China’s investigative reporters face harassment and worse

Fang Xuanchang is a gunslinger in the chaotic Wild West of journalism. And China has it all, from blackmailers posing as media types to legitimate reporters taking kickbacks not to go to print.

Then there’s Fang, an investigative reporter who specializes in medical fraud: unscrupulous doctors promoting miracle cures and quack scientists who fabricate research results for bureaucratic kudos.

In a secretive and often paranoid culture where muckrakers are viewed as dangerous busybodies, Fang has been harassed by authorities and threatened with lawsuits and jail time. These days he considers himself lucky to be alive.

In June, as Fang was arriving home from work, he was set upon by two well-built men wielding lead pipes. It was a professional job, he says. They ambushed him from behind in a shadowy area near his apartment complex, a spot unseen by surveillance cameras.

The assailants worked efficiently, silently flailing away at his head and upper body, unconcerned by bystanders.

“They tried to kill me,” said Fang, an editor at Caijing magazine.

Fang, a slight but physically fit 37-year-old who knows martial arts, fought his way into a taxi, his clothes soaked with, blood. His attackers vanished.

Police have yet to make any arrests, but Fang thinks the men must have been hired by one of the doctors exposed by his stories.

He has reason to be suspicious. Since 1992, three Chinese journalists have been killed on the job, far fewer than in Russia and the Philippines, where scores have died, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, but still, activists say, China is no place for the squeamish.

Although statistics on attacks on journalists are scarce here, a December survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists showed that 24 Chinese journalists were in prison, including several Internet bloggers.

“For journalists who embarrass local government or otherwise powerful people, China is a very dangerous place,” said Gilles Lordet, chief editor of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

In a nation where most news media are heavily controlled by the state, reports critical of the government vanish from the Internet and newsstands. Under a new law, journalists based in metropolitan areas are forbidden to independently report on national or international stories and cannot modify information provided by the Communist Party’s propaganda department.

Free-speech activists have lodged protests over government actions against journalists, including one who was briefly placed on a most-wanted list for his negative story about a major battery manufacturer and another who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “threatening national security.”

Fang’s case suggests another adversary: vindictive story subjects who hire thugs to exact revenge.

The Hangzhou native has pursued academic fraud, exposing research plagiarists and others who fake professional awards and credentials. He’s also shed light on the pressure bureaucrats exert on researchers to produce fraudulent results.

The government acknowledges that the field is rife with corruption. One state-sponsored study found that among 6,000 scientists at top institutions, a third admitted committing “plagiarism, falsification or fabrication.”

Worse, Fang says, are the doctors who play the role of magic healer to an undereducated public. “They produce false hope in patients willing to pay anything and believe everything,” he said. “In the end, there’s no cure, only financial ruin.”

Fang recently investigated a doctor who claimed he could cure a rare spinal cord condition that leaves patients without bowel control. His procedure takes a nerve from the patient’s leg and moves it to the spinal cord. Fang showed that the operation not only offered no cure, but was dangerous.

“The doctor boasted an 80% success rate with 100 patients,” Fang said, “but none of 70 people we contacted said they were helped. A third said they had lost use of their leg.”

The physician is now the target of numerous lawsuits.

The men who attacked Fang left a 2-inch gash in his skull that took five stitches to close. The incident prompted a brief editorial in the state-run press urging that reporters not be harmed.

Fang calls such criminal attacks worse than party harassment.

“When you deal with the government, at least you know the rules,” he said. “But threats from gangs are different.”

Undeterred, he’s at work on a new expose.

“As a journalist in China, you can’t obsess about attacks,” Fang said, “or you might as well quit.”