David Barboza: 'Every Reporter Should Be An Investigative Reporter'

“Every reporter should be an investigative reporter,” stated David Barboza, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for The New York Times, at an Asia Society Northern California event on March 2. Catching the “China bug” early on in college, he eventually spent 11 years as a Times reporter in China and became the longest-serving foreign correspondent in that country for the esteemed publication. Clayton Dube of the University of Southern California's U.S.-China Institute moderated the event.

“I was interested in investigative reporting since college,” Barboza stated. “Whenever I got to dinners [in China], I [took] notes, I [took] notes in my mind thinking this could be a story one day.” In parallel fashion, by cultivating sources and by trying to understand “what was going on,” he said, “seeds were planted regarding Premier Wen’s family” as early as 2005.

In 2011, as he dug deeper into China’s booming economy, he uncovered clues to the princelings, political connections, and, eventually, “the story that [he] heard the most rumors about” – the story of Wen’s family fortunes. He began by drawing a map of the Politburo Standing Committee members, their sons and daughters, and their connections. Where did they live? Where did they go to school? How did they pay for it? What jobs did they have? He sought to fill in the blanks, which were generally left as “guilt by association” in other media coverage of state capitalism in China, and sought to “connect the dots.” The map was used to illuminate relationships and money trails of people, families, and prominent companies.

Barboza attributes part of his success to the fact that public records on people and companies were widely available in China by 2012. With increasing numbers of companies listing publicly, Barboza amassed public documents from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, State Administration for Industry and Commerce, on-line, national databases and even Wikileaks, Google and Wikipedia. By mapping, charting and connecting the dots, Barboza was able to pull on the story’s thread and have it unspool into a narrative that he could triangulate with multiple sources. With a story as high-profile and consequential as this one, he had no choice but to make sure that the story was as watertight as possible. “In 2011, I had no idea there were records. I didn’t think I was going to find it, but there was a lot more than I expected,” he stated.

Barboza did not suffer immediate consequences from the Chinese government for his explosive story. Speculating that the Chinese government probably did not want to draw even further attention to his story by attacking him directly, he was free to report and interview people for three years even after the story came out in print. The New York Times suffered consequences, however, by remaining blocked in China after it had sunk considerable costs into establishing its Chinese edition and setting up a large presence in China. Finally in 2015, however, Barboza started receiving death threats, which cemented his decision to leave China.

“I don’t come at [my stories] with a bigger objective of saying a statement about the communist government; but rather just revealing how things work,” Barboza stated. During his Q&A with the audience, Barboza also voiced his deep skepticism that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign could root out corruption in China. Corruption is much too “entrenched” in the Chinese economy, he thought, and to root out corruption would “cripple the whole country.”