Tribute to the Journalist’s Spirit – China Media Project

“Yang Haipeng and My First Investigation Report” (杨海鹏和我的第一篇调查报道)

Lao Zuo (老左)

The first time I did investigative reporting was in 2003. The subject was the fugitive former deputy mayor of Wenzhou, Yang Xiuzhu (杨秀珠). The case did not involve a very high-level official, but it involved more than 100 million yuan, and the nature [of the case] was particularly outrageous. China had issued a red notice [from Interpol]and from that moment Yang Xiuzhu would be in the lead List of most wanted people in China.

Even in 2015, during visit of [our] national leader in the United States, when the extradition of fugitives was mentioned, Yang Xiuzhu was the first to be mentioned. One could therefore say that this is a landmark case in the fight against corruption.

But when I arrived in Wenzhou overnight with another colleague [that year], we were like stupid flies crashing on an invisible net. Three days passed, and we both spent making appointments with people we thought might talk to. Most of the time we were refused. Once in a while someone was willing to meet, but it was always a rather marginal person – and what they told us was either unverifiable or just gossip, nothing that could be included in a rigorously checked manuscript .

Imagine, if a corrupt official stealing hundreds of millions can slip through the net of police, prosecutors and the law, how could two young people in their twenties open the mouths of the people at the center? Yang Xiuzhu had fled the country, but his protection network remained intact. And even if someone could lay out the twists, could they really trust two journalists to bring down [the enemy]?

Yang Haipeng talking with colleagues at his home in 2011. SOURCE: “Lao Zuo”.

At that time, we were a weekly publication. Between us, we only had seven days to write the report. Over time, our anxiety only grew.

Not knowing what to do, our editor suggested we ask Yang Haipeng.

At that time, Yang Haipeng and I had never met, but I had heard people talk about him. The editor’s point was that Old Yang had reported on Wenzhou’s “Clandestine Organization Minister” (温州地下组织部长案), [about a local official who had sold government posts]that he would be rather familiar with the official environment [in the city], and he probably also knew officials from Wenzhou. “You can find it and ask,” [he said]leaving us Yang Haipeng’s phone number.

I called the number right away.

On the other end of the line, Lao Yang’s voice rang like a bell. He spoke so eloquently. He analyzed the lines of administration personnel in Wenzhou and Zhejiang Province for me, and then said he could introduce me to some friends. It sounded like he was pulling out a little book on the other end of the line, then he rattled off a series of cell phone numbers.

All of them were for senior Wenzhou city officials or former cadres who had retired. [from top positions].

My colleague and I later estimated that we had visited nearly 50 Wenzhou City officials. Every time we called to make an appointment, our opening line was, “I was introduced by Yang Haipeng.

It turned out that the name “Yang Haipeng” was an implicit access card within the Wenzhou administration at the time. Some officials politely declined on the phone, but most still pointed us in the right direction, which they considered a matter of dealing with Yang Haipeng. And many officials were ready to talk. Time is running out and my colleague and I are splitting up to meet as many officials as possible.

Yang Haipeng while hiking in Hong Kong during a visit in 2004.

In just two days we got enough material to support the publication [the story.] Next, we traveled to Hangzhou, where we met our latest key interviewee – a retired former vice governor of Zhejiang.

It was one night in the spring of 2003, and after having dinner, the co-worker and I rushed to a neighborhood of villas next to West Lake. There was a guard at the gate and the chief’s wife came to personally meet us there. Once through the door, the chef was there to greet us warmly. The first words that came out of his mouth when he greeted us were, “So, you are friends with Yang Haipeng.”

My colleague and I later estimated that we had visited nearly 50 Wenzhou City officials. Every time we called to make an appointment, our opening line was, “I was introduced by Yang Haipeng.

We talked for almost two hours, then the chef’s wife walked us to the door. We hurried back to our hotel because the story deadline was the next day. We hadn’t even organized a lot of audio recordings, and we had so much more than expected, so it took us a long time to sort it all out.

We arranged for my colleague to sleep first while I wrote the first half. Early the next morning, I slept while my colleague continued to write the second half. Then, around four or five in the afternoon, I got up again and we both went over the draft together, handing it over to the editors.

In the end, our manuscript was completed on time, and although the writing left much to be desired, the report met with the editors’ approval. Given the importance of the case, our article has been placed on the front page.

Looking back now, we certainly had some enthusiasm back then. But we did not have the capacity to undertake such a heavy investigative story. I had just joined the newspaper, and I was totally green. But the Southern Daily Group [at that time] had the courage to let young people handle such projects, and the editors took care to correct the draft. But if it hadn’t been for Yang Haipeng and his selfless help, this report would never have been made.

The publication of the article shook official circles in Zhejiang, and it was widely shared by media in China and abroad.

Yang Haipeng visits the shelves of the University of Hong Kong library.

After our story broke, Yang Xiuzhu remained in the media spotlight. Her life abroad has often been the subject of reports at home and abroad, and she has never been able to shake the red notice or the official media. [coverage]. As I said at the beginning, when [our] national leader visited the United States in 2015, the first name mentioned was her. The following year, Yang Xiuzhu returned to China and surrendered, closing the most important case on the red notice list.

From start to finish, no one but us knew the decisive role Yang Haipeng had played in the whole process. This is because Yang, even though he was a talkative guy who was very active on social media then, never told anyone about it. The public had no way of knowing.

I guess he had long forgotten everything himself. The reason being simply that after leaving the Nanfang Daily Group in 2002, Yang has helped so many generations of journalists. His kind assistance has been the source of so many major reports that are now so familiar to everyone.

Whether in the media or later as a thought leader on Weibo, he’s probably been doing this all his life, championing the public interest and tackling the corruption of those in positions of power. You could call it a thirst for justice.

In the age of media, his wide range of interview resources and his familiarity with the environment of bureaucracy have been a constant wonder to those of us who have come after him. He was therefore later recruited to caijing magazine of Hu Shuli (胡舒立). His work in the news [back then] has never been questioned by anyone in the industry.

Whether in the media or later as a thought leader on Weibo, he’s probably been doing this all his life, championing the public interest and tackling the corruption of those in positions of power. You could call it a thirst for justice.

From then on, as traditional media declined, Old Yang continued to be active on social media. The things he did were no different from what he did in the days of newspapers – exposing corruption and expanding the speaking space.

So in my eyes Yang Haipeng was of course an outstanding journalist with great inner strength, a great man of his generation. He was also a traditional scholar with a chivalrous sense of justice and a modern intellectual committed to expanding public space.

It’s just that our age has sealed these intellectuals away. For those with influence, this amounts to capital punishment of the mind. The old spiritual Yang, after hundreds of “reincarnations” on Weibo [after his account was repeatedly shut down]died long before his physical body.

But his lifelong pursuit and ambition were ultimately those of humanity. Before the spiritual power of words and ideas, material power is like a knife in water. The physical body is only a skin. In the river of ages, fleeting meanders cannot change the direction of the current.

May Haipeng cross the ages!

About Cody E. Vaughn

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