But if Beijing’s intention was to limit scrutiny of its coronavirus response, it has only partially succeeded. Some of the most damning reporting on the pandemic has come from Chinese organizations, which are taking great risks in one of the world’s most restrictive media environments.
“The truth is that the Chinese Communist Party leadership regards any reporting of the facts as ultimately a threat to the stability of the regime,” said David Bandurski, co-director of the China Media Project.
Last week, Caixin, a Beijing-based publication known for political investigations, published a story that questioned the official coronavirus death count in Wuhan, the Chinese epicenter of the outbreak. “In virus-ravaged Wuhan, hours-long queues to collect the ashes of the dead,” ran the headline of an English translation.
Officially, the death toll in Wuhan has stalled at a little over 2,500, a detail repeatedly highlighted by China’s Foreign Ministry. But something didn’t add up, Caixin noted: One local crematorium in the city was operating for 19 hours a day and in just two days, 5,000 urns were delivered to the establishment.
Foreign media outlets, including The Washington Post and many others, picked up on the details. Radio Free Asia, a publication funded by the U.S. government, extrapolated further, suggesting that as many as 42,000 could have died in the city.
The work has brought Caixin further international attention: In recent days, the publication has been highlighted by voices as diverse as Turkish academic Zeynep Tufekci and Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
But in China, international praise can be a burden. This week on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, the cover of Caixin Weekly magazine prompted angry responses from those who saw it as an attack on China. Users accused founder Hu Shuli of smearing the country’s reputation.
Undertaking independent journalism in China has long required a delicate balance. Chinese reporters aren’t reliant on visas like foreigners, but they face other risks: At least 48 Chinese journalists were jailed last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the most of any nation.
Meanwhile, to be a commercial success, private outlets must face two conflicting factors: a state that wants to restrict access to the truth and an audience that knows when they are lied to. “We walk on a tightrope,” Liu Changle, the Chinese media tycoon behind the quasi-independent Phoenix TV, told The Post in 2005.
Some independent news outlets were able to push the envelope when Hu Jintao led the country from 2002 to 2012. Publications like Caijing, the first magazine founded by Caixin’s Hu, and the Southern Metropolis Daily published major investigations into the SARS virus outbreak and police brutality, among other topics.
But they remained restricted by China’s Central Propaganda Department and required a government-affiliated sponsor. The restrictions increased after Xi Jinping took over in 2013, leading the country in an aggressively nationalist direction.
Caixin, which Hu founded after leaving Caijing in 2013, has been able to navigate China’s media landscape better than most. Some attribute this to Hu’s savvy and personal connections — she comes from a line of Communist Party intellectuals and maintains a friendship with Wang Qishan, China’s vice president.
A 2009 New Yorker profile noted that Hu lived in an elite compound favored by government media workers. Yaxue Cao, a Washington-based activist, said Caixin couldn’t truly be considered independent because of Hu’s connections. “Instead of independence, it’s a privilege,” Cao said.
But even Caixin found some topics difficult to touch — it has not covered the persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang with the intensity of foreign media outlets, for example. “They know better than anyone where the lines are,” said Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter.
The early weeks of China’s outbreak saw a remarkable push by independent journalists. Yuan Zeng, a scholar at the University of Leeds, pointed to a variety of outlets like China Youth Daily, YiMagazine and Sanlian Lifeweek that published investigative reports that scrutinized the official version of events.
Most of these reports were in Chinese and many were deleted by censors, but some have been translated into English, such as China News Weekly’s Feb. 10 cover story: “How China missed the critical window for controlling the coronavirus outbreak.” The China Media Project has excerpted a series by People magazine that interviewed front-line health-care workers.
Those who track Chinese journalism now think the state has clamped down again. “At this point, most of the critical or investigative reporting on this topic has been silenced,” said Maria Repnikova, a Georgia State University professor, who predicted such a clampdown in early February.
On social media, where there had been a groundswell of outrage following the death of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, critical voices have dwindled as citizen journalists were arrested, said King-wa Fu of the University of Hong Kong.
These shifts can leave independent outlets stuck in an awkward position. The Chinese government seems to be allowing some journalism if it aligns with Beijing’s domestic narrative about the outbreak that blames local officials. But this narrative conflicts with the cruder international message.
“The domestic narrative is all about: ‘Yes, mistakes were made at the beginning by the bad, bad, incompetent local people,’” said Bishop. “And globally, of course, it’s: ‘We did everything we could and we bought some time and even now we’re trying to save the world.’ It’s a pretty huge contradiction.”
Neither Hu nor Caixin editor Wang Shuo responded to requests to discuss their coronavirus coverage; other Caixin journalists would not speak on the record. Though Caixin has withstood many previous crackdowns, its increasingly high profile puts it at risk. “Caixin is not immune,” Zeng said.
Despite Caixin’s newfound popularity in American political circles, the United States and China remain locked in a standoff that often targets journalists. At a news conference on Monday, President Trump grilled a reporter from Phoenix TV, which is privately owned but pro-Beijing.
Trump demands of the reporter: “Who are you working for, China? Are you working for China or a newspaper?” She replies Phoenix TV of Hong Kong. Trump: “Is that owned by the state?” She says it’s privately owned.
— David Nakamura (@DavidNakamura) April 6, 2020
In February, right-wing pundits argued that Caixin’s D.C. correspondent should be kicked out of the country after she asked a question at a news conference.
It is remarkable that China’s independent journalists can operate under such conditions, let alone still publish groundbreaking work. “What’s frustrating is what they could do if they weren’t constrained,” Bishop said. “You can see glimpses of the awesome potential.”
They know it, too. On a recent podcast discussing their work in Wuhan, Caixin reporter Gao Yu suggested his team had uncovered up to 80 percent of what happened — but they had only been able to publish 40 percent at most.