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The "right" stuff

Percentage of Afghans who believe their country is going in the "right direction": 70

Percentage of Americans who believe their country is going in the "right direction":  36.6

Passport

$50 billion, 30 years, and 4,000 corrupt Chinese officials

One of the biggest stories of the weekend -- that some $50 billion in state funds was smuggled out of China over the past 30 years by as many as 4,000 corrupt officials -- was broken by Chinese state media. (Western sources, such as the AFP, alternatingly source China Daily and Global Times, both state-run publications based in Beijing.)

This may strike some as odd. To western readers, China Daily is famous mainly for funny headlines, as lovingly ridiculed by The Atlantic's James Fallows and others. How could state-run media, presumably not the pinnacle of tough-minded investigative journalism, break a big story? But the truth is that this makes perfect sense.

First, the original story announced a problem (massive fraud) in the context of explaining how Beijing had recently established a new task force to curb the problem. The original Global Times story, from last fall, began the gripping lede: "The Communist Party of China (CPC) is showing more grit in its determination to fight corruption by urging officials to disclose personal assets such as housing and investments ..." In general, western news outlets focus on problems, but Chinese newspapers hold back until there's also news about what the vigilant government is doing in response. 

Second, the sources for this story were not uncovered through months of shoeleather inquiry and secret meetings, Woodward-Bernstein style, but rather were government officials themselves. In particular, it was a party official with responsibility for disciplining wayward cadres who was the source that revealed details of the government's recent anti-corruption investigations.

"Investigative journalism" such as we know it in the West doesn't exist in China. But it is not uncommon for the government to use state-run newspapers to publicize information about crackdowns or to shame bad-apple officials. While foreign observers tend to focus on what's left out of Chinese press accounts (what's censored), it's often forgotten what an enormous interest the state also takes in shaping a news story (pushing out information).

A virtual hat-tip for this insight goes out to Wang Haiyan, a former reporter for Southern Metropolitian Daily in Guangzhou, whom I met last spring in Oxford, UK. She was preparing a report on "Investigative Journalism and Political Power in China" and had meticulously catalogued how five leading newspapers in south China had covered corruption between 2004 and 2008 -- in almost every case, the primary source was a government official with clear reasons for wanting to publicize results of a recent government inquiry.