Bo Gu / NBC News
Yang Libing (with his son) holds up a photo of his missing daughter, Yang Ling.
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 anything."
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."
Moreover, Caixin is homegrown, i.e., its reporting is done by Chinese in Chinese.
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 here.)
Another reason is the growing popularity of microblogs like Sina.com'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 competition.
"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 protests.
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
"The 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 Bandurski.
As a result, the commercial news organizations command circulation figures enviable by publishers anywhere in the world.
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 once.
"It's always the media pushing," said Bandurski. "It's never the government loosening."
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 story."
More seriously, there are regular instances of blackmail, 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."
With additional reporting by Bo Gu.
Related story: Growing calls in China to change the one-child policy