Fleeing Xi’s China, journalist makes fresh start abroad

Oct 19, 2022, 9:06 PM | Updated: Oct 20, 2022, 8:06 pm
Wang Zhi'an speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. Chinese ...

Wang Zhi'an speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. Chinese investigative journalist Wang once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice for state broadcaster CCTV. Today, he's in exile in Japan, and starting again as an independent journalist on YouTube. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

(AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

BEIJING (AP) — Investigative journalist Wang Zhi’an once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice in China, with millions of viewers and a powerful platform: state broadcaster CCTV.

Wang now lives alone in central Tokyo after being blacklisted in his homeland. His journey from on-air personality at the heart of China’s vast state media apparatus to reporter in exile illustrates how even government-backed critical reporting has been curtailed under Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong.

Unlike many muckrakers, Wang hasn’t given up. Deep in debt and armed with little more than a laptop, a tripod, and a camera borrowed from a friend, Wang is back in business — this time on YouTube and Twitter, both banned in China.

“Here I can tell the truth, and nobody will restrict me anymore,” Wang said, sitting in his Tokyo studio, a living room in his modest three-story walk-up.

Thousands of delegates are congregating in Beijing this week to reaffirm Xi as leader of the ruling Communist Party for a third term, at the country’s most important political meeting in a decade. Fearing arrest, Wang said he won’t return until Xi is out of power.

“He demands absolute obedience,” Wang said. “The media has become like the army: a tool that pledges unconditional allegiance to the party.”

Under Xi, China’s once feisty reporters have fallen in line. The Communist Party’s propaganda arm has taken direct control of agencies managing newspapers, broadcasters, and radio stations. A powerful new agency has silenced critical voices on the internet, creating a vast censorship apparatus powered by thousands of censors.

Privately, many Chinese journalists say Xi has quashed independent reporting. Publicly, they stay silent. Xi’s very name is mouthed carefully, in scripted lines, whispers or pseudonyms.

“The change these past 10 years has been dramatic,” said Zhan Jiang, a retired professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Wang never imagined a life outside China. A native of mountainous Shaanxi province, Wang joined CCTV in 1998 after obtaining a master’s in history.

At the time, Chinese media was on the cusp of what Wang calls a “golden age.” Investigative journalism flourished under then-leader Jiang Zemin, who talked Tibet and Taiwan with Western journalists, and Zhu Rongji, a tough, reform-minded premier who battled corruption.

It nurtured hopes of reform in China’s one-party state — more like Singapore than the former Soviet Union, with some space for free discussion.

“Just because China is under the leadership of the Communist Party doesn’t mean it can’t have an active media,” said Zhan, the retired professor.

At CCTV, Wang was first a producer, then commentator, before he moved to investigations in 2011.

There, he developed a reputation as a tough, experienced journalist, two former CCTV employees said, though they added his critical tendencies could make him difficult to work with. They declined to be named to speak candidly about Wang.

Soon after, Xi took power in 2012. At first, Wang looked forward to the new leadership. With the country’s economic boom, officials raked in millions in brazen backdoor deals, their sons and daughters flashing Rolexes and racing Ferraris across Beijing’s flyovers.

Xi promised to change all that, vowing to crush corruption. He visited a humble bun shop, portraying himself as a man of the people.

The crackdown came. Banquets were banned, red carpets rolled up, and thousands of officials arrested.

But as Xi consolidated power, signs of trouble started emerging at CCTV. Controls tightened. One by one, top reporters trickled out.

Then, in 2016, Xi visited CCTV and other state media.

“Party media should be surnamed the party,” he declared, urging loyalty to the Communist Party above all else.

“We knew then there would be earth-shattering changes,” Wang said.

Though Xi was combating corruption, instead of wielding transparency and the rule of law, Xi empowered a secretive organ of the party to detain officials instead.

“Xi doesn’t think the media should be a watchdog,” Wang said. “He thinks they just need to be propaganda organs.”

The final straw, he said, was when an investigation he worked on for months was killed.

