Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why Adoption Scandal Story Gained Traction in China

At MSNBC's Behind the Wall China blog, they explore the reporting about the confiscation of babies by family planning authorities in Gaoping; interesting information about how the story spread inside China and might answer some who think the whole thing was made up:
Yang's story has the hallmarks of a great tragedy, embodying many controversial issues that touch a raw nerve in China: local corruption, brutal enforcement of the one-child policy, the policy itself, child trafficking, and poverty.

And yet, despite stories by local journalists and a long feature printed in the Los Angeles Times two years ago, his story never seemed to catch on.

Then last week, the highly respected independent Chinese weekly news magazine, Caixin Century, ran a 15,000-word investigative report that featured Yang and several other families in Gaoping whose children suffered the same fate.

This time, the tale of baby-trafficking by corrupt family planning officials electrified China's media. Even the state-run newspapers covered the story, some reporting that an official investigation was underway.

Within a day of publication, teams of local and foreign journalists (including NBC News) began tramping into the lush, terraced hills of Longhui County, perhaps the poorest area in all in Hunan – which is already one of China's more impoverished provinces.

So why did the story suddenly capture the media's attention now?

An obvious reason is that Caixin has a sterling reputation for its investigative journalism. Furthermore, the report was richly detailed and well-researched, the product of four years' long work.

"A few years ago, the story was told very simply," said Shangguan Jiaoming, the Caixin reporter behind the Hunan story. "My report includes a lot of detail and analysis."

Moreover, Caixin is homegrown, i.e., its reporting is done by Chinese in Chinese.

"It really shows that however much foreign correspondents report on China, unless a story gets picked up by domestic media here, there isn’t much...we can do to improve the lives of people here that we interview,” said Melissa Chan, the Beijing correspondent for al-Jazeera English. (Just as it does in the Middle East, al-Jazeera has a reputation in China for moving quickly and aggressively to cover politically sensitive stories. Chan's report can be seen here.)

Another reason is the growing popularity of microblogs like's Weibo or Twitter. Although the latter is blocked in China, it can be accessed via virtual private networks (VPNs) that bypass the firewall – a tool widely used by the same crop of intellectual and professional Chinese elites who comprise Caixin's readership.

Through microblogs, news of the Caixin report spread like wildfire. As with many stories of this nature, anything that survives Internet censors for even a few hours can gain traction and reach readers across the country.

But there's another reason – one which might seem a bit surprising given the repressive trend of cracking down on dissidents, activists, and media (especially foreign) in China during recent months: good old-fashioned market competition.
 Though there are no new details about the underlying scandal, I found the reporting about the reporting fascinating (maybe because the only career other than lawyer/law professor I could ever imagine for myself is journalist?!).

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