Behind The Reporting On The Case of Chen Liangyu

(Boxun)  Behind the Reporting on the Case of Chen Liangyu.  By Zuo Zhijian (左志坚).

[in translation]

At the end of July 2006, following the placing of Shanghai Social Security Bureau director Zhu Junyi under "double regulations," (technical note: the person must make an account of his problems at a designated time and place) a once-in-a-decade anti-corruption battle formally began.

But from the end of July throughout all of August, even the reporters who knew the inside story were unsure that the political career of a member of the Politburo would be buried.  As a matter of fact, the investigative series on the case of the Shanghai social security base was conducted in the middle of a thick fog.  There are two reasons for the uncertainty: First, the true intent of the central government in investigating the social security case was unclear; secondly, the space for reporting by the news media was also unclear.

The reporters and editors at <21st Century Business Herald> began a news marathon under these uncertain circumstances.

Afterwards, readers asked us, "What is behind your reporting?"  If you understand the process by which the series of reports came into being, the answer will be automatically obvious.

1. Before and After the First Report

In late July, the news that Shanghai Social Security Bureau director Zhu Junyi had been placed under "double regulations" gradually spread around Shanghai.

Although Zhu Junyi was only a bureau-level official, this case was obviously different from corruption cases at other bureaus.

First of all, there has not been any bureau-level officials going down for economic corruption in Shanghai for many years; secondly, Zhu Junyi was placed under "double regulations" by the central disciplinary committee, not the Shanghai municipal disciplinary committee, which means that this case was unusual; thirdly, nobody has paid attention to Zhu Junyi's social security bureau for years, so it was unknown just what kind of economic problems might be brought out.

Even if the reporters can find out the economic problems of Zhu, the newspaper leaders have to consider the risks associated with "watchdog journalism" conducted by an outside media outlet.  After all, we are a Guangdong newspaper and there were some obvious risks in investigating the corruption case of a Shanghai bureau director.  Besides, the case already looked quite complicated at the time already.

If we cannot figure out what was going on behind the scenes, then how could we jump in?

Finally, on July 22, <21st Century Business  Herald> published a long investigative report with the headline "Shanghai Social Security Fund: Doubts About 'Improper Investments.'"

In the sub-heading, the key information was communicated -- "Zhu Junyi has been placed under 'double regulations' by the central disciplinary committee."  The several thousand words that came afterwards were about the operation of the Shanghai social security fund, but there was nothing about in what way Zhu Junyi was corrupt.

The news was reported this way based upon several factors: First, there was only limited time and the reporters had not figured out the details of all of Zhu Junyi's corrupt practices; secondly, a detailed report on personal corruption would be suspected of being "watchdog journalism from the outside."  By changing the direction to investigate the problem within the system, we were dealing with the affair and not the individual.  In this way, we avoided the risks of "watchdog journalism from the outside."

In that report, even though we pointed out that the social security fund is suspected of making improper investments against regulations, we also pointed out that the local social security payment requirements motivated such investments.  Generally speaking, this was an report with a lofty neutral position.

In the same issue of the newspaper, we also reported the news that Shanghai tycoon Zhang Rongkun was assisting in an investigation.  If we report a private enterprise breaking regulations, the risks are less for "watchdog journalism from the outside."  Therefore, the report on Zhang Rongkun was relatively more detailed.

Both reports were published on a Saturday.  At the time, it did not generate a big shock, because it was treated as an individual case in which private enterprises broke the regulations.

But we knew what Zhang had been doing in the Shanghai expressway industry and we knew about Zhang's background.  Therefore, we were quite shocked about what was happening to Zhang.

2. Twists and Turns

This is a piece of news that every genuine reporter would want to take part in covering it.  Yet we need to consider "discipline" in journalism and this is not a matter of blind courage.

Although the first report was able to evade many of the risks, we considered that there might be a deep background.  Since we were uncertain about the situation, we chose to observe for a while.

