At 9 p.m. in a dark Shenzhen parking lot, Bai Xiuyu handed over a plain brown envelope containing 15,000 Chinese yuan, the equivalent of nearly $2,000, in what was supposed to be a discreet blackmail payment to a local reporter.
Hidden in Bai's car, Gou Hua, Shenzhen bureau chief for the Southern Metropolitan Daily, watched the scene unfold and recorded the transaction with his cellphone camera. His interest was more than journalistic; the reporter receiving the payoff was Zhou Yu, a 29-year-old newcomer to Gou's own bureau.
To his consternation, what Gou saw the evening of Sept. 21 was another instance of the blackmail journalism metastasizing through China's news media. Bai's money was supposed to buy silence on alleged wrongdoing at her health clinic in this southern Chinese city. But more generally, journalists and officials say, Chinese reporters are demanding such hush money with increasing regularity from businesses and government agencies in exchange for the withholding of unfavorable news.
"It's very, very frequent," said Ma Yunlong, an editor whose newspaper exposed an instance of extravagant extortion in central Henan province in 2005. Ma said the case involved 480 reporters and others pretending to be reporters who asked for "shut-up fees" to keep news of a mine flood out of the public eye.
In many ways, blackmail journalism grew naturally out of a system in which Communist Party censors control the news rigorously, barring reports that could be seen as unfavorable to the party or contrary to the government's political goals. If the ruling party distorts the news for political reasons, blackmailing reporters have concluded, why wouldn't they do it themselves for financial reasons?
In addition, local party officials, long used to manipulating information, have been complicit in the payoff system when it suits their needs. In the everybody-does-it atmosphere, even non-reporters have found ways to get in on the take by posing as journalists.
After the August 2005 mine disaster, for instance, reporters and their friends in Henan province dispatched a flurry of cellphone messages as soon as they heard the news -- not because they were eager to report on it, but because they knew local officials would be eager to hush it up.
By the time Fan Youfeng of the Henan Business News arrived at the mine, in a village in Jiliao county, local officials said they had already given money to so many reporters and phony reporters that the coffers were dry. But still more people showed up, Fan wrote, and the officials sought more cash, pressing the mine owners to chip in.
Journalists and poseurs lined up to get their handouts, he said, with some pushing and jumping the queue. Over several days, the extortionists carried away 200,000 yuan, or more than $25,000, he reported, quoting officials and a list signed by those who got the cash.
Encouraged by Ma, his editor, Fan wrote a story for the Henan Business News about what had happened. It was the first open discussion of what had become a widespread if secretive practice, Ma said with a note of pride.
As a result, however, an official from the central government propaganda department visited from Beijing and accused Ma of publishing an "inappropriate" and "false" story. The newspaper was suspended for a month, Ma was forced to retire and Fan was reprimanded, Ma said. The death toll from the mine disaster was never reported, he added.
"This kind of thing has an important impact on the success of local officials," Ma explained, "so they always want to cover it up."
More recently, some blackmail targets have started striking back. More than 40 people were arrested last month in Shanxi province on charges of impersonating reporters and trying to extort money from local officials and business owners, according to the official New China News Agency.
"People can't help but ask, 'Why are these fake reporters so savage?' " the news agency said in a Dec. 12 editorial.
'I was trying to help'
Zhou Yu, a slight man with sharp gestures and a ring in his left earlobe, said the lure of money was not what motivated him to take Bai's payoff envelope that evening in Shenzhen. "I was trying to help," he said in an interview. "It was out of friendship."
Zhou said Bai, a physician, had telephoned him earlier in the day asking for advice because, she said, two reporters had warned her they were about to write a story accusing her Jianmin Clinic of providing services it was not certified to perform, including abortions. Bai turned to him, Zhou explained, because a year earlier he had written what he described as a critical but objective story about her clinic.
"If I can help a friend, I think I should help," he said.
The two reporters who went to Bai's office were Hua Kejian of the Nanfang Daily and Liang Yongjian of Zhou's own Southern Metropolitan Daily, both owned by the prestigious Nanfang publishing house based in nearby Guangzhou, according to Zhou and others involved. A third reporter, Song Yi of the Yangcheng Evening News, joined the pair later in the day, they said.
"Their motive was very apparent," Zhou said.
