Adoption scandal exposed by muckraking Chinese journalists

Adoption scandal exposed by muckraking Chinese

Bo Gu / NBC News

Yang Libing (with his son) holds up a photo of his missing daughter, Yang

By Adrienne Mong

GAOPING, HUNAN PROVINCE – Until this year, Yang Libing, whose daughter was
taken from him by family planning authorities, would receive visits from one or
two Chinese journalists every year.

“They would come to interview me about my daughter," he recalled
emphatically.  “But nothing ever came of those reports.  Still no one did

In 2005, family planning officials in Longhui County, Hunan Province, took
away Yang’s daughter, Yang Ling, when she was eleven months old.   They accused
him of not registering her birth, thereby breaking the strict, nationwide
one-child policy – even though she was his first and only offspring.

The authorities sent his daughter off to an orphanage.  From there, Yang
believes she was adopted by an American family, with the family planning
officials receiving a few hundred dollars in return.

Yang has not seen her since.

“I wish I could tell her that I didn’t give her away," he told NBC News in an
interview at his spartan home in the mountains of Gaoping.  “It wasn’t a case of
not wanting her.  I didn’t reject her."

Caixin Century publishes report
Yang’s story has the
hallmarks of a great tragedy, embodying many controversial issues that touch a
raw nerve in China: local corruption, brutal enforcement of the one-child
policy, the policy itself, child trafficking, and poverty.

And yet, despite stories by local journalists and a long feature printed in
the Los Angeles Times two years ago, his story never seemed to
catch on.

Then last week, the highly respected independent Chinese weekly news magazine, Caixin Century, ran
a 15,000-word investigative report that featured Yang and several other families
in Gaoping whose children suffered the same fate.

This time, the tale of baby-trafficking by corrupt family planning officials
electrified China’s media.  Even the state-run newspapers covered the story,
some reporting that an official investigation was underway.

Within a day of publication, teams of local and foreign journalists
(including NBC News) began tramping into the lush, terraced hills of Longhui
County, perhaps the poorest area in all in Hunan – which is already one of
China’s more impoverished provinces.

So why did the story suddenly
capture the media’s attention now?

An obvious reason is that Caixin has a sterling reputation for its
investigative journalism.  Furthermore, the report was richly detailed and
well-researched, the product of four years’ long work.

“A few years ago, the story was told very simply," said Shangguan Jiaoming,
the Caixin reporter behind the Hunan story.  “My report includes a lot of detail
and analysis."

// <![CDATA[
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// ]]>Moreover, Caixin is homegrown, i.e., its reporting is done by Chinese in

Bo Gu / NBC News

Gaoping sits up in the mountains of Longhui County, Hunan Province.

“It really shows that however much foreign correspondents report on China,
unless a story gets picked up by domestic media here, there isn’t much…we can
do to improve the lives of people here that we interview,” said Melissa Chan,
the Beijing correspondent for al-Jazeera English.  (Just as it does in the
Middle East, al-Jazeera has a reputation in China for moving quickly and
aggressively to cover politically sensitive stories. Chan’s report can be seen

Another reason is the growing popularity of microblogs like’s Weibo
or Twitter.  Although the latter is blocked in China, it can be accessed via
virtual private networks (VPNs) that bypass the firewall – a tool widely used by
the same crop of intellectual and professional Chinese elites who comprise
Caixin’s readership.

Through microblogs, news of the Caixin report spread like wildfire.  As with
many stories of this nature, anything that survives Internet censors for even a
few hours can gain traction and reach readers across the country.

But there’s another reason – one which might seem a bit surprising given the
repressive trend of cracking down on dissidents, activists, and media
(especially foreign) in China during recent months: good old-fashioned market

“Since the mid-1990s, commercial media in [mainland] China has become much
more competitive," said David Bandurski of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University.  There was no
“media market" or “ad-driven publications" before then. Much of that
transformation came about because then-Premier Zhao Ziyang pushed for a more
open, liberal press corps – one which would try to use public opinion to monitor
political power rather than serve as a means to “marshal public opinion."

The trend sustained itself even after Zhao was sacked from the Communist
Party for supporting the students leading the 1989 Tiananmen Square

Some of the more remarkable stories broken by domestic Chinese reporters
include the AIDS villages in Henan Province and the SARS crisis.  The former
story, in particular, was reported a year before it appeared in Western media
like the New York Times.

China’s commercial media: driven and aggressive
reality is that commercial media – as opposed to state-run media – has to sell
to readers, they have to have a different look, a different appeal," continued

As a result, the commercial news organizations command circulation figures
enviable by publishers anywhere in the world.

// <![CDATA[
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// ]]>Although it has not been possible to audit circulation data, Bandurski
reckons that, based on China Press Yearbook statistics, “In every case, if you
look at the Party-run paper and the corresponding commercial spin-off in any
region," the latter outstrips the former in terms of readership.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News

Villagers from Gaoping look at a copy of the Caixin Century.

“For example, in Wuhan (a second-tier city with a long intellectual history),
the commercial paper has 1, 2, or 3 million circulation," he said.  “No Party
newspaper has a circulation like that."

Among those that produce some of best, influential, tough, in-depth
investigative reporting are Caixin
and Beijing News in Beijing and the Southern group in Guangdong Province,
which publishes Southern Daily and Southern Weekend.

These organizations constantly recalibrate their coverage, led by senior
editors such as Hu Shuli at Caixin (an excellent profile of her ran in 2009 in The New Yorker), for
example, who have a finely honed sixth sense for politics, for knowing when to
push their agenda.

One way in which the more aggressive Chinese commercial media outlets appear
to escape being shut down is to adopt what Bandurski calls “the shouldering the
door theory."  One publication knocks the door, then another, then another – the
premise being that the government can’t go after every organization all at

“It’s always the media pushing," said Bandurski.  “It’s never the government

Corrupt media, too
Which is not to say that the Chinese
press corps is made up of only hard-charging truth-seekers.

Far from it.  Local journalists earn low salaries, all too often supplemented
by the notorious “red envelopes" – cash gifts supplied by the subjects of their
reporting – and other “perks."

Our savvy driver from Hunan’s capital of Changsha – with years of experience
shuttling around local and foreign reporters – summed up what he’s seen.

“When the foreign media come out here, they work hard.  They rarely take
breaks and work through the entire trip.  The Chinese media?  When they get an
assignment, they look at it as an opportunity to play tourist.  They see the
sights.  They eat long meals at nice restaurants. They’re not interested in the

More seriously, there are regular instances of
, wherein reporters have demanded money or other forms of
compensation in return for keeping silent.

Regardless, the tenacity and dedication on the part of so many other Chinese
journalists is remarkable.

“The controls on the media have been tighter than we’ve seen in a long time,"
said Bandurski.  “And yet there is still so much coverage [like the Hunan baby
trafficking story] by places like Caixin coming out.  These organizations are
pushing harder and harder and finding ways to do that kind of reporting."

// <![CDATA[
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// ]]>With additional reporting by Bo Gu.



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