[Editor’s note: Vivian Wei Wu is a leading investigative reporter and new media studies scholar in China. Currently, she is the International Cooperation Director for Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based news, features and data journalism website and app. Prior to moving to New York City in August 2016 for a Political Science graduate program at the New School, Wu was the chief content director for China News at Initium Media in Beijing. Wu has more than 15 years of experience working in newspapers, magazines, TV and digital media. Among many other posts, she was editorial director at the celebrity magazine Portrait in China; media and legal reporter at the South China Morning Post Beijing Bureau for six years; and content supervisor at CCTV-6 for four years. She has won a great number of journalism awards in Hong Kong and Asia.
Wu has published hundreds of investigative reports, most notably reports on corruption, the crackdown on civil rights lawyers, food and drug safety, and environmental pollution. Because of her truthful reporting, she has been harassed by authorities on numerous occasions.
China Insight recently interviewed Wu via emails where she reflected on her career and her choice to be an investigative reporter, a highly dangerous profession in China.
Vivian Wei Wu
China Insight (CI): What was it like to report from China as an investigative reporter?
Wu: First of all, we talk about investigative reporting, it’s a particular category of journalism in a global sense. Conceptually, it’s a special way of reporting that involves acquiring the facts and clues through painstaking investigations, and exploring the secrets or the information deliberately being hidden, but crucial for the public to know. There is a bunch of journalists in every country engaged in investigative reporting, and it's all about collecting and analyzing the data, finding the sources, and writing clearly to disclose the essential secret concerns of public interest. Many of them have to be protected.
But in China, in addition to these professional skills, more is demanded of the investigative reporter. First of all, China has no freedom of publications and speech in the western sense. Very often, you will find no legal guarantee or legal protection for the investigation you are working on as a journalist because China does not have Journalism Law or the First Amendment to the Constitution. In a free press society, you have a fundamental institutional guarantee for your reporting rights, and you are regarded as the guardian of the public’s right to know. This is not the case in China.
Rather, China has the most sophisticated censorship system of the communist ideology and propaganda control, the biggest barrier to facts, the most formidable obstacle for the public to access information. As a Chinese citizen working in the foreign press newsroom as an investigative reporter, in most instances, I am by default regarded by censors as the enemy of the state. I need to shoulder all the legal and political consequences on my own. Sometimes my employer might not be able to protect me from the political forces or the stakeholders in the corruption stories I am uncovering. On most occasions, I have to take the responsibility as an individual. Sometimes it’s about a personal safety issue, a personal risk, and I have to decide if I will start to investigate a project.
Secondly, there is the frustration when I cannot get access to information; and once my stories touch on the political taboo, I might not be able to publish the article. I also need to handle the issues of time constraints, assignment frustrations, and all the pressures that cannot be shared with anybody.
However, there are advantages and benefits. First, China has numerous stories to cover. It might be a hell to journalists, but its gold mine of stories means there never will be a short of ideas. Since investigative reporting is always about big, complicated stories that relate to human interest that concern the public well-being, you can see why China, in its rapid economic development under a socialist ideology, has a plethora of stories of injustice, bad governmental behavior and severe corruption. Violation of human rights and citizen rights, and extraordinary political scandals lurk in every public sector. Every day we hear about public health incidents with large casualties caused by coal mine collapse or food safety accidents. Who should be responsible? If you can handle these personal and political pressures and still can write good stories, a dedicated journalist can achieve a great sense of professional satisfaction and feel (s)he is truly making a difference.
Censorship, the low quality of journalism, and the blocked access to the good stories have resulted in greater social recognition for the good stories. But still, it's a challenging job that requires determination and patience for the long haul. During the golden era of investigative journalism from 2003 to 2010, more young people passionately entered the field. But in the recent five to seven years, there is a backward slide. Harsher censorship and tougher measures taken to clamp down on outspoken journalists and liberal media outlets have deterred many talented people. The number of journalists in the field is diminishing rapidly.