After contacting the reporters, Zhou told Bai she would have to come up with 15,000 yuan to buy silence for her clinic, according to Zhou and the other sources. Zhou said he did not plan to pocket any of the money himself, only to pass it along to the other reporters.
"I thought this would be okay with my newspaper," he added, "because I was just a go-between."
The sum demanded was high, even for a boomtown such as Shenzhen. Most blackmail payouts to reporters are counted in the hundreds of yuan, according to Chinese reporters and editors. Acting on the advice of another acquaintance, therefore, Bai sent a cellphone message to Zhou complaining that the price was unreasonable. But Zhou responded that there was no way to reduce it, Bai's acquaintance said in an interview.
Zhou told Bai the cash should be divided into three packets of 5,000 yuan each and arranged for the handover to take place in the parking lot near his bureau on a leafy boulevard in central Shenzhen, according to several people involved.
Bureau chief tipped off
At that point, Gou, the bureau chief, received a troubling telephone call. The acquaintance of Bai's, outraged at the amount demanded by Zhou, called to say Gou's reporters were involved in a blackmail scheme and that, as bureau chief, he should do something about it, according to Gou and the acquaintance, who described his role on condition of anonymity.
"As soon as I heard about it," Gou said in an interview, "I wanted to verify what was going on."
Gou, 32, arranged with Bai to be in her car that evening as a witness.
When Bai got out of her car and approached Zhou, the two exchanged pleasantries for several minutes, and Zhou patted her on the shoulder. But when Zhou looked inside the envelope, he complained because she had not divided the cash into three bundles as requested, according to Zhou and others.
Zhou, in the interview, said he showed up alone to collect the money because the three other reporters were busy and he wanted to do them a favor. Gou, the bureau chief, said that "a lot is unclear" about what was really going on. In any case, Gou got out of the car after taking the photographs and confronted Zhou, who promptly handed the envelope back to Bai.
Returning the money was not enough, Gou said, and ordered Zhou to follow him to the office. Once inside, Gou started writing a memo about what had occurred and demanded to see Liang, the other reporter from his paper.
Liang reported to Gou's office looking embarrassed, witnesses said. "There's nothing wrong with my reporting," he maintained, according to the witnesses. For his part, Zhou said that the ringleader was Nanfang Daily's Hua Kejian and that he himself was only trying to help Bai get through a difficult time.
Unmoved, Gou fired Zhou. Liang was spared for lack of evidence, he said, and continues to work in the bureau. Hua Kejian and Song Yi also remain at their jobs.
At the bureau's regular weekly meeting on Oct. 10, Gou told his staff that the Zhou Yu case was a "shame" for himself, the bureau and the newspaper, besmirching its "glorious history," according to a record of the meeting.
After investigating, Gou told his reporters that he was convinced this was a unique case; he threatened to fire any others caught engaging in such conduct. "If anyone feels he can only make a living by blackmailing people, he should leave," Gou said, according to the record. "This is not the place for you."
But he also acknowledged that Shenzhen has an "unhealthy environment" in which such corruption can flourish. One of his own reporters has asked him repeatedly to withhold certain news, he complained.
Shenzhen journalists said that, in addition to blackmailing, reporters and editors regularly receive payments from businessmen and officials in exchange for publication of favorable articles. Instances range from the 300,000 yuan paid to a newspaper recently for an article praising Shenzhen's city government to "red envelopes" containing "transportation money" for reporters who show up at news conferences. The practice is encouraged, they added, by a system in which reporters are also responsible for selling advertising and subscriptions to the institutions and businesses they cover.
The payoffs have become so accepted that a reporter who showed up this month at a news conference called by an Internet software company here complained loudly and walked out when he discovered he would be given only a bottle of mineral water, according to other reporters present.
"I would say there are problems in the Chinese media world," one of them commented.
Zhou, meanwhile, said he feels betrayed by Bai for denouncing him to his boss. He no longer has any contact with his former colleagues Liang, Hua and Song, he said. His girlfriend seems to be the only one who believes his version of what happened that evening, he complained. His dreams of being a great journalist have dimmed, he added, and now he plans to start a trading company.
"I'm not thinking of the news business anymore," he said, smiling. "This had too much of an impact on me."
Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.