Chen Yongzhou, a muckraking reporter for Guangzhou’s New Express newspaper, took on one of China’s corporate giants: From September 2012 to June 2013, he published a series of 15 investigative pieces examining how state-owned Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science & Technology allegedly cooked its books to overstate profits. Zoomlion denied manipulating numbers, and Chen was detained on October 19 on criminal charges of “damaging commercial reputation.”
The arrest would normally be business as usual in China, except this time it wasn’t. Chen’s employer, New Express, shortly after published a bold, front-page editorial demanding, “Please Release Him.” In it, the editors minced few words, accusing Zoomlion and local authorities of collusion. When Chen was not released, they asked again on the next day’s front page. Government regulators who oversee China’s national media offered unprecedented support, expressing their concern over Chen’s detention, and in a second surprise move, so did Xinhua, the official news agency, saying the journalist’s case is “controversial” and the police should “release more evidence or release him.”
Chinese business journalists like Chen have in recent years increasingly scrutinized the operations of China’s biggest corporations, providing an invaluable public service by ferreting out the corruption and fraud that undermines the world’s second-largest economy. In the past, Chen’s detention may have deterred this work. Instead, New Express’s defiance and the outcry for press freedom in its wake will likely bolster investigations. Companies that interfere should also learn from Zoomlion’s missteps: Its stock price has tumbled since Chen’s arrest was made public, and the construction firm has lost more than $3.5 billion in value. Now the only logical conclusion: Chen must be released.