Fleeing Xi’s China, Journalist Makes New Start Abroad

By DAKE KANG
Associated press

BEIJING (AP) — Investigative journalist Wang Zhi’an has previously exposed corruption, land grabs and medical malpractices in China, with millions of viewers and a powerful platform: state broadcaster CCTV .

Wang now lives alone in central Tokyo after being blacklisted in his homeland. His journey from on-air personality at the heart of China’s vast state media apparatus to journalist-in-exile illustrates how even government-backed critical reporting has been curtailed under Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong.

Unlike many muckrakers, Wang did not give up. Deep in debt and armed with little more than a laptop, a tripod and a borrowed camera from a friend, Wang is back in business – this time on YouTube and Twitter, both banned in China.

“Here I can speak the truth, and no one will restrain me anymore,” Wang said, sitting in his Tokyo studio, a living room in his modest three-story walk-up.

Thousands of delegates are gathering in Beijing this week to reaffirm Xi as leader of the ruling Communist Party for a third term, in the country’s most important political meeting for a decade. Afraid of being arrested, Wang said he would not return until Xi was in power.

“He demands absolute obedience,” Wang said. “The media has become like the army: a tool that lends unconditional allegiance to the party.

Under Xi, once-feisty Chinese journalists lined up. The propaganda branch of the Communist Party took direct control of the agencies running newspapers, broadcasters and radio stations. A powerful new agency has silenced critical voices on the internet, creating a vast censorship apparatus powered by thousands of censors.

Privately, many Chinese journalists say Xi has canceled independent reporting. In public, they are silent. Xi’s very name is spoken carefully, in scripted lines, whispers, or aliases.

“The change in the past 10 years has been dramatic,” said Zhan Jiang, a retired journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Wang never imagined a life outside of China. Originally from the mountainous province of Shaanxi, Wang joined CCTV in 1998 after earning a master’s degree in history.

At the time, Chinese media was on the cusp of what Wang calls a “golden age.” Investigative journalism flourished under then-leader Jiang Zemin, who spoke about Tibet and Taiwan with Western reporters, and Zhu Rongji, a tough, reform-minded prime minister who fought against corruption.

This has fueled hopes for reform in China’s one-party state – closer to Singapore than the former Soviet Union, with space for free discussion.

“Just because China is under the Communist Party doesn’t mean it can’t have an active media,” said Zhan, a retired professor.

At CCTV, Wang was first a producer, then a commentator, before moving to investigations in 2011.

There he developed a reputation as a tough and experienced journalist, two former CCTV workers said, although they added that his critical tendencies could make him difficult to work with. They declined to be named to speak candidly about Wang.

Soon after, Xi took power in 2012. At first, Wang looked forward to the new leadership. With the country’s economic boom, officials have raked in millions in cheeky deals, their sons and daughters flashing racing Rolexes and Ferraris across Beijing flyovers.

Xi promised to change all that, promising to stamp out corruption. He visited a humble bun shop, posing as a man of the people.

Repression has come. Banquets were banned, red carpets rolled up and thousands of officials arrested.

But as Xi consolidated his power, signs of unrest began to emerge at CCTV. Reinforced controls. One by one, the best journalists came out.

Then, in 2016, Xi visited CCTV and other state media.

“Party media should be nicknamed the party,” he said, calling for loyalty to the Communist Party above all else.

“We knew then that there would be earth-shattering changes,” Wang said.

Although Xi fights corruption, instead of demonstrating transparency and the rule of law, Xi has empowered a secret party body to detain officials instead.

“Xi doesn’t think the media should be a watchdog,” Wang said. “He thinks they just need to be propaganda outlets.”

The straw that broke the camel’s back, he said, was when an investigation he worked on for months was killed.

It was an exposition of Beijing’s ambulance dispatch system. Through backdoor connections, Wang discovered, an official had set up a parallel network that took patients to a second-rate clinic in the far north of Beijing, generating revenue for the hospital’s management but causing havoc. potentially fatal delays.

But days before Wang’s story was released, the party’s Central Propaganda Department said it was canning the story. Furious, Wang stopped coming to work, then quit.

It wasn’t just CCTV. Across China, thousands of journalists have left the industry.

At Caixin, a respected financial magazine, the politically connected editor has stepped down. At the Beijing Daily News, a rebel-leaning tabloid, the editor quit and was later arrested. At the Southern Weekly, a revered major liberal newspaper, propaganda executives mingled with reporters.

Wang tried to continue. He switched outlets, hosting an online interview show that garnered tens of millions of views. But in June 2019, Wang’s social media accounts were suddenly deleted, robbing him of millions of followers.

Overnight, Wang was politically toxic. His new outlet, once keen to capitalize on his star power, backed out of renewing his contract.

For a few years, Wang pondered what to do. The pandemic left him stranded on a visit to Japan, and when he returned to Beijing late last year he found he could no longer work in the media. If he wanted to stay in China, Wang realized, he would have to quit the job he loved.

Wang made his choice: he bought a one-way ticket to Japan.

“I can’t continue in China,” Wang said. “If I became public relations director, it would be a betrayal of my career.”

Now Wang is teaching himself Japanese. He learned how to edit videos on his own and how to operate on a shoestring budget.

Since it began broadcasting in May, it has garnered a massive following, with nearly half a million followers on Twitter and 400,000 subscribers on YouTube. Although both are banned in China, Wang hopes her reports will spread across China’s Great Firewall and the country.

Its focus, Wang said, is factual information for mainland Chinese that stands out from conspiracy-laden competitors driven by government hatred.

“No one believes that a serious Chinese outlet can be established overseas,” he said. “But I want to try. I think it’s very important for the whole Chinese-speaking world.

In July, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire a crew and fly to Ukraine. Wang said he wanted to bring frontline reporting to a Chinese audience – pointing out that only one visible channel in mainland China was sending reporters to war.

The result, he said, was that China’s coverage of the war was saturated with Russian disinformation.

“Such a big country with only one source of information about such a huge event,” Wang said. “It’s very sad.”

Wang has many detractors. Nationalists call Wang a “traitor” online, question why he lives in Japan and accuse him of peddling “anti-China” content. At the other extreme, anti-Beijing activists suspect Wang’s motives, pointing out that he spent decades in state media toeing the party line.

Zhang Dongshuo, a lawyer in Beijing, said he enjoys Wang’s channel, logging in occasionally for information not available on state media. But Zhang added that Wang’s lack of access has made his reporting more boring and difficulties scaling China’s firewall has reduced his audience.

“It’s going to be tough,” Zhang said. “He is in a delicate situation.”

Yet outside of Xi’s China, Wang hopes there is room for someone like him. He recounts the news, talks about China’s “zero COVID” policy and the recent party congress, peppered with observations from his experience within the system.

Sometimes he intervenes with comments.

“We will have to wait for the day when journalists can truly express themselves freely,” Wang said, signing off on a recent broadcast. “I hope that day will come soon.”

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Associated Press video reporter Haruka Naga in Tokyo contributed to this story.