In China, the Bad News for Reporters Gets Worse

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WANG ZHAO / AFP / Getty Images

A copy of Caijing magazine, left, at a Beijing newspaper stall on Nov. 10, 2009

When the man on the Beijing street sprayed something that smelled like ether onto his face, Fang Shimin had a pretty good idea what would come next. So he ran. Another man began chasing him with a metal hammer. The assailant swung and missed, then threw the hammer at Fang as he fled, grazing him on the back. Fang kept running and escaped the Aug. 29 attack with minor injuries.

Fang is a freelance journalist who has come to be known in China as the "science cop," specializing in exposing plagiarism, dodgy scientific claims and fraudulent résumés of prominent figures. He has recently felt his work would eventually cause one of his subjects to lash out. "I think the hit men were hired by someone whose fraud had been exposed by me," he says by e-mail. "I've received threatening phone calls and e-mails, and was followed and threatened before."

China has long been an unfriendly place for journalists. Publications face stringent government censorship, and reporters and editors who push the boundaries can be demoted or sacked. The nation leads the world in jailing journalists for their work, with 24 in prison last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And it ranks near the bottom of the annual index of press freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based advocacy group. (Last year it was placed 168th out of 175 countries and territories.)

But two attacks on journalists in Beijing this summer serve as a reminder that the threats to the press can extend beyond censorship to outright violence. Two months before Fang Shimin was chased down the street, Fang Xuanchang, an editor at Caijing magazine, was struck repeatedly by two men wielding metal bars while walking near his house on June 24. He sustained a long gash to the back of his head that had to be stitched at a local hospital.

Fang Shimin says he thought both attacks were related to the men's work. After Fang Xuanchang was attacked, "it was apparent that I would be the next target," Fang Shimin says. The two men are acquaintances and sometime collaborators. Scientific charlatanry is one of their main interests, and the Wild West nature of China's booming economy has given them no shortage of material. Beginning with his time at Chinese publications Science News and China Newsweek, Fang Xuanchang had exposed multiple quack doctors who promoted dubious cures for everything from cancer to incontinence.

Fang Shimin, who writes under the pen name Fang Zhouzi, grew up in coastal Fujian province and studied biology, receiving a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Michigan State University in 1995. He created his New Threads blog as a grad student, originally to focus on literature and creative writing. When he returned to China in the late 1990s, Fang says he was shocked by the popularity of "pseudo sciences and superstitions." He eventually changed the subject of his blog to combat the trend and promote science. "In an ideal world, some more formal and organized watchdogs ... professional organizations or a governmental agency would be in place," he says. "But China does not have these, so individual watchdogs become essential."

Recently, Fang Shimin has questioned the résumé of Tang Jun, CEO of the conglomerate New Huadu Industrial Group, which stated that Tang graduated from the prestigious California Institute of Technology. Tang later said that claim had been promoted by others, and he had in fact received a Ph.D. from the Pacific Western University. But Fang investigated further and noted that school was an unaccredited institution that the U.S. Government Accountability Office called a diploma mill. Just before he was attacked, Fang Shimin had done a television interview on the case of Li Yi, a popular Taoist master who claimed to have supernatural powers that were later found to have been faked. Li was investigated for allegedly raping a former student, though police say those charges are unfounded.

Li Datong, former editor of Freezing Point, a groundbreaking supplement to the China Youth Daily newspaper, says that journalists like Fang Shimin, a.k.a. Fang Zhouzi, are "hard to come by in Chinese society." Aside from the pressures of censorship, low-paid Chinese journalists are often tempted by "red packets" — cash payments from businesspeople and officials meant to buy positive coverage. That leaves a lot of opportunity — and responsibility — for journalists like Fang who are willing to confront vested interests. "Fang Zhouzi touches upon power and business and the officials who support those businesses, because with any business, behind it there are officials in support," says Li. "So it's a matter of facing up to power. Chinese media, generally speaking, don't do a good job of this."

Facing up to power brings risk. Beijing police are investigating both journalists' attacks, but so far have made no arrests. The unresolved cases contribute to a climate of fear facing investigative journalists and whistle-blowers. "I will continue what I am doing," says Fang Shimin. "And of course I will take some security measures." But for other Chinese journalists facing similar risks pursuing a sensitive story, the best security measure, unfortunately, might be to ignore it.