekend.
constantly recalibrate their coverage, led by senior editors such as Hu
Shuli at Caixin (an excellent
profile of her ran in 2009 in The New Yorker), for example, who have a
finely honed sixth sense for politics, for knowing when to push their
One way in which the
more aggressive Chinese commercial media outlets appear to escape being shut
down is to adopt what Bandurski calls "the shouldering the door
theory." One publication knocks the door, then another, then
another – the premise being that the government can't go after every
organization all at once.
"It's always the
media pushing," said Bandurski. "It's never the government
Which is not to say that the Chinese press corps is made up of only
Far from it.
Local journalists earn low salaries, all too often supplemented by the
notorious "red envelopes" – cash gifts supplied by the subjects
of their reporting – and other "perks."
Our savvy driver from
Hunan's capital of Changsha – with years of experience shuttling around
local and foreign reporters – summed up what he’s seen.
"When the foreign
media come out here, they work hard. They rarely take breaks and work
through the entire trip. The Chinese media? When they get an
assignment, they look at it as an opportunity to play tourist. They
see the sights. They eat long meals at nice restaurants. They're not
interested in the story."
More seriously, there
are regular instances of blackmail, wherein reporters have demanded money or
other forms of compensation in return for keeping silent.
tenacity and dedication on the part of so many other Chinese journalists is
"The controls on
the media have been tighter than we've seen in a long time," said
Bandurski. "And yet there is still so much coverage [like the
Hunan baby trafficking story] by places like Caixin coming out. These
organizations are pushing harder and harder and finding ways to do that kind
reporting by Bo Gu.
Related story: Growing
calls in China to change the one-child policy
babies sold for adoption in the U.S.?
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