The editor of China's most influential financial muckraking journal, Hu Shuli, has resigned. For several months, Hu had been under pressure to tone down the aggressive, investigative tone of the magazine from Caijing's business partners, who in turn had come under pressure from government officials. Hu will assume a new post as dean of Sun Yat-sen University's School of Communication and Design, and is expected to launch another editorial venture, likely involving several of her top editorial staffers, who quit alongside their editor-in-chief.
More details will surely come out in the coming days, but already one thing the incident shed light on is how censorship works in China. To western audiences, when we hear about "state-run media," we are accustomed to envisioning a censor with a red-pen, a list of forbidden topics, and an army of automaton scribes marching out to do the state's bidding.
In fact, the reality is much more subtle, and pernicious. There are indeed directives sent from the central propaganda office to the editors of major news outlets in China detailing forbidden topics. But aside from this high level communication, most censorship actually happens internally -- Chinese journalists, who by and large are bright and inquisitive (and drawn to journalism for the same reasons as western journalists: curiosity about the world, desire to travel, etc) work within the system and gradually learn the boundaries of what can and can't be said.
Official politics, for instance, are off-limits, as are details about the personal lives of political leaders. A friend who edits the Beijing-based Environmental Protection Journal once complained to me that he was struggling to make climate change interesting, and lamented that he couldn't tally and lampoon Hu Jintao's carbon footprint, as American publications have done for Al Gore. (Also off limits are any details about Hu Jintao's hair dye, which a reporter at Beijing Youth Daily classified, only half-jokingly, as "deepest state secret.")
What makes Hu Shuli so unique is that she's operated effectively within this system, without ever internalizing it. She has spent time studying and working abroad, not uncommon among Chinese journalists, but never accepted that the rules must be entirely different in China. Caijing has not been directly dependent on state-funding, also relatively rare in China, because Hu went out and secured independent financial backers who, until recently, allowed her greater editorial space.
Now this delicate balancing act has fallen apart, as Hu's departure indicates. It's also telling of how Chinese bureaucracy and censorship works that she wasn't fired. There were no high-profile stories that inflamed the government into a high-profile response and rebuttal. Instead, the end of Hu's tenure at Caijing has been brought about in subtler ways, through pressure exerted by middle-managers raising complaints about whether certain editorial content will turn off readers or advertisers, always tip-toeing around the real issue at hand.
This, too, is typical. When activists or trouble-makers, from the official point of view, face censure in China, they are usually presented with relatively benign-sounding charges. Xu Zhiyong, the pioneering rights lawyer in China and founder of Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative), was held in detention earlier this year after being charged with tax irregularities. Environmentalists in Beijing who come under scrutiny have been cited for failing to obtain the proper motorcycle licenses. In other words, small alleged sins (and the chaos of daily life in China means almost everyone has something on their record) are suddenly discovered and pounced upon by authorities when an individual begins to be seen by the government as too troublesome.
We don't know the full details of what's happened behind the scenes at Caijing. Likely we will know more in the coming days, though Hu, as a smart, savvy operator, probably won't fully spill the beans,
But I am reminded, sadly, of the fate of another, much smaller, but also innovative publication in China that met an unhappy end two years ago. ChinaDevelopmentBrief.comwas a bi-lingual Chinese and English web site founded by a Brit, Nick Young, and employing several Chinese reporters, that examined a variety of development and environmental issues facing China. The staff was smart and sometimes cutting-edge in its analysis, but always extremely cautious not to finger-point or inflame the authorities.
Still, as environmental topics became hotter in China, and the site's traffic grew, it was perceived as a threat. (Being run by a foreigner was also a liability.) Young, who is no longer in China, left an accountof how the house of cards fell, which is painful, haunting reading for the mundaneness of the charges: "On July 4  our Beijing office was visited by a joint delegation of a dozen officials from the Beijing Municipality Public Security Bureau, the Beijing Municipality Statistical Bureau, and the Beijing Municipality Cultural Marketing General Legal Implementation Team ... I, as editor of the English language edition of China Development Brief, am deemed guilty of conducting "unauthorized surveys" in contravention of the 1983 Statistics Law."
The other telling detail of Young's account was this: "After investigations and interviews lasting around three hours, they ordered the Chinese edition of China Development Brief to cease publication forthwith. The authorities are now deciding what punishment to apply. It appears that initially they were considering a relatively modest fine." In the end, the publication was permanently banned, and Young's visa revoked. But that wasn't a foregone conclusion.
There can be an extraordinary arbitrariness to how rules, including rules pertaining to media, are enforced in China. That's easy to miss if, from the outside, one has the impression of the PRC as an efficient police station. If you've lived in Beijing, you quickly realize that it's anything but.
And so, with regards to Hu Shuli and her new venture, it's clear that everyone -- muckraking scribes and wary officials alike -- are improvising their roles, and circumspect about what comes next. There isn't a firm policy, or clear marching orders. If this was China of 40 years ago, Hu might have been jailed, or exiled, or worse. But today, China's government is trying to control and curb the influence of independent voices like Hu Shuli in a more circuitous and at times uncertain way, with the final outcome -- what degree of editorial freedom Hu will have in her next incarnation -- still unwritten.