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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beijing Editor Walks Fine Line

BEIJING -- Hu Shuli, the most powerful business editor in China, used to write propaganda for the Workers' Daily, the Communist Party's publication. Now, Hu pushes an aggressive staff of 50 young journalists to investigate government corruption and lift the veil on corporate fraud in China.

Since 1998, Hu, 52, has been the driving force behind Caijing magazine, a thriving business journal published twice a month that is now a must-read in the capital. At a time when the state still holds tight control over the media, regularly censoring articles and closing down errant publications, Caijing -- which means "finance and economy" -- has artfully pushed the envelope on what is journalistically permissible, writing expos?s on the government's reaction to severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS; stock market manipulation; and corruption at some of the nation's biggest state-owned banks.

"I know how to measure the boundary lines," Hu said over lunch. "We go up to the line -- and we might even push it. But we never cross it."

Caijing's aggressiveness, which has earned Hu the title of "most dangerous woman in China" in several press articles, is partly a result of its status as a business publication in China. While press freedoms are severely restricted here, the government -- perhaps hoping to develop an open and robust capital market system -- has given the business news outlets here greater latitude and broader press freedoms.

"Caijing is about as good as it gets in China," said Orville Schell, dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, which has trained several Caijing reporters and editors. "And they've picked the perfect niche -- business -- which gives them the maximum latitude to do investigative work in China."

But some of that investigative work has brought Caijing's editors to the attention of the government, and the result was that they were made aware of the limits on press freedom in China. Wang Boming, one of the people who helped obtain financing for the publication, said that people from the magazine have been called in occasionally and had to perform "self-criticism."

Still, many believe that Caijing has made the most of what the government will allow. When the magazine published an expos? on how fund management companies were taking advantage of investors, the story rattled the industry and spurred an investigation by regulators.

When Caijing wrote about a public company manipulating its stock price and falsifying profits, trading in the stock was suspended and regulators opened an inquiry. And when the SARS crisis was raging in early 2003, Caijing's lengthy exploration of how the disease spread and how the government covered it up was one of the few critical accounts to appear in the Chinese news media.

Built on such expos?s, Caijing's circulation has reached about 80,000 and the magazine has even turned a profit, according to Hu. It has also spawned imitators as other publications such as Business Watch and Economic Observer try to emulate its hard-charging style.

Much of the success of Caijing is built on the feisty, fast-talking Hu. Born in Beijing, she grew up in a family of journalists. Her mother worked for the Workers' Daily; her aunt ran a national children's newspaper. Her grandfather was an international news editor.

But when the Cultural Revolution got under way in the mid-1960s, the Hu family fell out of favor. Hu Yuzhi, who knew Mao Zedong and served under Zhou Enlai, was blacklisted.

Barely a teenager when this tumultuous period began, Hu Shuli did what many youths of the time did: traveled the country, trying to make sense of the Cultural Revolution.

At 16, she was sent to the countryside. Hu's parents were also sent to farm in the country. Then, in 1970, she joined the army, where for the next eight years she worked as a nurse's assistant in a hospital in northern Jiangsu province. Hu said she spent much of her time there reading books and teaching herself English, history and literature.

"I thought, 'The country is beginning to change, and I should prepare,'" she recalls. "I wasn't sure I could go to college, but I wanted to read everything I could. I had a determined plan and a lot of notebooks."

After the Cultural Revolution came to an end, she got a chance. She passed a college entrance examination in 1978 and enrolled at People's University in Beijing, where she studied journalism.

After college, she got a job at the Workers' Daily, where she was allowed to write about corruption among some local officials in small Hebei province. But in 1989, during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, her paper went dark. "After June 4, I joined some demonstrations with my colleagues," she said. "We were not allowed to print anything during that time."

Hu is careful to say she was not a radical or activist. She was simply "observing history, witnessing the tragedy." Her real work was in newspapers, she said, writing and pushing them to modernize.

After a fellowship at the World Press Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the mid-1980s, for instance, she pressed the Workers' Daily to expand from the standard four-page format and start to accept advertising, as there was virtually none at the time.

"The most amazing thing in the U.S. was even the prison newspapers had 16 pages," Hu said.

When more important economic and market reforms came in the 1990s, she moved to a more independent newspaper, The China Business Times, and began following economics and finance.

Along the way, friends say she got to know a group of Chinese businessmen who had studied in the United States and, upon their return to Beijing, helped establish China's stock market. Some members of that group later became interested in funding a magazine. And Hu was ready for something new. Together they created Caijing.

Now, even Western journalists in Beijing often have to follow Caijing's lead. When the head of one of China's largest state-owned banks, the China Construction Bank, resigned last month, Caijing was the first to report on a lawsuit in the United States that accused him of accepting bribes.

But how independent is Caijing?

"They have to be careful," said Perry Link, a professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University. "They may have flexibility, but it's flexibility with a leash."