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'I Don't Want to Think About Activating Change': NYT's David Barboza on Reporting in China

David Barboza (R) receives an award from Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger at the annual Pulitzer Prizes in Journalism, Letters, Drama, and Music Winners Luncheon at Columbia University on May 30, 2013 in New York City. (Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

In 2012, the New York Times published a groundbreaking investigative report showing that the family of Wen Jiabao, China's then-prime minister, possessed wealth in excess of $2.7 billion. In response, the Chinese government blocked the Times' website in China and refused to grant the paper any new journalist visas for the following three years.

The article earned accolades for its author, David Barboza, who served as the paper's Shanghai correspondent from 2004 to 2015. In 2013 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for the report's "striking exposure of corruption at high levels of the Chinese government, including billions in secret wealth owned by relatives of the prime minister, well documented work published in the face of heavy pressure from the Chinese officials." In addition, that same year he was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for a series of reports examining challenges posed by increasingly globalized high-tech industries. He has also reported on the fall and execution of China's top food and drug regulator and authored a series of articles examining the impact of China's pollution crisis.

While at Asia Society for an event hosted by the Center on U.S.-China Relations and ChinaFile, Barboza talked with Asia Blog about the aftermath of his report on Wen Jiabao, why he keeps a low profile on social media, and where his views on the role of a reporter part ways with some of his colleagues.

After your story on Wen Jiabao came out, did you get any sense of how many people within China actually read it? And what kinds of reactions did you tend to get from them?

I really don't know but it was widely circulated online, in both English and Chinese. I heard from many people, but I don't know for certain how many read it at the time, or how many have accessed it since then.

There was a wide range of reactions. Many were surprised at the size of the wealth; others were surprised that we were bold enough to publish the story. But very few people were surprised that the relatives of senior leaders were holding huge assets. Many outside China might be surprised at this, but so many people in the country knew this was going on, they just didn't know the details or that there would be records showing such a thing.

I thought there would be more negative reactions, actually, and I was kind of prepared for people saying things like I was against the Communist Party. I had previously written just a few stories about Tibet and we got some hate mail. You can get some really bad emails. But I didn’t get one bad email about the Wen series, which I found hard to believe. 

You’ve said too that you were surprised by the lack of backlash you got from the government.

They did punish the paper immediately. They blocked our websites immediately, they restricted visas to new journalists almost immediately, and they questioned my research assistants immediately. But they never came to me and they didn't do anything directly toward me immediately after the articles. Did they follow me more? Yes. Did they monitor my home more? Yes. Did they question people around me — my driver, etc.? Yes. But they didn't do anything strongly against me really until 2015; although they did threaten that everyone from New York Times would be kicked out in 2013, which maybe was about me. I don't know, but I would say I was a little surprised I didn't have many problems until 2015.

What were those problems in 2015?

I was harassed a lot in 2015. I was stopped in airports, I was questioned, my things were searched, they had police officers come to my home, they had police stop my car several times. So they did a lot of things like they were preparing to arrest me and trying to intimidate me. And then they did a lot of harassment toward my wife, who is a Chinese citizen and doesn't have a foreign passport.

They never said why. They said it was just routine — that they were just doing searches and that it had nothing to do with me. But it was clear that this was all about me and that they were showing they really didn’t like me and they were going to search everything I have and they were going to come into my home at night and act as if they were about to arrest me. It was quite annoying and troubling — even scary for my wife, who is a Chinese citizen.

Is that why you decided to leave?

That's not why I left. Every year after 2012 I was planning to leave. But the Times wasn't getting new visas, so I said, “Ok, I’ll stay another year.” But I wanted to leave and my wife and I had decided long before the harassment that 2015 would be our last year. Obviously [the authorities] didn't get the message because maybe they were worried we weren't ever going to leave and they wanted to pressure us to go.

So I didn't say to the Times, “I'm really scared and I want to go.” The paper told me a long time ago that they were trying to get a visa [for another reporter], and I said I would go if they got it. So that was all planned. It's just unfortunate that I was leaving and still got harassed a lot at the end and they tried to scare my wife like that.

Since your article on Wen Jiabao and a similar story from Bloomberg on Xi Jinping were published in 2012, why haven’t we seen many more reports investigating top leaders’ wealth?

One reason is that you can’t do it very easily. I wrote a story that involved a public company, Ping An Insurance. It wasn’t easy to write about the relatives of the former prime minister, but [in this case] there was a public company involved. That was my gateway into their assets. If they didn’t have that public company, I’m not sure I would have found the other things and figured it out.

