Fleeing Xi’s China, journalist makes fresh start abroad, hopes day of free expression comes soon

Privately, many Chinese journalists say Xi has quashed independent reporting. Publicly, they stay silent.
Wang Zhi'an speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. (Photo | AP)
Wang Zhi'an speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. (Photo | AP)

BEIJING: Investigative journalist Wang Zhi’an once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice 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 reporter 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 hasn’t given up. Deep in debt and armed with little more than a laptop, a tripod, and a camera borrowed from a friend, Wang is back in business — this time on YouTube and Twitter, both banned in China.

“Here I can tell the truth, and nobody will restrict me anymore,” Wang said, sitting in his Tokyo studio, a living room in his modest three-story walk-up.

Thousands of delegates are congregating in Beijing this week to reaffirm Xi as leader of the ruling Communist Party for a third term, at the country’s most important political meeting in a decade. Fearing arrest, Wang said he won’t return until Xi is out of power.

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

Under Xi, China’s once feisty reporters have fallen in line. The Communist Party’s propaganda arm has taken direct control of agencies managing 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 quashed independent reporting. Publicly, they stay silent. Xi’s very name is mouthed carefully, in scripted lines, whispers or pseudonyms.

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

Wang never imagined a life outside China. A native of mountainous Shaanxi province, Wang joined CCTV in 1998 after obtaining a master’s 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 talked Tibet and Taiwan with Western journalists, and Zhu Rongji, a tough, reform-minded premier who battled corruption.

It nurtured hopes of reform in China’s one-party state — more like Singapore than the former Soviet Union, with some space for free discussion.

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

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

There, he developed a reputation as a tough, experienced journalist, two former CCTV employees said, though they added 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 raked in millions in brazen backdoor deals, their sons and daughters flashing Rolexes and racing Ferraris across Beijing’s flyovers.

Xi promised to change all that, vowing to crush corruption. He visited a humble bun shop, portraying himself as a man of the people.

The crackdown came. Banquets were banned, red carpets rolled up, and thousands of officials arrested.

But as Xi consolidated power, signs of trouble started emerging at CCTV. Controls tightened. One by one, top reporters trickled out.

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

“Party media should be surnamed the party,” he declared, urging loyalty to the Communist Party above all else.

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

Though Xi was combating corruption, instead of wielding transparency and the rule of law, Xi empowered a secretive organ of the party to detain officials instead.

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

The final straw, he said, was when an investigation he worked on for months was killed.

It was an expose of Beijing’s ambulance dispatch system. Through backdoor connections, Wang found, an official had set up a parallel network that whisked patients to a second-rate clinic in Beijing’s far north, generating revenue for hospital management but causing life-threatening delays.

But days before Wang’s story went to air, the party’s Central Propaganda Department said it was canning the story. Infuriated, Wang stopped coming to work, then resigned.

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

At Caixin, a respected financial magazine, the politically connected editor-in-chief stepped aside. At the Beijing Daily News, a tabloid with a rebellious streak, the publisher stepped down and was later detained. At Southern Weekly, a revered liberal broadsheet, propaganda officials tangled with reporters.

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

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

For a couple of years, Wang mulled what to do. The pandemic left him stranded during a visit to Japan, and when he returned to Beijing late last year, he heard he wouldn’t be able to work in media again. If he wanted to stay in China, Wang realized, he’d have to quit the job he loved.

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

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

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

Since he started broadcasting in May, he has attracted many viewers, with nearly half a million followers on Twitter and 400,000 subscribers on YouTube. Though both are banned in China, Wang hopes his reports will trickle over China’s Great Firewall and into the country.

His aim, Wang said, is fact-based news for mainland Chinese, one that stands apart from conspiracy-laden competitors driven by hatred of the government.

“Nobody believes a serious Chinese outlet can be established overseas,” he said. “But I want to give it a try. I think it’s very important for the whole Chinese-speaking world.”

In July, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring a crew and flying to Ukraine. Wang said he wanted to bring frontline reporting to a Chinese audience – pointing out that only one channel viewable in mainland China sent reporters to the war.

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

“Such a large country with only one source of information on such a huge event,” Wang said. “That’s very sad.”

Wang has plenty of detractors. Nationalists brand Wang a “traitor” online, questioning why he lives in Japan and accusing him of peddling “anti-China” content. On the other extreme, anti-Beijing activists suspect Wang’s motives, pointing out he spent decades inside state media toeing the party line.

Zhang Dongshuo, a lawyer in Beijing, said he appreciates Wang’s channel, tuning in occasionally to get news unavailable on state media. But Zhang added that Wang’s lack of access has made his reports duller, and the difficulties of scaling China’s firewall has shrunk his audience.

“It’s going to be tough,” Zhang said. “He’s in an awkward situation.”

Still, outside of Xi’s China, Wang hopes there’s space for someone like him. He narrates the news, talking China’s “zero-COVID” policy and the recent party congress, peppered with observations drawn on his experience inside the system.

At times, he cuts in with commentary.

“We’ll have to wait till the day journalists can truly express themselves freely,” Wang said, signing off on a recent broadcast. “I hope that day comes soon.”

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