Future Of Top China Magazine In Doubt After Exodus

Mass resignations at China's most gutsy news magazine, Caijing, have triggered speculation that the groundbreaking journal may close due to a fight with its publisher over editorial freedom.

Caijing spokeswoman Heidi Zhang said Tuesday that the biweekly's general manager and 60 to 70 employees from the business department resigned earlier this month. She declined to comment on the reason.

The exodus comes amid reports in the Hong Kong media and comments on Internet blogs that Caijing editor in chief Hu Shuli is also planning to leave, possibly to start her own publication. They say editorial interference by the magazine's publisher, Hong Kong-listed SEEC Media Group, and a dispute over restructuring created a rift.

Turmoil at Caijing _ known for its fearless reporting of corruption, pollution, public health scares and other sensitive topics _ could set back efforts to establish a freer press in China. By breaking news on issues thought to be forbidden by the country's strict censors, the 11-year-old magazine has paved the way for bolder reporting by other mainland publications.

In a story Monday, Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper cited anonymous sources as saying there have been growing editorial differences between Hu's team and SEEC management and that Hu hoped SEEC would surrender majority control and allow other outside investors. The newspaper said that if Hu failed, she might resign to launch a new venture.

It said the business-side resignations were a show of support for Hu.

"I can't comment on their speculations," Zhang said when asked about the reports. "Shuli is still working. She didn't take any actions."

Calls to SEEC's public relations offices in Beijing and Hong Kong rang unanswered Tuesday.

The uncertainty surrounding Caijing has raised questions about the future of a partnership between it and Hong Kong tycoon Richard Li that is expected to launch an English-language financial news service focused on China next year.

Cai Business Indepth Ltd., the Hong Kong-based company set up to run the service, said in a brief statement late Tuesday that it was aware of the recent media coverage of the situation and that it would not be affected by "possible developments at Caijing."

Guo Jianlong, a Beijing reporter friendly with Caijing staff, wrote on his personal blog Monday that the rift occurred after SEEC allegedly forced the magazine to withdraw or delay some sensitive stories, despite previous pledges not to interfere in editorial decision-making, and denied repeated demands for higher editorial salaries.

"In one month, the magazine's reporters and editors will leave and then the old Caijing will be left with only an empty shell," wrote Guo, a journalist for the 21st Century Business Herald. His blog didn't cite specific sources and he declined to be interviewed Tuesday.

Last week, before the resignations became public, Hu published an editorial in China News Weekly titled "Uncertain Prospects" that talked about her hopes for China. It imagined a better alignment of the country's economic and political systems _ a veiled reference to democratic reforms _ and greater professional freedom for Chinese reporters.

She made no mention of the staff resignations and said she didn't dare predict what was next for Caijing.

Hu, a former reporter and editor with China Business Times, studied American media and economics while on journalism fellowships in the United States. She forbids her reporters from accepting cash handouts routinely given to Chinese reporters at corporate news conferences, a policy that has burnished the magazine's reputation for objective reporting.

Caijing "would not even be a shadow of its former self" without Hu, said Yuen-ying Chan, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong.

"People will be watching very closely for Hu Shuli's second act and I am confident that it wil only be better for all kinds of reasons and there will be people who are willing to fund and support someone with a successful track record," Chan said.

SEEC has other magazines in its portfolio, but Caijing is its flagship publication.

The company's most recent financial report said Caijing's revenue fell 16.9 percent in the first half of 2009 from the same period a year earlier, generating approximately $54.1 million Hong Kong dollars ($6.9 million).