IMC: Mainland Media No Monolith — Hu Shuli, the “most feared woman in China”

Hu Shuli, one of mainland China’s most influential journalists, rejected widely held Western perceptions that the Chinese media are a monolithic state-dominated institution.

Delivering the keynote speech at “Reporting New Realities in Asia and the Pacific” on April 27 and at a subsequent Q&A session, Hu presented a much more nuanced picture of her homeland’s media sector.

Hu was addressing the International Media Conference, co-sponsored by the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Center for Journalists and the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

Hu Shuli earned her nickname “the most feared woman in China” as editor-in-chief of the Beijing-based Caijing magazine. She led critical investigations into economic malfeasance in China, exposed a government cover-up of the SARS epidemic and reported shoddy building construction after the Sichuan earthquake.

“I don’t think the media in China now is still an instrument of the state,” she said. “The media environment now is very diversified. You can’t take the situation as if there is just one voice. Maybe 30 years ago, but not right now.”

Director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, Professor Ying Chan said Hu became the “most discussed woman in China” when news of her pending resignation from Caijing began to circulate late last year.

The resignation prompted a mass exodus of staff from the widely respected business publication. Hu said 140 newsroom staff departed with her, including the chief editor, deputy editors, desk heads, all senior reporters and numerous business staff.

Hu declined to elaborate on specific reasons why she resigned from the magazine, citing a difference of opinion in the future development of the publication.

“Some Western media reports said our departure was a major setback for independent journalism in China, but it’s not true,” she said. “We are back. We chose to leave because we wanted to continue what we had done. Not because we wanted to give up.”

During her luncheon speech, Hu discussed the history of Caijing, her new projects, and the challenges facing Chinese media in the global transition away from traditional media market models.

She shared a personal anecdote that placed her career within a seemingly optimistic momentum in Chinese media.

Hu was a Knight Fellow in the 1990s at Stanford University. She told a favourite professor that she wanted to continue her career in the mainland. He warned that, “Chinese journalists will never be part of the mainstream.”

Hu proved otherwise with Caijing. She established the magazine in 1998. It received widespread acclaim within three years, she said. By 2009, the magazine had become one of the mainland’s most reputable sources for journalism with an enviable balance sheet.

“On the business side, it was the number one in terms of ad revenues and probably one of the most profitable magazines in China,” she said.

She joined her new company, Caixin Media, in December 2009 and began publishing Century Weekly in January 2010. She is now involved in numerous other media ventures: caing.com, the monthly China Reform, and she is developing multimedia products for iPhone and Kindle. She also joined the faculty of Guangdong-based Sun Yat-sen University as Dean of the School of Communication and Design.

Caijing’s success in the past decade parallels with the development of professional journalism in China,” she said. “In those 10 years, we grew rapidly and the Chinese newspaper people and the media industry as a whole grew as well. The dynamics were particularly exciting in the finance sector and our market-oriented audience.”

Hu said factors that supported the changing media landscape included a “rapid opening up” and the Internet. Now, she said social networking and new technology had transformed traditional media to such an extent that “it may be necessary to redefine professional journalists.”

However, Hu emphasized that a foundation of good journalistic ethics remains equally important in today’s media industry. This ethical concern prompted Hu to establish an independent advisory board for her new publications.

Relating to questions about her business model, Hu explained that her media income remains based on the traditional advertising model. She said the mainland advertising market is still booming in contrast to Western media ad revenue.

She acknowledged that the advertising market might not remain indefinitely robust in China. Caixin Media is exploring new electronic revenue models. “I hope we find it before too late,” she said.

During the bilingual press conference, Hu took questions in English and Chinese. Professor Chan occasionally provided spot translation for the non-Chinese speaking members of the audience.

Edited by Jonathan Sharp