Hu Shuli: China’s Elegant Muckraker
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because pulling off anything close to independent journalism in China is quite the feat.
Part of OZY’s occasional Know This Name series, on prominent leaders in business, sports, politics and other fields.
Few people scare China’s most powerful tycoons than the slim, elegant and delicate Hu Shuli, the journalist once known as the “most feared woman in China.”
It’s simple, on the surface: Hu has exposed more corporate greed and political corruption than just about anyone else in China. And then there are the accolades: the Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism; being named by Forbes as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world and by The Wall Street Journal as one of the “Ten Women to Watch” in Asia. “She is uncompromising in her values,” says David Bandurski, a writer and researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, where Hu was a fellow. Bandurski calls her “a chess master,” able to hop on a story and make fast, accurate work of it in a short window of time.
And yet, Hu (whom OZY has interviewed previously but who did not respond directly to requests for comment for this story) is not exactly the face most outsiders would imagine associated with activism. She’s far from Ai Weiwei, the famed dissident artist and a darling of the Western world for the whole speaking-truth-to-power narrative, or from millennial blogger Han Han, who flips the bird at the establishment. Hu is far less scrappy, far more dignified and far more subtle in her criticism of public policy — very, as they say, just the facts, ma’am.
Her ability to expose is more granular than the average activist’s — which, perhaps, is more subversive. The 62-year-old style is more sleek corporate than picketing disruptor. She walks fasts, speaks fast, thinks fast. According to former employees, she yells a lot, particularly at reporters and editors; she is also known to forget all about the yelling almost immediately.
Hu founded the biweekly magazine Caijing, which reaches 200,000 of the country’s most influential businesspeople and policymakers along with more than 3 million people through its website. After ditching Caijing, Hu went on to found Caixin Media, which produces periodicals, websites, apps, books and TV. Through both of these, she has churned out muckraking work of Watergate proportions, producing, for example, a report on a 2008 earthquake that poked the government in the eye. Or take this August’s explosions that rocked the coastal city of Tianjin. Posting a Caixin story on Weibo (China’s Twitter), Hu asked why contract firefighters, with less training and experience than government firefighters, were the ones leading the efforts. The quiet audacity of her post, which received an almost instant 15,000 thumbs-up, was typical Hu. She raised questions about the companies involved in the explosion and the palm-greasing that had been required for them to operate in a tough sector.
Slightly more controversial is Hu’s refusal to allow “red-envelope journalism,” wherein subjects pay for coverage or to not be covered. She’s done away with “warning pop-ups,” set up at many Chinese news outlets, which alert reporters if the name of an advertiser, client or media outlet associate appears in their copy. Write on whomever you like, Hu seems to say. “You will never know what she will ask,” Wang Shi, the founder and chairman of powerful real estate developer China Vanke, famously told a Caixin producer before being interviewed by the woman herself on the online show “Hu’s Time.”
So why hasn’t she been shut down? One answer is that she targets business directly, not the governent. Another may lie in Hu’s surprisingly conventional background. She began by climbing the ranks of Workers’ Daily, the nation’s second-largest state-run newspaper in the 1980s — a decade of huge economic reform in China as the country began to open up and a few entrepreneurs were allowed to start up. It’s out of that business background that Hu’s Caijing and Caixin Media, founded in 2009, forged some of its bigger wins.
Hu is a product of the establishment, which, depending on how you look at it, might make her a less effective activist. Both her parents were journalists, at a time when journalists were considered to be government servants rather than independent, objective voices. Even today, the best-known journalists in China are members of the Communist Party of China. And Hu is very much a part of the intellectual elite: Her husband is a professor of Chinese literature. Running parallel to her success as a journalist, in the Western sense of the word, is her success as a well-heeled corporate queen: efficient, unrelenting, aggressive. At Caixin, she goes through every article published on the website, 20 or more each day, and calls reporters directly when she wants something fixed, personal life be damned.
“She once called me around midnight, asking me to put the background information of a company in one article,” a reporter who worked with Hu at Caixin recalls.
“You are the uncrowned kings of society. That is what a journalist is,” Hu once told a group of journalism students at Sun Yat-sen University in southern China. A moment before, she had told them their chosen profession could be “meaningful … and can [make it possible] for you to live a middle-class life with self-respect.” That’s her: the grandiose, and the quotidian. The uncrowned kings, the quiet muckrakers — all pursuing the Chinese dream of a middle-class life. Quite a different sort of radical.