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Journalist fleeing Xi's China makes fresh start abroad

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BEIJING (AP) — Investigative journalist Wang Zhi’an has exposed corruption, land foreclosures and medical malpractice through state broadcaster CCTV, once a powerful platform with millions of viewers in China.

Wang now lives alone in central Tokyo after being blacklisted in his homeland. His journey from on-air personality at the heart of China’s vast state media apparatus to reporter-in-exile shows how even the government-backed critical reporting of Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong, has been curtailed.

Unlike many attackers, Wang did not give up. In debt and armed with little more than a laptop, a tripod, and a camera borrowed from a friend, Wang is back in business, this time on YouTube and Twitter, which have been banned in China.

“I can tell the truth here and no one will restrain me anymore,” Wang said as he sat in a living room in his studio in Tokyo, the modest three-story walk-in room.

Thousands of delegates gather in Beijing this week to reaffirm Xi as the third-term leader of the ruling Communist Party.at the country’s most important political meeting in a decade. Fearing arrest, Wang said that Xi would not return until his strength was gone.

“It demands absolute obedience,” Wang said. “The media has become like the military: a tool that pledges unconditional loyalty to the party.”

Under Xi, China’s once feisty reporters lined up. The propaganda arm of the Communist Party took direct control of the agencies that run the newspapers, broadcasters and radio stations. A powerful new agency has silenced critical voices on the internet by creating a massive censorship apparatus backed by thousands of censors.

In private, many Chinese journalists say that Xi has spoiled independent reporting. They remain silent in public. Xi’s name is carefully spoken in written lines, whispers, or nicknames.

“The change over the past 10 years has been dramatic,” said Zhan Jiang, emeritus professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Wang had not dreamed of a life outside of China. A native of the mountainous Shaanxi province, Wang joined CCTV in 1998 after earning a master’s degree in history.

At the time, the Chinese media was at the height of what Wang called the “golden age”. Investigative journalism flourished under then-leader Jiang Zemin, who spoke about Tibet and Taiwan with Western journalists, and Zhu Rongji, a tough, reformist prime minister who fought corruption.

It fueled hopes of reform in China’s one-party state – more like Singapore than the former Soviet Union, there was some room for free discussion.

“Just because China is under the leadership of the Communist Party doesn’t mean it can’t have an active media,” said retired professor Zhan.

At CCTV, Wang was first a producer, then a commentator, before moving on to investigations in 2011.

There, two former CCTV employees built a reputation as a tough, seasoned journalist, but they added that his critical dispositions could make working with him difficult. They declined to be named in order to speak candidly about Wang.

Shortly after, Xi came to power in 2012. At first, Wang was looking forward to the new leadership. With the country’s economic boom, authorities rounded up millions In brash backdoor deals, sons and daughters polish Rolexs and race Ferraris Along Beijing’s flyovers.

Xi promised to change all that and promised to crush corruption. He visited a modest donut shop and portrayed himself as a man of the people.

The coup has come. Banquets were banned, red carpets were rolled out, and thousands of officials were arrested.

But as Xi consolidated his power, signs of trouble began to appear in CCTV. Controls have been tightened. Top reporters showed up one by one.

Then, in 2016, Xi visited CCTV and other state media.

“Party media should be given the party surname,” he said, and above all he called for loyalty to the Communist Party.

“We knew then that there would be world-shattering changes,” Wang said.

Although Xi fights corruption, instead of using transparency and the rule of law, he has authorized a secret party body to arrest officials.

“Xi doesn’t think the media should be a watchdog,” Wang said. “He thinks they should just be propaganda organs.”

The final straw, he said, was when an investigation he had been working on for months was killed.

It was a description of Beijing’s ambulance dispatch system. Through backdoor connections, Wang discovered that an official had set up a parallel network that took patients to a second-rate clinic in the far north of Beijing, generating revenue for hospital management but causing life-threatening delays.

But days before Wang’s story was published, the party’s Central Propaganda Department said it had published the story. Enraged, Wang stopped coming to work, then resigned.

It wasn’t just CCTV. Thousands of journalists across China left the industry.

The politically-connected editor-in-chief of Caixin, a respected financial magazine, stepped aside. The publisher of the Beijing Daily News, a tabloid with a rebellious streak, resigned and was later detained. At Southern Weekly, a respected liberal newspaper, propagandists dealt with reporters.

Wang tried to continue. He switched outlets and hosted an online interview program that garnered tens of millions of views. However, in June 2019, Wang’s social media accounts were abruptly deleted, depriving him of millions of followers.

Wang was politically toxic overnight. His new debut, once eager to harness his star power, has given up on renewing his contract.

Wang thought about what to do for several years. The epidemic left him stranded during his visit to Japan, and when he returned to Beijing late last year, he heard that he would no longer be able to work in the media. Wang realized that if he wanted to stay in China, he had to quit the job he loved.

Wang made his choice: he bought a one-way ticket to Japan.

“I can’t continue in China,” Wang said. “I would be betraying my career if I became a PR manager.”

Now, Wang teaches himself Japanese. He learned to edit the video on his own and work on a very tight budget.

Since launching in May, it has attracted many viewers with close to half a million followers on Twitter and 400,000 subscribers on YouTube. While both are banned in China, Wang hopes his reports will leak into the country and through China’s Great Firewall.

Wang said his goal is factual news for mainland China and separate from conspiracy-laden rivals driven by his hatred for the government.

“No one believes that a serious Chinese outlet can be established abroad,” he said. “But I want to try. I think it’s very important for the whole Chinese-speaking world.”

In July, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring a crew and flying to Ukraine. Pointing out that only one channel that can be watched in mainland China sends reporters to the war, Wang said he wants to bring frontline news to a Chinese audience.

The result, he said, is that China’s news of the war is full of Russian misinformation.

“Such a large country with a single source of information about such a major event,” Wang said. “This is very sad.”

Wang has a lot of bad guys. Nationalists describe Wang as a “traitor” online, questioning why he lives in Japan and accusing him of selling “anti-Chinese” content. At the other extreme, anti-Beijing activists are skeptical of Wang’s motives and point out that he has spent decades in the state media trying to keep up with the party line.

Zhang Dongshuo, a lawyer in Beijing, said he admires Wang’s channel and occasionally tunes in to receive news that is not covered in the state media. But Zhang added that Wang’s lack of access has made his reports more tedious, and that the challenges of scaling China’s firewall have shrunk his audience.

“It will be difficult,” Zhang said. “In a strange situation.”

Still, Wang hopes there will be a place for someone like him outside of Xi’s China. He tells the news by talking about China’s “zero-COVID” policy and the last party congress, brimming with observations based on his experience within the system.

He occasionally interrupts with comments.

“We will have to wait until the day when journalists can truly express themselves freely,” Wang said in a recent publication. “I hope that day comes soon.”

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Haruka Nouga, an Associated Press reporter in Tokyo, contributed to this story.

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