SARS and Journalism in China

Interview: International Editor of the Year Hu Shuli

Hu Shuli
Unfettered Perspective: Hu Shuli sees a benefit to being a part of China's "fringe" media (Photo: Qu Jin/China Features).

Hu Shuli, founder and managing editor of Beijing-based Caijing magazine (English newsletter), has been named World Press Review’s 2003 International Editor of the Year. WPR presents the award each year to an editor or editors outside the United States in recognition of enterprise, courage, and leadership in advancing the freedom and responsibility of the press, enhancing human rights, and fostering excellence in journalism.

In a recent interview for World Press Review, Hu Shuli spoke about her entry into journalism, the role of the business reporter, and her views on the state of the Chinese news media. Excerpts follow:

You began studying journalism at the Chinese People's University in 1978. Has your idea of journalism changed since then?
I was actually assigned to study journalism and did not choose to be a journalist on my own. I was admitted by the Chinese literature department of Beijing University (Beida), a prestigious institution of higher learning in China, right after the catastrophic Cultural Revolution (1966-76) ended and the entrance exams to universities resumed. By then, the People’s University of China (Renda), which had been dissolved during the Cultural Revolution, was being re-established, and its departments, which had been dispersed in other universities, were being returned. Its journalism department had been incorporated into the Chinese literature department of Beida, so part of the Beida department was sent to Renda. I was part of the restart of Renda’s journalism department. That’s how I became a journalism major.

The press was tightly controlled in China during the Cultural Revolution. The news media were regarded as a government organization rather than a watchdog, and those who worked with news organizations sounded more like officials than professional journalists. Our teachers at Renda were eager to have this situation changed. They encouraged us to pursue careers as professional journalists.

China began to follow the policy of reform, and by the time I entered university, the overall political atmosphere had improved for the better, and there emerged many opportunities for media workers. For instance, when I graduated in 1982, China’s economic reform was in full swing, and there was a national campaign to crack down on economic crimes, which gave journalists room to display their talents in exposing wrongdoings or evil tendencies. It was really an exciting period. I’ve witnessed remarkable changes in China’s news media over the past two decades, although there is still much to be desired for the Chinese press.

Did you have a goal for yourself as a student of journalism? Do you think you have realized your goal?
My goal as a student of journalism was to become “well-known.” That was what our teachers at the university encouraged us to pursue. They wanted us to become famous professional journalists rather than officials. I desired that readers would remember my name after reading my reports.

By the criteria of the time, I pictured a well-known journalist as a correspondent stationed in a foreign country, who could go to places others could not access. I was assigned to the Worker’s Daily upon graduation, and my boss tried to bring me up in that orientation. I was sent to Xiamen, one of China’s first four special economic zones, to found the newspaper’s first local bureau. At my boss’s request, I got my driver’s license and brushed up my English at Xiamen University. The driver’s license and mastery of English were considered indispensable for a correspondent to be stationed abroad, you know.

In 1987, I was awarded a [World Press Institute] fellowship for early career journalists to study in the United States; this greatly broadened my horizons. I then got a transfer to China Industry & Business Times in the early 1990s and became chief of the international desk. I still hoped that I would get a chance to work abroad as a correspondent. But that opportunity never came. Although I gave up my pursuit for fame by way of being dispatched abroad, I was recognized with the fortnightly magazine Caijing—Finance & Business—of which I’m the founding editor. My goal shifted from being well-known to creating a good news medium. I’m pretty satisfied with what I have done, and I think I have realized my goal.

How did you begin reporting on business and finance? What are the challenges involved with such reporting in China?
The second newspaper I worked with, China Industry & Business Times, focuses on business and finance. Under the then-editor, Ding Wang, the newspaper became one of the most influential in China in the early 1990s for its coverage of controversial economic reform issues and for exposing wrongdoings. Its prosperity coincided with the development of China’s market economy. Although I joined the Times as its international desk chief, every staff member was supposed to be knowledgeable about business and finance.

I soon found that in China, reporting on business and finance is much more exciting and practical than reporting on politics. While business and finance constitute the motivating force pushing our society forward, and thus offer the most fascinating scenarios for journalists to cover, they are less taboo than politics in China. We are thus able to go beyond what falls into the narrow definition of business and finance, and can indulge ourselves in covering business-related issues such as SARS.

I did a one-year Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1995. When I returned home, Ding Wang had retired from China Industry & Business Times, and the newspaper was no longer as vigorous and charming. I tried several other media before I decided to take the offer of being the editor of Caijing in 1998—until then I had always worked as a reporter and it had never occurred to me that I should run a magazine myself. I think it’s a good idea to have a platform of your own on which you can do what you want. And a fortnightly magazine is better adapted to my capacity than a daily.

Finance and business are on the front line of China’s new market culture. To report on finance and business in China, you have to be very professional. People watch you and, if they see you are a layman, will not give a damn about what you report.

What do you think is the role of a finance-business reporter in society?
In China, there are tremendous opportunities for the finance-business press to play the role of watchdog, and there is much for us to do. A market culture is taking shape, and we are obliged to help shape a healthy market culture. It’s our duty to pinpoint the problems that may hold China’s reforms back from embarking on the right track. I’m against mystifying the market.

How do you compare the media climate in China now with that in the early 1980s in terms of the coverage of “negative” things or social evils?
Generally speaking, there are far more opportunities for the news media and journalists to play the role of watchdog than before. It is true that some officially recognized mainstream media have not fully played their role of supervision, but then there have emerged many more so-called “fringe” media in China today, like Caijing, which are not party and government organs and thus not considered mainstream. These fringe media form the third type of Chinese media—the first being the so-called core party and government organs, like Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily, and the second being outside the “core” but still within the sphere of party and government organs, like China Industry & Business Times and China Economic Times. Financially speaking, the second type rely more on the market and hence are more independent than those of the first, while the fringe media completely rely on the market.

But the fringe media are not necessarily marginalized if they seek their opportunities and play their watchdog role well. They are not as closely watched by the party departments in charge of media as their counterparts of the second type, or the core organs, so in a way they enjoy greater freedom.

Despite the greater opportunities due to greater media diversity, we are facing greater professional challenges. For one thing, we have various interest groups in China today who all try to manipulate the news media. In a way, this is progress from the time when the news media were wholly controlled by the party. But this is a dangerous trap for finance-business journalists. That’s why I think a business-finance reporter must be upright and dedicated.

What do you think of the impact of SARS on China's news media? How did you, as the editor of a financial magazine, decide to get involved in the reporting of an epidemic disease?
SARS made a profound impact on China’s news media. For journalists it offered the chance of a lifetime. We jumped on it as early as February, when I saw it was not simply a medical issue, but a business-related one, and that it was hard news with a human element, which is rare. I was confident that it would be valuable to cover such an event of historical interest, as it was an epidemic with so many lives at stake. And it involved government transparency, which carried a weight that we could not bear to leave alone.

Although at the time (in February) the disease was hardly mentioned in any Chinese media, I was quite sure that an epidemic like SARS could hardly be covered up. So I decided to start by reporting about the disease in Hong Kong. When I saw on the Web site of the World Health Organization on March 12 that the number of cases in Guangdong had jumped from zero to 792, I knew I had real news. I told my colleagues that a golden opportunity was right before us and we must seize it and cover it well. We assigned a group of four reporters to cover SARS at first and then put an entire desk of 10 people on the reporting. Finally, we put more people on the story and produced four special weekly issues on SARS in addition to our normal publications. Some journalists missed the opportunity because they were overcautious and tended to shackle themselves. It’s really a pity.