Another reason you may feel there are fewer stories is that journalists have new challenges. The government has placed new restrictions on corporate records. They monitor and follow Western reporters more regularly, and they pressure and threaten their translators and research assistants.

The story that we published in 2012 involved more than a year of research. And I came upon the information after spending a lot of time talking to people, developing sources, and trying to understand where to find the information. So investigative stories by their nature are challenging because it's likely something is difficult to find or people have intentionally buried or disguised the information.

There may be some journalists working on [stories about] the wealth of senior leaders, but you may not see the fruits of their labor for a year or more, since those records and sources and details are so much harder to come by. But I think you may still see more on this subject in the years ahead. Someone is going to look into this, and they may find that I just scratched the surface.

You said in a previous interview that your job as a journalist is not to be an activist, politician, or prosecutor, and that “if you do not admit you have biases, it is pretty hard to move ahead.” Do you think there are many journalists covering China that fall short of this?

I think there are reporters everywhere that fall short of this, including myself. When I say you shouldn't have any biases, I'm including myself in that I do have biases. I mean, I think there's a lot of great reporting everywhere, and especially in China there are a lot of brave reporters, including my colleagues, who do amazing work. But I do think the reporters in China and elsewhere should think a lot more about this issue — not in terms of the Chinese government claiming we're biased, because even the U.S. government says this. But I think it's something we should keep constantly in mind as a reporter — to think about your biases, think about your coverage, think about your balance, about being a fair and balanced journalist.

I really think that I should not take a lot of strong positions. I'm trying to shed light on what's going on. I do have opinions, but I shouldn't be too strong and I shouldn't let them show too much. In fact, if I feel too strongly about [a certain topic], I should probably steer to a different direction. I’m not so sure all my colleagues agree with this. And it can be complicated at times, but this is the way I approach my work.

One woman recently asked me, "So what can you do as a journalist to activate change"? And I told her I don't want to think about activating change. I don’t want to have the idea in my mind — even in the back recesses of my mind — that I'm doing great journalism that activates change. But a lot of journalists do — they believe that change is what they’re doing journalism for. I don't. I think my job is like an educator. I'm about activating education and opening people's minds to stories and what's happening. I would be very worried if I were thinking I was activating change. What would that look like — like I'm here to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party? No, I’m here to tell you what is happening at a point in time and to try to do it fairly and in a balanced way.

I questioned myself quite a bit while I was working on the articles about the family of Wen Jiabao. But in fact, what I found with the prime minister's family is exactly what the government itself says is absolutely illegal and wrong. So I'm not making a judgment. I'm telling you what's going on. But if I kept reporting over and over again the same story and thought, “This is my story. I'm going to bring down Wen Jiabao,” I think that would be really troubling. That was not my goal or intention and I’m not that arrogant. I am not an activist. But that's a tendency of some journalists, but not me. Don't be that egotistical, just write your story and let it go.

Some China correspondents sometimes appear outspoken and expressive of their opinions on social media — even if their reports are completely detached and objective. Of course that doesn’t just happen there, but in China there is that extra element of the government systematically pushing the idea of “Western media” bias. Do you think foreign correspondents who are expressive on social media are undermining themselves?

I do. Yeah … I do. You may notice that I’m rarely on social media, and even when I was on I was quite reluctant. I think it is important to be on social media and see what's going on. I don't know what the different papers' policies are, but at least from my point of view, if I’m objective in my stories but biased on social media, how does that look? Social media is still an outlet for me to reach the public.

I think reporters should be more cautious and conservative about what they're posting and what they're saying publicly. And even for me, I'm worried about what's going out into the public. I don't want media attention. I’m not looking to be interviewed, I don't want to be in the spotlight. I do enjoy talking to private groups, but I’m a little conflicted because I don't want to give them any ideas of biases or give someone who's not with us in the context the idea that, “Oh, he’s out there always talking about his story — about how he wrote about Wen Jiabao’s family."

Are there any types of stories you’d like to see done more in China?

I would like to see more science stories in China. I'd like to see more culture stories, more health and medical stories, and I would like to see better reporting on economics in China — not just the same kind. And I include myself in this criticism. If I could go back to China there'd be a lot of things that I’d do differently, like coming up with new ways to tell a story. In economics, we tell the story very simply. Like, is there a bubble? With currency, and whether the economy went up or down — all the same couple of metrics. And everyone does their sort of version of the story: call two factory workers and ask if they’ve been laid off. I hope that we can have more creative storytelling in new ways. I listen to [the economics podcast] Planet Money a lot. I think we need some of that in the media — all sorts of ways to explain to people how the world works. I think in the end, that's what my job is as a journalist — it's trying to explain to the reader how things are working without too strong a bias or too strong a point of view.

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