RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Some of China's investigative journalists are quitting. Yes, there are investigative journalists in China. All the media - all of them - are run by the state. Yet some reporters, at some of those state-controlled outlets, were able to investigate and even bring down allegedly corrupt officials - at least they could until the last few years. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A chorus of frogs and cicadas fills the muggy air in Changsha. It's the capital of southern Hunan province. I'm at the Yuelu Academy, a thousand-year-old school filled with stately classical buildings and tributes to famous graduates who have shaped the course of China's history. I'm here to meet former journalist Luo Changping, who says Hunan's local culture had a big impact on his career.
LUO CHANGPING: (Through interpreter) No matter how poor people are in Hunan, they're very concerned with politics. This is one reason that Hunan produces the best investigative journalists in the country.
KUHN: Hunan food is spicy, and the journalism can be even spicier. If the scholar is one model for Hunan journalists, the bandit would have to be another, Luo admits. Some are like Robin Hood, fighting for the oppressed. Others use their reporting to shake down local businessmen.
LUO: (Through interpreter) This character can make a big difference in times of chaos. But in times of peace, it's extremely damaging to the rule of law.
KUHN: Luo got his start in newspaper journalism in 2001, at a time when media organizations were eager and allowed to attract advertisers and readers by pushing hard-hitting investigative reporting.
LUO: (Through interpreter) We caught the last golden decade of China's newspaper business.
KUHN: In 2004, Luo's expose on official corruption in Hunan province's Chenzhou City helped bring down the mayor and other key members of his administration. Two years later, Luo moved to Caijing Magazine, then widely seen as the country's most independent media outlet.
In 2012, Luo blew the whistle on China's then energy czar, the highest-ranking Chinese official to be toppled by a reporter's social media post. He was sentenced to life in jail for taking nearly $6 million in bribes. Luo had to break the news on social media because, he says, Caijing Magazine couldn't publish it.
LUO: (Through interpreter) According to media rules in China, you need to get official permission to report on officials at this level. And of course, you can't get that permission.
KUHN: And that, says Luo, is why he quit journalism in 2014. He just couldn't get the contents of his reporting published. And since then, he adds, things have gotten progressively worse.
LUO: (Through interpreter) At Caijing, I could publish 90 to 100 percent of the material I got. Now they can only publish about 10 percent. And they're the media outlet with the most freedom.
KUHN: Luo does not expect the situation to improve in the next five years. That's how long President Xi Jinping's second term is expected to last. Xi has railed against Western notions of a free press and meted out harsh punishment to critics, including scholars, lawyers and activists.
In the eastern city of Hangzhou, I spoke to another member of the so-called Hunan gang of journalists, Deng Fei. He says many of his former colleagues feel demoralized, and they've been quitting the business in droves.
DENG FEI: (Through interpreter) These people have made a contribution to the nation. They're useful. We should value, support and protect them. Protecting investigative reporters is really just protecting our nation.
KUHN: After more than a decade of reporting on corruption and social problems, Deng quit journalism in 2011 and went into charity work. He's optimistic that in the long term, the situation for journalists will improve.
DENG: (Through interpreter) If our reports can't be published today, we'll do something else. The day will surely come when the government discovers it needs us. We're still young. There's no hurry.
KUHN: Luo Changping is pretty patient too.
LUO: (Through interpreter) I can give it another try in, say, 30 years (laughter).
KUHN: By the way, Luo is 36 this year. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Changsha.
(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "1000 ARMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.