It was an expose of Beijing’s ambulance dispatch system. Through backdoor connections, Wang found, an official had set up a parallel network that whisked patients to a second-rate clinic in Beijing’s far north, generating revenue for hospital management but causing life-threatening delays.

But days before Wang’s story went to air, the party’s Central Propaganda Department said it was canning the story. Infuriated, Wang stopped coming to work, then resigned.

It wasn’t just CCTV. Across China, thousands of journalists quit the industry.

At Caixin, a respected financial magazine, the politically connected editor-in-chief stepped aside. At the Beijing Daily News, a tabloid with a rebellious streak, the publisher stepped down and was later detained. At Southern Weekly, a revered liberal broadsheet, propaganda officials tangled with reporters.

Wang tried to continue. He switched outlets, hosting an interview show online that garnered tens of millions of views. But in June 2019, Wang’s social media accounts were suddenly deleted, depriving him of millions of followers.

Overnight, Wang was politically toxic. His new outlet, once eager to capitalize on his star power, backed out of renewing his contract.

For a couple of years, Wang mulled what to do. The pandemic left him stranded during a visit to Japan, and when he returned to Beijing late last year, he heard he wouldn’t be able to work in media again. If he wanted to stay in China, Wang realized, he’d have to quit the job he loved.

Wang made his choice: He bought a one-way ticket back to Japan.

“I can’t go on in China,” Wang said. “If I became a public relations director, it’d be a betrayal of my career.”

Now, Wang is teaching himself Japanese. He has learned how to edit video on his own and operate on a shoestring budget.

Since he started broadcasting in May, he has attracted many viewers, with nearly half a million followers on Twitter and 400,000 subscribers on YouTube. Though both are banned in China, Wang hopes his reports will trickle over China’s Great Firewall and into the country.

His aim, Wang said, is fact-based news for mainland Chinese, one that stands apart from conspiracy-laden competitors driven by hatred of the government.

“Nobody believes a serious Chinese outlet can be established overseas,” he said. “But I want to give it a try. I think it’s very important for the whole Chinese-speaking world.”

In July, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring a crew and flying to Ukraine. Wang said he wanted to bring frontline reporting to a Chinese audience – pointing out that only one channel viewable in mainland China sent reporters to the war.

The result, he said, was that China’s coverage of the war was saturated with Russian misinformation.

“Such a large country with only one source of information on such a huge event,” Wang said. “That’s very sad.”

Wang has plenty of detractors. Nationalists brand Wang a “traitor” online, questioning why he lives in Japan and accusing him of peddling “anti-China” content. On the other extreme, anti-Beijing activists suspect Wang’s motives, pointing out he spent decades inside state media toeing the party line.

Zhang Dongshuo, a lawyer in Beijing, said he appreciates Wang’s channel, tuning in occasionally to get news unavailable on state media. But Zhang added that Wang’s lack of access has made his reports duller, and the difficulties of scaling China’s firewall has shrunk his audience.

“It’s going to be tough,” Zhang said. “He’s in an awkward situation.”

Still, outside of Xi’s China, Wang hopes there’s space for someone like him. He narrates the news, talking China’s “zero-COVID” policy and the recent party congress, peppered with observations drawn on his experience inside the system.

At times, he cuts in with commentary.

“We’ll have to wait till the day journalists can truly express themselves freely,” Wang said, signing off on a recent broadcast. “I hope that day comes soon.”

___

Associated Press journalist Haruka Nuga in Tokyo contributed to this story.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


              Wang Zhi'an checks his website during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. Chinese investigative journalist Wang once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice for state broadcaster CCTV. Today, he's in exile in Japan, and starting again as an independent journalist on YouTube. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
            
              Wang Zhi'an checks his website during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. Chinese investigative journalist Wang once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice for state broadcaster CCTV. Today, he's in exile in Japan, and starting again as an independent journalist on YouTube. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
            
              Wang Zhi'an checks his website during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. Chinese investigative journalist Wang once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice for state broadcaster CCTV. Today, he's in exile in Japan, and starting again as an independent journalist on YouTube. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
            
