As State Control Stiffens, Journalists Move On

Journalist Gao Yu was sentenced to prison in China last year for leaking state secrets. ENLARGE
Journalist Gao Yu was sentenced to prison in China last year for leaking state secrets. Photo: Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

When former senior Chinese official Bo Xilai was expelled from the Communist Party in 2012 amid a corruption scandal involving him and his wife, journalist and artist Wang Guopei seized the moment with a satirical commentary.

Defying official limits on discussing the matter publicly, Mr. Wang posted a calligraphy drawing on a Twitter-like social-media platform called Sina Weibo. WB 2.05 % The post used the character for “orphan,” gu, to refer to the couple’s adult son, Bo Guagua, whose given name uses a similar character that means “melon.”

That and similar posts attempting to circumvent state censors drew hundreds of thousands of followers for Mr. Wang on Weibo. He persisted even as censors deleted some posts and his account on another social platform was suspended for a politically sensitive post in late 2013.

These days, though, Mr. Wang is one of many Chinese journalists leaving the trade as the state tightens media control while a technology boom opens new opportunities. He now writes a weekly infomercial on Tencent Holdings TCEHY 1.35 % ’ WeChat social-media platform, charging in the low six figures in yuan for each ad about products such as Illuma baby formula and the Huawei Honor smartphone.

Mr. Wang doesn’t touch politics—“[I] can’t take the risks,” he says—and questions his former career. He wanted to expose human-rights abuses and help move China toward a democracy. “I felt I was like a warrior, and my pen was my weapon,” he wrote in a WeChat post last month. But he now says his efforts were “utterly pointless.”

Even the top journalists are leaving. Qin Shuo quit a year ago as editor in chief of China’s biggest business publication, China Business News, to start a WeChat public account that focuses on research about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. The situation for news is “dismal” when compared with flourishing entertainment and lifestyle content, he says.

China has long been a hostile place for journalists, but the growing pressure from censors under President Xi Jinping and the allure of less-risky, better-paying jobs at Internet companies such as Tencent and Alibaba Group Holding BABA 2.31 % is squeezing the profession even more. A widely circulated online quip sums up the mood: “Chinese lawyers are either in jail or on their way to jail, and Chinese journalists are either working for Alibaba or on their way to working for Alibaba.”

The risks are no joke. The Committee to Protect Journalists says China imprisoned 44 journalists in 2014 and 49 in 2015, more than any other country, and both more than any year since the New York-based group started tracking jailed journalists in 1990. Gao Yu, a 72-year-old journalist, was sentenced to seven years in prison last year for leaking state secrets. Her sentence was later reduced to five years and she was granted a medical release, allowing Ms. Gao to serve the rest of her term outside prison.

While there is no independent media in China as in the Western sense—all media outlets are required to have a government sponsor—there was a boom of more market-oriented media between the mid-1990s and early 2010s. Some publications managed to do investigative reporting and lured graduates from top universities.

But many observers say China has turned more hostile toward media since President Xi took over in 2012, with even formerly enterprising publications compelled to toe the party line more strictly. “It has been made clear that the role of the media is to support the party’s unilateral rule, and nothing less,” the Committee to Protect Journalists said in a 2014 report.

Journalists jumping ship isn’t unique to China, and not all the departures are driven by censorship. As in many parts of the world, print media in China are in broad decline, and the startup craze has captured the imaginations of many Chinese, including journalists. Tech companies, big and small, have huge demand for public-relations managers. Platforms such as WeChat make it easier for writers like Mr. Wang to connect with advertisers directly.

Still, the trend is especially worrying in a huge country with such limited public power to scrutinize the government and big companies. Many journalists believe serious journalism is a lost cause in China. While online content appears to be flourishing, there is less coverage of hot-button issues. Online media outlets don’t have the leeway to cover news so they focus on “safer” content such as sports, entertainment, lifestyle and occasionally business news.

After Mr. Qin’s job change, one of his college classmates, business writer Wu Xiaobo, wrote in a widely circulated blog: “The last ‘watchdog’ is gone. In the future, we’ll pay price for this.”

Some of those who have made the jump from news to tech are unapologetic.

“I never regret my decision to leave journalism,” Mr. Wang says. The 32-year-old, who lives with his wife and 4-year-old son, says that his income multiplied from his last journalism job as a newsroom-operations manager at a digital news venture.

Journalists aren’t leaving only for tech jobs. Li Haipeng, former editor-in-chief of Esquire China, quit last week to join a new film studio as its chief content officer.

He says journalism was more attractive when he started out in 1995. “Now 99% of it is dead,” he says.

As a newspaper reporter, Mr. Li wrote movingly of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the plight of underdogs. At Esquire China, his team’s memorable long-form pieces included one about a mutiny on a Chinese fishing ship in the Pacific, in which 11 crew members killed 22 others over eight months.

Leaving journalism, he adds, was “a very easy choice.” US Business

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