"Most Dangerous Woman In China" Challenges Censorship — Cautiously

Hu Shuli, founding editor of news magazine Caijing, reports on stories other Chinese news outlets won't touch. But is she a pioneer of journalistic freedom, or a pragmatist whose true goal is to shore up government power?

In a profile in this week's New Yorker, Evan Osnos describes Caijing's many scoops: the collapse of school buildings after the Sichuan earthquake, the SARS virus and the Chinese government's attempted coverup, the shady privatization of a conglomerate called Luneng. In each case, Hu and her reporters were willing to challenge a system that usually relies on intimidation to keep journalists in line. According to Osnos, China has 28 journalists in prison, more than any other country except Iran. The media are regulated by the shadowy Central Propaganda Department, which has some firm guidelines (no coverage of "the military, religion, ethnic disputes, and the inner workings of government") but usually relies on editors to decide for themselves what will get them in trouble. Professor Perry Link describes Chinese censorship as "a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier." He writes,

Normally, the great snake doesn't move. It doesn't have to. It feels no need to be clear about its provisions. Its silent constant message is 'You yourself decide,' after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadows make his or her large and small adjustments — all quite 'naturally.'

Hu avoids provoking the "great snake" through careful calculation of how far she can go (Caijing eventually had to stop covering the SARS story) and through management of the tenor of her criticism. She says, "we never say a word in a very emotional or casual way, like 'You lied.' We try to analyze the system and say why a good idea or a good wish cannot become reality." As a result of Hu's calibrations, Caijing has become much more independent and internationally respected than most other Chinese publications (Xinhua, for instance, published a story describing a rocket launch before the rocket actually left the ground).

Some, however, say that Hu is just propping up the government in a different way from more traditional publications. Analyzing one of her 2007 columns, Osnos points out that she seems to see reform as a way to strengthen the existing government, not overthrow it. And Cheng Yizhong, a former editor-in-chief of Southern Metropolis Daily who was jailed after his investigation into the government's corrupt detention camps, says,

Caijing's topics haven't affected the fundamental ruling system, so it is relatively safe. I'm not criticizing Hu Shuli, but in some ways Caijing is just serving of more powerful or relatively better interest group.

Hu Shuli operates with relative freedom inside an extremely restrictive system, and thus is almost certain to receive criticism. Should she be doing more to challenge the government that censors her fellow journalists and sends them to prison? Perhaps, but it's not at all clear that Hu objects to the Communist government per se. In fact, conspicuously absent from Osnos's piece is any overarching statement of Hu's political beliefs. However, Qian Gang, a former editor of Caijing, offers this description of Hu's pragmatic approach:

A flood is ferocious, but it solves no problems. In Chinese, we say you can bore a hole in a stone by the steady dripping of water.

Image from The New Yorker.

The Forbidden Zone [New Yorker]