              Wang Zhi'an checks his website during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. Chinese investigative journalist Wang once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice for state broadcaster CCTV. Today, he's in exile in Japan, and starting again as an independent journalist on YouTube. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
            
              Wang Zhi'an speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. Chinese investigative journalist Wang once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice for state broadcaster CCTV. Today, he's in exile in Japan, and starting again as an independent journalist on YouTube. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
            
              Wang Zhi'an speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. Chinese investigative journalist Wang once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice for state broadcaster CCTV. Today, he's in exile in Japan, and starting again as an independent journalist on YouTube. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
            
              Wang Zhi'an speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. Chinese investigative journalist Wang once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice for state broadcaster CCTV. Today, he's in exile in Japan, and starting again as an independent journalist on YouTube. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
            
              Wang Zhi'an speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. Chinese investigative journalist Wang once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice for state broadcaster CCTV. Today, he's in exile in Japan, and starting again as an independent journalist on YouTube. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
            Wang Zhi'an speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Tokyo on Oct. 5, 2022. Chinese investigative journalist Wang once exposed corruption, land seizures, and medical malpractice for state broadcaster CCTV. Today, he's in exile in Japan, and starting again as an independent journalist on YouTube. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

AP

Associated Press

NFL, DAZN sign agreement for Game Pass International package

NEW YORK (AP) — The NFL has signed a 10-year agreement with DAZN Group to deliver the Game Pass International service to fans outside the United States beginning with the 2023 season, it was announced Tuesday. Game Pass International will be offered in more than 200 countries and regions, including Canada and Mexico. It will […]
9 hours ago
FILE - The logo of German car manufacturer BMW is fixed at the headquarters in Munich, Germany, May...
Associated Press

German court rejects climate lawsuit against automaker BMW

BERLIN (AP) — A German court on Tuesday rejected a lawsuit by environmental campaigners seeking to force automaker BMW to stop selling vehicles with combustion engine by 2030. The group Environmental Action Germany, also known by its German acronym DUH, argued that manufacturers such as BMW pose a threat to people’s right to property, health […]
9 hours ago
A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled de...
Associated Press

Residents kept out as air checked near derailed Ohio train

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP) — It’s unclear when evacuated residents might be able to return home to the area where officials released and burned toxic chemicals from the wreckage of a derailed train, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday. Residents near the site in East Palestine, close to the Pennsylvania line, were ordered beforehand to […]
9 hours ago
This image provided by Catalina María Gomez Caycedo shows Aleena Rupani, from left, Catalina Marí...
Associated Press

Gallup: Just 2 in 10 U.S. employees have work `best friend’

NEW YORK (AP) — Crystal Powers began a new job remotely in February 2022 as a medical records supervisor. She has yet to meet two of the five people who report to her in person and has found it challenging to bond with her fellow managers online. “I was used to that face-to-face of going […]
9 hours ago
FILE - Protesters hold signs as they march during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chica...
Associated Press

How Candid hopes diversity data will help aid racial equity

Candid, the major philanthropy research group, is leading a coalition of funders and grantees that want to standardize the collection of demographic information to help target donations to minority-led groups. Harnessing such data could help advance racial equity, said Candid’s CEO, Ann Mei Chang, who is launching a nonprofit initiative to amass more such information. […]
9 hours ago
Associated Press

Bertelsmann subsidiary to end, sell dozens of magazines

BERLIN (AP) — German media group RTL Deutschland said Tuesday it will stop publishing 23 print magazines and seek to sell almost two dozen others, affecting about 700 jobs. The company is part of Bertelsmann, the German conglomerate that also owns Penguin Random House. RTL Deutschland said it wants to focus on core brands that […]
9 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Company looking for oldest air conditioner and wants to reward homeowner with new one

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.
...
Quantum Fiber

How high-speed fiber internet edges out cable for everyday use

In a world where technology drives so much of our daily lives, a lack of high-speed internet can be a major issue.
...
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
Fleeing Xi’s China, journalist makes fresh start abroad