In my own experience, I find several factors helped me a lot. I am determined to stay engaged on a long-term basis. I possess the attitude to not give up, the wisdom and political savvy to protect myself and my colleagues, and even the media organization with which I am working. Another advantage is that I write bilingually, and I publish on different platforms. I am among, maybe, only 10 or 20 people in China who can write in both English and Chinese as a journalist and editor. And if you consider the special areas I write about (political and media scandals, criminal and human rights issues) the number of such people is even smaller. A further advantage is I understand China and I'm trained to write in the western style, free from self-censorship. Publishing in English media guarantees my stories are not subject to the central government censorship. Furthermore, being a Chinese native speaker, I can talk to Chinese sources that might not be accessible to foreign press correspondents working in China. I am lucky to be able to get firsthand materials and understand the nuances between the lines. However, I have tried to write more in Chinese and get published in Chinese outlets in recent years, trying to reach a bigger audience and help the Chinese understand the outside world better. My goal is to break down the language and culture barriers, to deliver stories in whatever words suitable.
CI: What are some major stories you have covered?
Wu: A good one was in 2006. I found a lawyer who had worked for a big factory that illegally produced a popular chemical augmentation material called “hydrophilic polyacrylamide gel.” In China, they gave this fatal material the brand name “Ao Mei Ding”（奥美定), GAAP in abbreviation. This gel is injected into women's breasts, noses, cheeks, and even men's penises or whatever body part one wants to enlarge. Within 20 minutes of injection, you'll have a perfect shape without surgery. So the augmentation surgeon became extremely popular in big and medium cities, as in South Korea, Japan and the U.S. over the past decade. Naturally, China has the big commercial market for this product, but the quality control, licensing and product supervision are full of flaws. All inspection functions are consolidated under one administrative bureau that is in charge of all permissions, supervision and penalty enforcement. It authorizes production, quality control and post-use detection. Usually, it takes five to eight years for a medical surgical material to pass the animal and clinical testing. But GAAP passed all official supervision procedures in three years. The product caused enormous medical problems and adverse effects to the consumers. At least 300,000 had injected the fatal gel into their bodies. Some young women used the gel in their breasts and the gel dropped to their ribs, resulting in the appearance of four breasts.
It took me months to collect documents and data to prove the gel was illegally approved by the State Food and Drug Administration, and the chain of corruption and abuse of power involved in the entire production and sales industry. It’s a big hole for scandals. I worked with some lawyers and underground informers who gave me all the documents. I also worked with some lawyers who advocated to get this material legally abolished in China. This was a tremendous achievement and because of our efforts, the product was officially banned from the Chinese market, and the chief director of the SFDA was removed and later sentenced to death for abuse of power and corruption.
Most of the stories I broke are also about the censorship of journalism, the government secret conspiracy to censor free market of opinions, judicial injustice and abuse of power in the judiciary system.
For example, there was an innocent young man from Hebei Province who was sentenced to death for rape and murder in 1994. He was executed in 1995 without legal process. But 10 years later, the real murderer was arrested from the neighboring province. A group of lawyers, journalists and even a former police chief worked together to help his mother appeal and find justice. I spent 10 years following the case until last year, the Chinese Supreme Court reheard the trial and decided the young man was innocent. It's belated justice, but it disclosed how easily the lives of innocent people could be trampled like straws in China, where a dependent system of court, police and prosecutors can practice injustice without supervision. Too many police and court officials at various levels had caused the death of the innocent man. I covered the whole process to find the truth behind the arcane curtain of this legal case in China, and reviewed the development of rule of law as well as the change of political and media landscape over 20 years.
CI: And probably because of your reporting, the government finally admitted that injustice existed?
