Let a Thousand Newspapers Bloom

Whenever I tell a Westerner what I do for a living, many are doubtful. "Is there such a thing as a free press in China?," they ask. "Are there really independent journalists?" The answer is yes and no.

Ever since Deng Xiaoping launched his reforms in 1978, China has been moving from a planned economy to the free market. Its media industry is undergoing a transition equally as wrenching. It is also a more complicated process, because the state, which embraces economic reform wholeheartedly, is not certain about how much media reform to tolerate.

Yet the government's attitude to the press is not one of constant suspicion. After it (belatedly) recognized the importance of transparency in capital markets, journalists gained greater freedom to pursue investigative journalism. So, while the line between the permissible and the prohibited has shifted, it still exists. Some of us walk right up to the line, even nudging it every once in a while. Crossing it, however, remains another matter.

All the same, journalists and editors like myself are increasingly confident in our role as economic watchdogs. In its first issue in April 1998, the magazine that I edit, Caijing ( Business and Finance Review ), published a cover story on Qiong Min Yuan, a little-known real estate company whose share prices skyrocketed by 400%. The company's stock was suspended from trading in 1997, after it was charged with overstating profits. A few insiders were tipped off beforehand and unloaded their shares, while 50,000 individual investors lost millions of dollars.