When Hu Shuli was asked in 1998 to set up what has become China's premier business publication, she wrote on a piece of paper the salaries she intended to pay her reporters – three times that of journalists at the People's Daily.
When one went to his first news conference and refused to accept a red packet full of cash, it became front-page news. No one could believe that a journalist would reject a gift of money.
From day one, Caijing has broken with the traditions of Chinese journalism. Although its mother company is the Chinese Securities market Research and Design Center, a private company with strong official links, Hu aimed to establish a magazine that was run according to international standards, with the policy of 'independent, exclusive and original.'
It has succeeded beyond her wildest hopes, becoming the most influential economic publication in the world's fastest growing economy. On any given day, it is likely to have a long, well written and polished story that runs counter to the official line. Its readers include members of the Communist Party's ruling Politburo, the directors of banks, heads of major companies and everyone who wants to know what is going on in the smoke-filled rooms of the central bank, the China Securities Regulatory Commission and the Ministry of Finance.
A recent issue, published on April 27, includes interviews with the Prime Ministers of Finland and New Zealand, Matti Vanhanen and John Key, as well as a cover story on the aftermath of the Three Gorges Dam – its impact on the environment and the resettlement of those who lost their land.
It has full-page color advertisements by investment funds, property firms, Deutsche Bank, China Telecom, Longines, Buick, GE, Nissan and Vacheron Constantin, as well as ten pages of Mercedes-Benz cars
Its influence gives it access to who hold power and make policy around the world; last September, when the global tsunami broke, it had a one-on-one interview with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, director-general of the IMF -- the man at the centre of the storm.
It has excelled in three sectors – news on securities and finance, public health and exposes of corruption. Its reporters enjoy no particular protection. They are as likely to be attacked and beaten as any for a lesser publication. Nonetheless, in March 2003, it was the first media in China to report SARS, defying an official rule which banned any mention of the disease. In March 2005, it broke the story of the corruption of Zhang Enzhao, then head of the China Construction Bank. He resigned soon afterwards and was later sentenced to 15 years for accepting 4.18 million yuan in bribes.
Since its inception, Caijing has operated, as the Chinese say, on the white line on the ping-pong table, on the edge of what is permitted, testing the boundaries and the patience of the censors.
It was nearly closed after its first edition, in April 1998; its front-page story was about a company called Qiong Min Yuan, a stock suspended since January 1997; the censors had banned any mention of it in the media, in the interests of 'social stability'. The suspension had caused heavy losses to more than 100,000 small and medium investors. The title of the story was "Who is responsible for Qiong Min Yuan?"
It printed 50,000 copies of this first edition, which were quickly sold out. "We received heavy pressure, to the point that it became a question of whether we could publish a second issue," Hu recalled.
The SARS scoop was another gamble. The government was split between those who wanted to keep the epidemic secret and those who wanted to make it public. Caijing backed the right horse – on April 20, the government reported the epidemic and fired the Minister of Health and a vice-mayor of Beijing for their roles in the cover-up and mismanaging the crisis.
Breaking stories of corruption of senior officials and corporate chiefs is also a risk, if those involved are related to or closely associated with those at the top.
The magazine has been sued several times, especially in the early years, and always lost. "The people we criticized were powerful institutions or individuals who had power in their localities and good relations with local courts," said Hu. "Local protectionism is very strong. We have spent a very large amount of money on lawsuits. It has cost us a lot of labor and money."
In navigating through these shark-infested waters, Hu and her editors are guided by a political sense honed over decades of knowing those who walk the corridors of power in Beijing.
They know the absolute taboos – challenging China's rule to rule Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang, the Communist Party's right to a monopoly of power or exposing corruption by the members of the standing committee of the Politburo and their families.
But they also know which senior officials are under investigation and on their way out and which laws and regulations are under consideration. They know what is on the white line of the ping-pong table and what is off the line.
Another important factor is who is your patron. Caijing has long been supported by those in the financial and business establishment who advocate transparency, better corporate and official governance and oppose special interests. They have seen Caijing as a powerful lobby for change and reform.
In the 11 years since it was founded, the policies which the magazine has championed have largely been implemented; it has backed and been backed by the winning side.
Caijing is largely the creation of Hu, its founder and editor since the first day. Businessweek called her 'the most dangerous woman in Asia', while one of her staff describes her as 'terminator'. She lives and breathes Caijing 24 hours a day, calling her staff in the middle of the night. She is the publisher, editor, conducts interviews and writes the major editorial for each issue.
She is a friend of powerful people, including Zhou Xiaochuan, head of the central bank, Vice Premier Wang Qishan and Long Yongtu, the man who negotiated China into the WTO.
On one occasion, I had the honor – and pain – of being interviewed by her and her team, after returning from North Korea, which had just appointed a Chinese businessman, Yang Bin, as the chief of a proposed economic zone in Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese city of Dandong. Caijing had been unable to send a reporter to cover the event.
The grilling lasted two hours and left me exhausted. They wanted to know every detail, down to Yang's favourite brand of cigarette – 555 -- and dinner dish – pork braised in soy sauce.
As usual, they were onto a big story. Soon after, Yang was arrested and, in June 2003, sentenced to 18 years in prison for tax evasion. The economic zone was never built and the giant Holland Village property complex Yang built in Shenyang is being torn down, in the biggest demolition of a single project in China's history. I salute their professionalism and nose for a story.