CHINESE media are not known for stirring up trouble. Their coverage of politics is almost uniformly tame. Business coverage is sometimes harder-hitting, but journalists still shy away from taking on powerful companies. One exception is Caixin, a financial magazine. It has a reputation for well-reported exposés, which have earned its editor, Hu Shuli, the widely used moniker of China’s “most dangerous woman”. Over the years she has made plenty of enemies. But until recently, she had never faced two prominent foes in public at the same time.
The first is Anbang, which in recent years has grown at warp speed to become one of China’s biggest insurers. Caixin has published three separate cover articles since 2014 examining the company’s success. Like many analysts, it has pointed to the risks involved in Anbang’s reliance on the sale of short-term insurance products to fund its long-term investments. The magazine has also raised questions about the company’s shareholding structure. More explosively, Caixin wrote in its May 1st issue that Anbang had pretended to have more capital than it had—an allegation denied by Anbang.
Anbang has gone on the offensive since the publication of this latest article. It has released three statements, challenging details in the various reports and vowing to sue Caixin for reputational damage. It has also directed allegations of its own at Ms Hu: Anbang claimed that it was only after it refused to buy advertisements in Caixin that the magazine turned on it. Caixin, which stands by its reporting and says it maintains a firewall between its newsroom and its commercial operations, has threatened Anbang with a lawsuit.
Caixin’s second fight is with Guo Wengui, a billionaire living in self-imposed exile in America. Mr Guo has made headlines over the past few months with tweets and interviews laying out accusations of high-level corruption in China. Mr Guo has himself been ensnared in a graft inquiry: in April China asked Interpol to issue a global notice for his arrest.
Mr Guo has reserved special venom for Ms Hu. Mr Guo’s troubles were widely reported in China in 2015 after a rupture with his business partner—but nowhere in as much detail as in Caixin, which documented his alleged business dealings and political connections. Mr Guo hit back by accusing Caixin of blackmail and adding the outlandish claim that Ms Hu, 64, had a child with his former business partner. Caixin and Ms Hu deny all allegations and are suing Mr Guo for libel.
One possible conclusion from all this is that Caixin is the rarest of things in China: a courageous media outlet, pursuing the truth in the face of intimidation. No evidence has been presented to support the allegations that it tried to extort cash for positive coverage. Less scrupulous Chinese journalists have done that, but Ms Hu and her team have won influence thanks in part to their reputation for being clean.
Nevertheless, there is also the cynical view of Caixin’s critics that it is a pawn in a power war, going after select companies. In one statement Anbang accused Ms Hu of serving an unnamed “interest group”. Mr Guo, less restrained, has named Wang Qishan, the official leading China’s battle against corruption, as the force behind Caixin. But the notion that Chinese leaders need Caixin as a weapon stretches credulity. Mr Wang is more than capable of taking down businessmen such as Mr Guo without the help of journalists.
Strictly speaking, it is true that a powerful entity stands behind Caixin. Like all media outlets in China, its right to publish is conferred by having a “supervisory institution” as a formal backer (Caixin’s is an official publishing house controlled by an advisory body to the national parliament).
It is also true that Caixin picks its targets, refraining, for instance, from digging into the wealth of senior leaders—a red line that Chinese media dare not cross. But it has pieced together stories about corrupt leaders after they have been placed under investigation; most journalists are wary even of doing that. Perhaps the best way of looking at Caixin is as a magazine that has mastered the art of the possible within the confines of China. It is dogged in its reporting but also pragmatic.