As could perhaps be expected, media outside China have leapt directly to speculation about the political factors behind Caijing’s troubles. Some have positioned this as yet another story about a media crackdown in China.
But things are not so simple.
Anyone who has observed the ups and downs of Chinese media over the past decade will recognize that Caijing’s troubles are very different in nature from explicit official moves in the past against such publications as Southern Weekend, Southern Metropolis Daily, and Freezing Point.
Based on what we know thus far, the Caijing affair arose primarily out of a row over ownership and interests between the editorial team led by Hu Shuli and the magazine’s bosses at the HK-listed SEEC Media, led by Wang Boming.
Beyond that, we are far from knowing the full story behind the upheaval at Caijing. But we can safely suppose – this is China, after all – that the story is a complicated knot of factors. It is about politics, yes. But it is also about profit, about dollars and cents. And further, it is about varying visions of how media reform in China should proceed.
The young reporter, who covers mostly politics for a Chinese magazine, said that one way to gauge how Hu’s resignation is being interpreted by the broader community of Chinese journalists is to consider the fact that when she resigned, she did not announce it to a large group of employees, but only to her deputies. Yet, as word spread, scores of other employees resigned as well. She did not call for an exodus, it seems, but the fact of her departure was enough to trigger it. I can’t vouch for the details, but, if true, it’s a measure not only of Hu’s personal following, but also of how much Chinese journalists aspire to do the kind of work she inspired.
“How is the resignation being interpreted in the West?” the reporter asked me. I said the audience that pays attention to this kind of thing is finite, but interested, and that people are concerned that it will set back progress toward professionalism and internationalization in the Chinese media. He agreed that it probably would. I’ve known him since he got out of college and watched him take on increasingly creative and challenging pieces. As we talked, he surprised me: “Who knows? Maybe in five years we’ll look back on this and it will have been for the better,” he said of Hu’s departure. “She could end up establishing a new magazine with the same standards and energy” and none of the baggage from so many years of tension with the executives who once had to run interference for her with the government. I told him that I had not expected him to see reason for optimism. He shrugged. “What choice do I have?”