An investigative reporting unit led by one of China's top investigative reporters has been shut down in what a member of the unit told ABC News was a "shocking" move partly caused by government pressure.
Members of the China Economic Times investigative unit were told during a Monday morning meeting Monday of the Beijing-based newspaper's entire editorial staff that they would reassigned to other jobs as part of a "reshuffling."
Wang Kiqen, leader of the unit, would not comment when contacted, but fellow reporter Liu Jianfeng told ABC News that management said the paper need to focus more on hard economic news.
"I was shocked," said Liu. Liu said that he thought the team had fallen victim to both internal and external politics. "It was due to a combination of a debate within the newspaper about the proper editorial direction," said Liu, "and pressure from a government agency above them."
A reporter for the paper told the South China Morning Post that the paper's publisher and chairman, Han Lijun, said that the China Economic Times should focus on "positive economic reporting" and limit negative reporting to "commercial injustice and corporate corruption."
The China Economic Times is officially published by a government agency called the State's Council Development Research Center. According to a blog maintained by the University of Hong Kong's journalism faculty, a Chinese political leader visited the newspaper Monday morning to talk to staffers about "political struggle."
A representative of the China Economic Times told ABC News that the disbanding of the unit was "just a normal reshuffling of editorial departments."
Wang Keqin, 47, is famed for his reports on such subjects as cartels. During a lecture in 2007 at Princeton University, he said he has been repeatedly threatened for his reporting. He was beaten by unknown attackers with an iron rod in May 2007.
The previous chairman of the China Economic Times was reportedly pushed out a year ago after publishing a Wang investigation of corruption in a vaccine program that caused the deaths of several children.
"Wang Keqin is an interesting case, as he is a true muckraker in the classic American sense," said David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project. "He is often called China's Lincoln Steffens."
Immediately after the Monday meeting at the newspaper, Wang took to Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, to make a cryptic comment about freedom, quoting a passage from German poet Heinrich Heine that is inscribed on a memorial at Dachau, the former Nazi concentration camp.
"At the entrance to German Concentration Camp, encarved a maxim," wrote Wang. "When a government began to burn books without opposition, then it would burn people next."
'Shutdown ... A Political Measure'
Journalists decried the disbanding of the unit. Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, called the "apparent crackdown ... a loss for China." Said Dietz, "The shutdown carries the hallmarks of a political measure to curb a leading news outlet's reporting that found disfavor within the government."
But observers did not place all the blame on the government. Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, wrote that the China Economic Times investigative unit was not targeted by high-level leadership. "It should be understood as the intention of a handful of ignorant and incompetent people at the top of the newspaper." He wrote that there has actually been an "upsurge" in investigative reporting in China.
At the China Economic Times, Liu Jianfeng was also optimistic about the future of investigative reporting, even though he is currently a former member of the profession. He said there is both a consensus among Chinese journalists that in-depth reporting is necessary and a real public appetite for investigative stories. "It is really a trend of the current times," said Liu. "It is the only way we can help correct government behavior and it is also the only way for ordinary citizens to have a better understanding of what is going on around them."