When Hu Shuli found her country lacking a “real, open media”, the fearless journalist defied naysayers and created her own platforms. Through her Greatness of Spirit and strong belief that “good journalism can safeguard interests and foster changes of rules”, Hu became the moving spirit of a world-class, independent media organization in China.
During a 1994 fellowship at the Stanford University in the United States, Hu Shuli was discouraged by one of her professors from returning to China because Chinese journalism would never be part of mainstream international journalism. Hu did not heed her professor’s advice. She returned home and proceeded to turn the warning from threat into opportunity.
One could well say that journalism is in Hu’s genetic makeup. Two generations earlier, her grandfather was an editor of a Shanghai newspaper while a grand uncle was a publisher and the deputy minister of culture before the Cultural Revolution.
In turn, her mother was a senior editor of Workers’ Daily in Beijing; Hu started her journalistic career working for the same publication. Her family fell from grace during the Cultural Revolution but Hu stayed in the stream of events. She
joined the Red Guards and later the People’s Liberation Army and graduated from Beijing’s People’s University.
When she was thirty-four years old, in 1987, her five-month stint as a fellow of the World Press Institute gave her a taste of Western media. The experience was compelling enough for her to publish the first book introducing the operations of professional journalism to her country. This was just the beginning.
Eleven years later, in 1998, four years after her Stanford University fellowship, she expanded her platform to Caijing, a finance and business magazine where she was founding editor. It was a time when, in her words, China had no “real, open media,” and when the “thirst for the truth” could be felt palpably throughout China’s middle class. Her magazine responded with journalism that had truth telling at its core because “the power of truth is more powerful than anything else.”
By 2009, she needed an even broader platform: Hu and 140 reporters left Caijing to form Caixin Media Company Limited, a Beijing-based media organization dedicated to providing financial and business news and information through periodicals, online content, mobile apps, conferences, books and TV/video programs. She continues to head the company as editor-in chief.
Throughout her life, the sixty-one year old Hu has stayed true to her code as journalist. Hu says that she “became a journalist and wrote stories about fraudulent transactions of state-owned companies and challenged unwise policies through solid investigation, standards and skills, perspective and vision, and fair presentation.”
She does not tolerate mistakes and declares that journalists have to be 200 percent sure not only of their sources but also of the documents they gather for any given report. “Revealing the truth to the public requires layers of checking and multiple source verification. Good journalism can safeguard interests and foster changes of rules.”
She talks of the trust the journalist has to work for. The journalist’s mission is to be a critical thinker, promote rational discussion, and do solid investigation. Only then, does the journalist merit the “hard-earned right to report.”
Hu’s commitment to “only independent and truthful reports” is particularly challenging in China, her country of birth and of practice. It is a country with a population of 1.3 billion, a gross domestic product that is set to double itself from 2010 to 2020 and a changing view of itself.
In a 2013 interview, Hu explained that ever since the Opium War (1840-1842), the Chinese people have thought of their country as large but also poor, weak, and lagging in development. But things changed after the global financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, especially when China achieved the status of the world’s second-largest economy. The Chinese no longer consider themselves poor but are still in the process of developing a common value system about where they want to go.
Hu believes that China will not have stable growth unless it overcomes the various contradictions it has accumulated over the years. Among these are increasing disputes between residents and local governments, pollution, economic disparity and the suffering of people, corruption, monopolies of state-run companies, disregard for energy conservation, and distorted price mechanisms.
As a journalist and as the moving spirit of a world-class, independent media organization in China, she has spent her life to help address these contradictions, earning for herself the title of “the most dangerous woman in China.” Both at Caijing magazine and at Caixin Media, she has spearheaded courageous investigative reports, despite the country’s strict censorship regime, directed towards reform. Genuine reform, in her mind, inflicts pain, but is needed to bring about a sense of fairness through the rule of law.
Caijing magazine’s expose on the fraudulent practices to manipulate the share price of a well-known, publicly listed company resulted in the firing of the company’s management, the first such incident on mainland China. Other reports covered illegal trading practices in the Shanghai Stock Exchange and falsification of profits of Yingguangxia, one of the largest Chinese companies.
When magazine reporters found out that no domestic newspapers carried news on the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China that was already being documented on the English website of the World Health Organization, they went out to investigate. Soon, Caijing was running stories on how Beijing municipal authorities were covering up information regarding SARS by telling hospitals to keep the matter a secret. The anomalous privatization of the huge, state-owned Luneng conglomerate did not escape the scrutiny of the magazine.
Caixin Media is continuing the tradition. In 2011, it brought to light how local officials in Hunan Province profited by forcibly removing babies from the homes of rural families who were too poor to pay for the exorbitant fees for permission to give birth. These babies were then sent by the local officials to orphanages so they could share in profits made when these babies were adopted overseas. Its other areas of investigation include problems associated with state-run companies, as well as rice tainted with cadmium.
Hu is not daunted by the challenges faced by journalism in China. She explains that journalists in her country “are always looking for the opportunity even amid state management, control, and pressure “ because they would not be able to do anything if they decided not to do any work until perfect conditions are in place. She inspires journalists through her work as one of them and also as dean of Sun Yat-Sen University’s School of Communication and Design where she conducts training programs for journalists.
In a lecture she gave at Sha Tin University in 2012, Hu likened the role of media to a woodpecker that pecks at a tree so that it can grow more healthy. She says, “The role that we journalists have to play is very large because China does not have elections and there are so many restrictions.” The woodpecker pecking at a tree has led to the ousting of high public officials, the prosecution of corporate leaders, and stock market reforms.
In China, because of Hu Shuli, the woodpecker pecking at a tree has earned its place in nation building through independent, well-researched reports grounded in truth.