But those observations would bring about the dramatic twists and turns later on.

Under the circumstances, the only thing that can be done journalistically was to dig deeper into the case of Zhang Rongkun.  Since Zhang was not a government official, we would not be conducting "watching journalism from the outside."  Based upon previous experience, a ban order will be issued very quickly in a case such as this one.

Even though a ban might be appearing, the reporters continued to collect information and check out the evidence.  This went relatively smoothly.  After all, we are a specialized financial newspaper and we are experienced in investigating wealthy tycoons.  Yet, the ban order came in the second week.

The ban order itself was directed against the social security problem, so it may not be against discipline to write about Zhang Rongkun.  But this was a truly special case, so the editors continued to observe.  Although there were many reports about Zhang Rongkun in the foreign media, our view was that their reports were quite superficial.

This went on for two weeks and it seemed that the investigation of Zhang Rongkun would remain sealed forever.  But there was a surprise -- the Shanghai Electric Group was in trouble too.

On Monday, August 7, many of our reporters learned that Shanghai Electric Group vice-president Han Guozhang was placed under "double regulations" by the central disciplinary committee last week.  According to our understanding, this case was connected to Zhang Rongkun.

The Shanghai Electric Group is listed on the Hong Kong stock market.  Therefore, it has a high degree of transparency, and there cannot be any question of "watchdog journalism from the outside."  But until we received official confirmation, we delayed the report in consideration of the special nature of this case.

With one or two days, the official news was announced, and we immediately issued the report that we had prepared.  Although we were behind certain financial newspapers in publishing the news, our report had the most detailed content.

With so many media focused on this case, we lost the opportunity for exclusivity.  But it also showed that the case of Zhang Rongkun was not so sensitive anymore and we could go in freely.

3. The Climax

Over the next few issues of our newspaper, we had big exclusive reports about the Shanghai social security case.  Our newspaper was in great demand.

There were many potential directions of investigation.  At the time, we thought about the following: the mystery of the origin of Zhang Rongkun, how Zhang Rongkun became wealthy, the mystery of the trouble at Shanghai Electric Group, the illegal investments made by the Shanghai social security fund, the clean-up processes at the various enterprises, reflections on the management system for the social security fund, etc.

By the time that Shanghai Electric Group chairman Wang Chengming got into trouble in mid-August, we had already set up a network of reporters several days ago.

The Shanghai Special Features Department, the Political Economy Team, the Banking team, the Finance team and even the Hong Kong bureau correspondents were investigating using their resources.  This nationwide network of resources gave us a huge advantage.

The Special Features Department reporter went to Zhang Rongkun's hometown of Suzhou and filed a report the next day.

The Special Feature reporters in Shanghai kept an eye on new developments, because a storm was brewing in Shanghai.  Every day, the reporters exchanged information of the type: "I heard So-and-so was placed under 'double regulations.'"

The Political Economy team reporters went to the Shanghai Electric Group.  They also used personal connections to talk to Zhang Rongkun's lawyers and employees, and they contacted the case investigators.

The Banking and Finance teams used their superior resources to investigate how the social security fund was managed in an expert, detailed manner.  At the same time, they began to determine how the affected enterprises were going to be re-organized.

The Hong Kong bureau reporter interviewed the new Shanghai Electric Group chairman in Hong Kong in the first instance.

The Beijing bureau reporter spoke to the experts and ministry officials to obtain ideas about social security fund management.

In this fashion, a series of solid, thoughtful reports appeared.  Each issue of the newspaper contained several reports, and the coverage continued for several issues.  The media inside and outside of China followed up and republished those reports in their newspapers or websites.

On the afternoon of August 25, the news came that Baoshan district director Qin Yu was placed under "double regulations."  At the time, we already had a lot of information and we knew the importance of this person -- he was the secretary for Chen Liangyu for ten years and he had just been recently transferred to Baoshan district.