Wu: Yea. Another interesting one that I avoid mentioning in the Chinese context, but actually consider it to be one of my “glory” stories, is the one I broke the accurate number of the human organs harvested every year by the Chinese military and police forces from the prisoners who were sentenced to death. I talked to a surgeon who had firsthand data from the industry. That was the first concrete evidence to break the bubble and remove the cover up in that case. As a result, or maybe as a trigger initiative to a wider range of global campaign to push China to recognize the issue. My story played a role, and the Chinese government advised Minister of Public Health Huang Jiefu to recognize China had such a problem. The Chinese hospital and medical administrative authorities had to gradually adopt a more accountable, transparent policy to get organs from legal sources, and had to push for legislation in the field and encourage people to become organ donors.
CI: What’s your personal story and was it a personal choice to be an investigative reporter in China? How did you end up at South Modern China Post?
Wu: I am a very atypical type of Chinese woman. I am curious, outspoken and I challenge power and authority even as a child. I am never afraid of asking questions, and I love communicating with various kinds of people and listening to their stories. Deep down, I really want to help.
I was born in northeast Gansu Province and my parents, both chemical engineers, moved a lot during my childhood to build chemical factories all around the country. My entire family is very good at packing and packing luggage! I have a much more mobile childhood than most Chinese of my generation. I moved from Lanzhou, capital city of Gansu Province, to Beijing, where I spent most of my elementary school, and then I moved to Shandong, a coastal and very traditional province, and hometown of Confucius. I spent my teenage years in Beijing until I finished university at Ren Min University and Peking University, both of which are the top arts universities in China. After the first college degree, I worked briefly at an international business company with a well-paid job, but quit after a year as I wanted to complete my dream of being a journalist since the age of 13. I went to Peking University for a master degree in journalism and international communication. In 2003, I got a scholarship from the Hong Kong English newspaper the South China Morning Post that sent me to work in their Hong Kong newsroom. As an intern, I published a number of stories in the business industry and became probably the earliest generation of mainland Chinese who write at English newspapers following western journalism standard. I moved back to Beijing in 2004, and very quickly realized in China, you have to only cover two issues, rule of law and the media. So that’s why I started to focus on political reporting, and I, on purpose, worked hard on the subjects relating to freedom of speech and political issues.
As a journalist in China, it's not easy to keep filing good stories in these fields, but I was always determined that I wanted to be at the top. You also need to be aware that you are not an activist. But I spent a lot of time with lawyers, activists, human rights defenders, dissidents and writers -- the kinds of people the totalitarian government doesn't like -- who helped me understand the society better. By 2009, I got a little frustrated because, before the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games, the world was hoping to see a more open, more democratic and media-friendly China. But after the games ended, the country continued to keep tight control of the media and refuses democratization as the world hoped. So I realized it was time for me to explore more areas for bringing on the rule of law and freedom of the press, other than as a full-time journalist at the frontline. Instead, I could encourage more people to be more professional in their daily reporting work. I could help create a more robust community of press through civil society efforts. So I worked as a media consultant and researcher for international NGOs and started my own media think tank. I helped Internews Network, a D.C.-headquartered American NGO start their legal and media professionalism training programs in China. We've trained 3,000 working journalists and editors from all key media organizations. We also provided professional training to judges, lawyers, academics and even legislators to help them understand digital media and the IT industry so as to better solve the conflicts of rights in the courtrooms. And I helped embassies and United Nation organizations to better understand Chinese political and technical issues behind the headlines so they can deliver more fruitful projects in the legal and media fields. In addition, I talked to academics, the decision-makers and analysts from other countries and provide innovative media solutions on multimedia platforms. In 2015, I came back to the editorial room full time because I wanted to work with more young people to bring digital innovations to the newsroom and to move the entire journalism field to digitalization. We need to explore a more efficient way to communicate with the public, to inform, educate and entertain. So you can see there a cycle in my life, it’s always about media and law and freedom of speech.
CI: Why did you decide to go back to graduate school, and, in particular, why a graduate school in the United States?
