Farewell to My “Reporter” Career

For many years, blogger Shiniankancai (十年砍柴) has been quite well known for his sharp and sometimes cynical critiques of China’s political institutions and policies. Few knew his real name, and the only detail he provided about his identity was that he worked as a reporter at a national newspaper in Beijing. On October 18, he published the following post on his blog, excerpts translated by CDT’s Linjun Fan:

When I go to the Personnel Department to return my journalist pass, a colleague there tears off my photo from the pass and gives it to me, saying “You might want to take it to keep a memory.” I was 28 when the photo was taken. I looked lean but spirited at that time. Now my eyes fill with tears while looking at the photo. I thought that I wouldn’t be sentimental. But I am. I have given away nearly ten years of my life in this place, like throwing a stone into a bottomless well.

I drive out of the gate of my workplace carrying two paper boxes. Packed inside them are things left after my journalism career: several thousand photos, dozens of notebooks, piles of files from press conferences, and a number of colorful award certificates. An armed police officer stands like a statue at the gate, as he always does. There have been many times that I had to deal with him and his colleagues when I forgot to carry my pass.

I can’t put together clearly the reasons why I want to end my journalism career now. I got weary of the job several years ago, but it was at the beginning of the year that I made up my mind to quit it. Although I carried a journalist pass around, and I was received as a reporter on numerous occasions, I was hardly given a chance to fulfill my duty as a journalist…When I am unable to truthfully document what is happening, when I don’t have freedom of expression, how is it possible for me to be a real journalist? I was doing the job just to make a living. To such a “journalism” career, it’s time to say goodbye.

My first reporting trip was to cover a meeting hosted by the Headquarters of the Armed Police in Xi’an City. There was hardly anything newsworthy to write about. The same old statements were repeated again and again. I took notes carefully, since I was new to the business, but I couldn’t help wondering how I could write a story out of this boring meeting. Before the meeting was even finished, a propaganda officer of the Armed Police handed me a story, which he had written in advance of the meeting. I was told that I just need to make a few small changes to the article, put my byline on it, and send it to my editor for publishing.

Since they could have sent the story to my editor and get it published directly, why did they invite me to the meeting? I figured it out later: My presence could help to add pomp to the meeting, for I was a reporter from a national newspaper…

My work of covering the meeting was easy. After the meeting the host showed me around the ancient city, which was the capital of the nation during the Han and Tang dynasties. We toured all the well-known scenic and historical places.

There was one incident on the trip that left me with a lasting memory. When we went to visit a memorial park of Emperor Qinshihuang, the gate of the park was shut, with a woman and two kids in mourning clothes kneeling in front of it. A group of angry farmers stood behind them, shouting to people inside. Large characters were painted in lime on the wall of the park, reading “He who murders must be prosecuted.” I went to ask the farmers what had happened, and found out that the woman’s husband, who was a farmer in a village nearby, was beaten to death by police after he was arrested while peddling at the park. His family members and relatives were trying to seek justice by demonstrating in front of the park…The farmers might have figured out that I was a reporter when I asked them questions and took pictures. They all eagerly came to talk to me. But officials of the Armed Police accompanying me on the trip pulled my sleeve to get away from the farmers. They said, “You are not here to mind their business.” I had worked for the government as a civil servant so I knew some of its rules. I thought that I should show my respect to my host. And also, I didn’t know what kind of trouble it could bring to me if I wrote a story without my editor’s approval. So I sneaked out of the crowd.

Looking back on my first reporting trip, it had set a tone for my journalism career. It was not a reporting trip in its real sense. I didn’t do much reporting work. I was just playing a supporting role in a play directed by someone in the government. What I saw at the gate of the park has lingered in my mind like a shadow. Sometimes I try to console myself by thinking that I wouldn’t have been able to get the story published even if I had stayed at the gate and written a story about the farmers. However, on the other hand, I think I should have tried to write the story anyway, even if it may not have ended up being published in the paper.

Because my beat was government and politics, I often had to interview officials. And sometimes I took pictures with them out of vanity. Many reporters of state-owned papers love to do this. They seem to believe that appearing in a photo together with an official could give them some power. The officials in my photos looked captivating, but many of them have ended their political career since then.

Once I met a department director of the National Drug Supervision Bureau when I was writing a story on a campaign against fake medical equipment in Jiangxi. We spent a week working together. He was low-key, accessible, and possessed of an intellectual temperament. We talked on the phone a few times after we returned Beijing, but then lost touch. The last time I saw him was when he showed up on TV after his conviction for corruption. His hair had turned all white and his face was full of weariness. I couldn’t help but sigh.

I was very excited the first time I was selected to cover the meeting of the National People’s Congress. I felt that I was witnessing a significant part of history. During that time a colleague introduced me to a director of the propaganda department of a city in Heilongjiang province. Later I was invited to interview the Party Secretary of the city, who eloquently talked about the development plans for his city. That was the first time I started to doubt the political institution of people’s representatives, whose purpose is to supervise administrative and judicial departments. When an official is elected as a people’s representative, how is he able to conduct supervision on himself? The next time I heard about this official, he was dismissed from his position for bribery.

After playing the role of “trumpeter” for a few years, I figured out a useful rule: Among the assigned tasks of writing positively about the government, some are safe and others are risky— it’s safe to praise the top leadership or the government in general; it’s also safe to write about the grassroots of the government machine, such as a police officer, a rank-and-file soldier, or a low-level cadre. But it’s risky to write about department or deputy-ministerial level officials. They might be dismissed or jailed shortly after an article is published praising their brilliant achievements.

At another session of the National People’s Congress, Mr. Ding, Attorney-General of Jiangxi Province, contacted my paper and asked us to write a profile story on him. One of our reporters wrote a glowing story about him. The draft was handed in to me, for I was working as an editor at that time. I suggested that my superiors not publish the article. My argument for not publishing the story was that a vice-ministerial-level official usually doesn’t rely on a good media story to get promoted. He often tries to remain low-key and inconspicuous to avoid jealousy. Why did this official volunteer to appear in a high-profile newspaper article? He must have sensed something worrying about his political career. Perhaps he figured that the relevant agencies would be cautious to bring him down if a national paper published a story praising him. I said that even if we decided to write a story about him, the story should focus on his ideas as a people’s representative, instead of glorifying his character. However, the article got published eventually, after the reporter used his connections with higher-level editors.

A few months later, the official, who had been in charge of anti-corruption tasks in his province, was arrested for taking bribes himself. Southern Weekend published a detailed investigative article on his case, quoting long paragraphs of blatant eulogy of him from my paper to illustrate the irony. I was ashamed of my paper when I read their article. Was it left with any dignity?

It was March 8, 1999 when I first stepped into the office compound of the paper. Winter jasmine was in blossom outside, their bright yellow petals bathing in golden sunlight, shining into my eyes. Now I am leaving on a bleak autumn day, with fallen leaves dancing around. Was it real that flowers were once blossoming here in the spring? Or was it just my illusion?

(You can click here to read more Chinese bloggers’ comments about Shiniankancai.)

UPDATE: read also another China blogger’s reaction to this piece: Of mayors, banquets and a temple that wasn’t.

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