The official Xinhua agency published the news at 11pm.  Therefore, we had time to do an in-depth report the next day.  The next day, we came up with an investigative report in half a day.

Those readers who paid attention to the Shanghai social security case know about Qin Yu.  The direction of the social security case is now quite clear, and our reporting has reached a climax at this time.

A case investigator assessed our series of reports: "Timely, accurate, in-depth."  Those were the goals that we set for ourselves from the beginning.

4. September 25, 2006

After Qin Yu, even though there were rumors all over Shanghai, the number of people that were officially known to be "in trouble" was actually not many.  At this time, another ban order that resembled the previous one came.  But some of the national media continued to report.  Although they were just re-hashing old news, it showed that the risks are low in reporting the social security case.

During this period, Zhou Zhengyi was dramatically interrogated again.  Our newspapers gave the first exclusive report.  Apart from that, there were not many more waves except Chen Liangyu's chum Wu Minglie (chairman of the New Huangpu Group) being placed under 'double regulations.'

On the morning of September 25, I received two successive SMS's that said Chen Liangyu had fallen.  At first, I did not believe it.  By noon, Phoenix Net published the information.  Then Xinhua and CCTV also announced the news.  Xinhua Net also published a number of commentaries in conjunction with this news.

At the newspapers, the reporters gathered together to watch the CCTV newscast.  The reporters considered how they wanted to spend the next few hours in writing the story on Chen Liangyu -- one can imagine that this would be a major investigative report.

For the four problems of Chen Liangyu that Xinhua listed, we had more or less some information from previous investigations.  So it was only a matter of writing it up.

Two hours later, the report was done.  We brought it over to the leader for approval.  He smiled and said that he had just received a ban order.  This was an expected occurrence, so we were not necessarily disheartened.

After a while, the leader reconsidered and thought about playing an edge ball by obtaining the reactions of various people towards Chen Liangyu's fall.  But before this decision could even be implemented, another more severe ban order came down.

Friends reminded me that I ought to record these happenings down for memory's sake.  I wrote a blog, but it was deleted by the administrator.

Ultimately, we still played an edge ball by reflecting on the Shanghai model.  Although the report that appeared had been edited down severely, we still gave our voice.

Several days later, Shanghai city party office director Sun Luyi fell.  In writing about his case, we were able to incorporate a lot of information from the Chen Liangyu case into that report in a veiled manner.

At this time, this series of investigative reports that was unprecedented in scale and importance has basically reached its end.

5.  The Favorable Conditions

So now we can answer the readers' question "What is behind your reporting?" in a simple way.  Clearly, there was not much background.  We did not receive any official information that was channeled to us.  Our formal contacts with the officials resulted in running into a wall as usual.

These reports were possible through three favorable conditions.

There is the general situation about what we can do under in the narrow space allowed for journalism to operate and the fuzzy "news discipline."  At first, we decided to stand back and observe.  Then we decided to take advantage of the favorable situation and go all out.  These decisions were clearly related to our assessment of the general situation.  In retrospect, those assessments were quite accurate.  Another objective condition was that our newspaper is published three times a week, which meant that there is an even more powerful communication platform.

There is the local situation because we have the resource advantages at our Shanghai news center.  <21st Century Business Herald> has the most number of Shanghai-based reporters among all the national media.  Although the local Shanghai media have even more resources, understandably they were unable to report on local scandals.  Therefore, most of our reports during the more-than-one-month period were exclusives.

Finally, there is the people factor about our frontline news reporters.  <21st Century Business Herald> is famous in the finance area for investigative reporting.  Thus, almost all our reporters are familiar with investigative reporting.  We have so many reporters and each one of them have their news sources in their particular domains.  When the departments joined to cooperate, the reports that they write are "timely, accurate and in-depth."

Although the series of reports were usually published under the byline of Chen Fang, there were ten reporters behind that one name.  Most of them have been working less than five years at a newspaper that was founded less than six years ago, and they are showing us what mainland Chinese reporters can accomplish in their speech space.