Wu: I’m aware of my life mission. I am decoder, observer and action taker. And I need to build a road to freedom, through words, digital technologies, and all the media methods, but also conceptual ideas and beauty of thoughts. To achieve that goal, I need a conceptual understanding. I need not only to empower myself, but also the community. So I need to create a possible mechanism to explore and understand the world between different cultures. But in this process, I realized that such dedication is a mission for life. I need to give, but also restore energy. In the most cutting edge industry like the internet and digital journalism, I've transformed myself from traditional newspaper journalist to television and to the website and then to mobile and social media. I also need to get a systematic understanding of the key concepts related to the press. For example, the relationship between power and media, why government controls media? What are the rules or the conceptual framework behind the facts? Also, I need to understand the relationship between technology and social innovation, and then find the creative model to frame my energy and field knowledge. That also helps me get a strategic plan to frame my social resources because the more time I spend in the industry, the more sources I have, and the more responsibility I have to society and to the people with whom I interact. I always long for quiet time on an American campus that could give me a chance to sit in the library to think, to read, to reflect, and to frame my thoughts in order to help explain the political and social issues in a more systematic way. It’s really about the restoration of energy and garnering wisdom and inner strength.
Another reason is I’m a firm believer of constitutionalism; I worship constitution, and I am dedicated to the concept of First Amendment rights. I want to analyze the relationship between the media and law, and also between the controllers and the people being controlled. So for all these reasons, I think it’s time for me to come to the States to study, and I luckily got this offer in the New School, and also got this scholarship to study politics at the New School for Social Research. It’s a blessing to be able to take a breath, keep calm and carry on.
While I am here during the chaotic times, the U.S. might need to understand China when the world is facing a crisis to democracy and threat to the constitutional spirit. I think it’s the perfect time for me to be here in the U.S. and share knowledge about dictatorship.
CI: Now that you are in New York, where do you obtain information and news about China?
Wu: We live in a global village, not a single country can be cut off from the rest of the world. You can’t find proper reasons to cut off your country from the world, not a Chinese government, not an American government. So I think everybody is connected in the global village. Since arriving in New York last August, I maintain this habit of regularly following the news about China on social media, also keeping very close connection with the key communities in my country. There are professionals and opinion leaders in several communities that feed the media with updated insights. I also follow the coverage about China by major newspapers like the New York Times, the Guardian and the Economist magazine (which has a regular China column). Basically, almost all the leading media organizations have a correspondent based in China. So I think I’m quite current on China affairs, but reading from the other side helped me identify the huge gap of information to be filled. I have to be very open-minded and always put myself in others’ shoes, and check my illusions and biases. I think there are still a lot of things the world should pick up when they try to understand China.
CI: What’s your observation of American journalism versus Chinese journalism?
Wu: I remembered on Election Day last November, I and one of my international correspondents took to the streets. We spent 30 hours in Manhattan, and we went to several voting stations. I was among a huge group of American journalists, I saw a group of police officers guarding the street. The first reaction was to run because if you cover political stories such as voting in China, it’s never a good thing to see police officers in front of you. Then I realized, oh, police and media can work together so harmoniously in this country because of the great Constitution and First Amendment. And you see the journalists blocking the streets in front of the voting stations. And when Donald Trump went to vote at one station, all access to the station was blocked not by police, but by journalists. That impressed me a lot. And I saw how hard NYPD was working to protect the public and made sure the journalists can work safely. That really impressed me. And I had never appreciated the Constitution and the First Amendment of the Constitution of this country as in that moment. I want to tell my American peers how lucky they are. You still have a lot of freedom and space to criticize, to disclose, to review, to share knowledge, to educate people and to guide people out of the darkness, even though the situation is getting more difficult. Maybe it’s a bad thing for the United States to have a bad president, but it’s not a bad thing for journalists to live in this society at this moment. You have a lot to do, and you are making a difference. But I also want to tell my Chinese journalist friends that freedom is never free. We are not born into a free society; we are born to work with our feet and hands in pain. So we have to work very hard to fight for press freedom. Once you see that, journalism can make a difference. I urge my Chinese friends never to give up.
CI: The New York Times reported only about 1/3 of the millennials believe it is essential to live in a democracy. You have lived in both China and the United States, do you think it is essential to reside in a democracy?
Wu: I think I have already stated this, but I want to repeat. Of course, it’s important to live in a democracy. If you are lucky to be born in a democratic society, you take a lot of things for granted. You take freedom for granted, you take the internet without a firewall for granted, you take for granted that the courts would always safeguard people’s fundamental constitutional rights and that they should always help people speak their mind. If you were born in a democracy, you probably never know there are people in a country like China who don’t know what it feels to be able to speak freely in their lifetime. People are not able to even access Facebook without using VPN. And they probably are never free of the fears when they speak their mind.
So, of course freedom is essential. It’s an essential fundamental institution that allows people to live like humans. But democracy couldn’t solve all of our problems, so you should keep democracy in good shape, always renovate it, create it and improve upon it. It’s not like you have democracy, take a lot of factors for granted, and then you say, OK, we don’t need democracy, and then say you’ll make a country great again by adopting some dictatorship practice or measures that have been adopted by totalitarian government because it’s more convenient and seemingly more efficient in settling social and economic conflicts? I think one irony in Chinese society is that because of the twisted re-interpretation and incomplete access to the facts, people read about a “chaotic” American election and the debates over the political issues, and draw a conclusion that democracy is too troublesome. While at the same time, people long for the freedoms fundamentally guaranteed by a democratic constitutionalism. I also met some radical leftist Americans in New York who are frustrated by the result of the recent election and hastily drew a conclusion that democracy is doomed. This is too cynical too. Don’t be naive and foolish, and say, OK, we don’t need democracy, we only need bread and butter, not like this.
CI: Finally, given your past "restrictive" environment, how would you have covered the 2016 U.S. election? Do you think you could have been more objective than the American journalists?
Wu: I was working at the Initium Media, a Hong Kong digital media outlet with the server based outside mainland China. We work in a model that is free of self-censorship. However, the Great Firewall blocks almost all the overseas news websites and the most popular social media services, including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post, you name it. It's technically extremely challenging for Chinese internet users to acquire firsthand information about the American election in real time. Reading the original stories published in foreign languages by American media, or in Chinese by the Hong Kong and Taiwan media, is culturally and technically difficult. You will find, in addition to language barrier, the internet censorship makes it extremely hard for the majority of ordinary Chinese readers to draw a comprehensive picture about the 2016 American election in a neutral and balanced way. In mainland China, the official censors' and state-owned media urge journalists to behave objectively, yet they still censor the content that might jeopardize Sino-U.S. relations, or make the Chinese readers realize that democracy is good and people need the freedom to vote, which mainland Chinese do not have.
Journalists are eager to do objective reporting, and some of the leading organizations have sent correspondents to the United States to cover the campaigns and final election. Journalists are trying to give balanced angle, to explain the context and avoid sinking into partisan political arguments. But I observed the professional standard and collection of background information decided that only very few international journalists who are very familiar with American election and political process could give a more comprehensive and insightful coverage. Firsthand interviews are insufficient. The reporting is mainly based on analysis and reviews, translating and citing the American media content. Such citing can be partial, depending on whether you are quoting CNN or Fox News. There is also a danger that such citing and reinterpretation have to serve the political agenda decided by the state government propaganda line. Covering the American election, this issue can become very politically sensitive as the Chinese government has a complicated attitude toward both candidates and had an even more divided propaganda principle on media narrative and critics on Donald Trump as a president. There are official directives that Chinese media must be "cautious," must avoid criticizing Trump. And some publishing houses received instructions to temporarily ban books commenting on Trump. How the Chinese media covered the 2016 U.S. election is a tricky and huge issue, worthy of further discussion. It's not any less complicated than in the United States.