BEIJING — Some say China's most prominent journalist is finished.
Far from it, says Hu Shuli, founder of the financial magazine Caixin.
Hu listened one recent afternoon to the theories floating in China's chattering class about why she was handing over the editorial reins at Caixin, the only newsroom known for hard-hitting, investigative reporting in China — and dismissed them.
“Laughable rumors,” Hu snapped. “I'm not stepping back or stepping down. You could say I'm stepping up.”
In a rare interview with the Associated Press, Hu spoke bullishly about transitioning this month into a publisher role at the newsmagazine she co-founded in 2009, and about the prospects of the “Me Too” movement in China. She spoke more guardedly about censorship and declared Caixin as free as ever to conduct its signature muckraking reporting. China watchers say the space for independent journalism in the country, already one of the world's most censored news environments, is fast vanishing under President Xi Jinping.
“We always think there are stories to do and we don't think, ‘maybe this environment should be better,’” said Hu. “We've always felt we could do anything we wanted. It was just based on what our priorities are.”
Hu said she was handing the operation over to her long-time deputy Wang Shuo because of her age — she turns 65 this year. She will occasionally conduct major interviews and remain involved in major editorial decisions as an adviser to Wang, who she hired as a 25-year-old two decades ago.
Known for her political savvy, for 30 years Hu has published scoops that uncovered corporate malfeasance and government corruption without repercussions while other journalists fell afoul of authorities and landed in jail. Her publication blew open the government cover-up of the SARS epidemic in 2003 and has questioned countless deals among powerful companies, including state-backed enterprises.
Caixin's reshuffle comes shortly after Wang Qishan, an official widely seen as Hu's longtime ally, stepped down from the Communist Party's top leadership body, said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University in Hong Kong.
“Ms. Hu is famous for being supercharged, full of energy,” Lam said. “It's difficult to believe she's stepping aside because of age. It has to do with politics.”
Hu declined to discuss her relationship with Wang and denied that political factors were behind her move. In any case, Wang appears to retain significant influence: he joined a parliamentary delegation this week amid speculation that Xi might soon name him vice president.
Still, at a time when Xi demands strict ideological discipline across Chinese society, particularly in sensitive industries like media, it remains to be seen if Caixin can continue to push the envelope. A liberal historical journal, Yanhuang Chunqiu, has been shuttered and influential online commentators silenced. Caixin made international headlines in 2016 when it published an interview with a Shanghai professor who criticized China's tightening censorship, and, when censors moved to block the interview, Caixin disclosed the takedown order in an unusual show of defiance.
Pressed nearly two years later, Hu shook her head, saying she doesn't remember the incident.
Even though she has not directed coverage recently, Hu said she is proud of her staff's reporting on sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement in China. Discussion of the subject has sometimes been censored on Chinese social media or branded as a destabilizing foreign movement. But the story has gained some domestic traction, including reports by state-run outlets like the official Xinhua news agency, which Hu praised.
“China also has this kind of problem ... China had the ‘women hold up half the sky’ revolutionary slogan — but the actual situation, the actual status of women — I think is a very profound issue,” said Hu, adding that she wanted to do more to promote #MeToo.
Hu said most of her energy will be focused on developing Caixin's business model.
In October the company became the first Chinese news company to erect a paywall, a decision Hu made based on the success of leading western newspapers. She declined to discuss subscription or revenue numbers, but acknowledged that online revenues are not yet considered “substantial.”
Wei Wuhui, a lecturer of new media at Shanghai Jiaotong University who was asked by Hu to consult on Caixin's paywall model last year, said the increasingly restrictive political atmosphere will affect Caixin. Apart from direct censorship, it will be hurt by the scarcity of young people willing to pursue journalism.
“Even students studying journalism don't want to do journalism now,” Wei said. “In a few years, the market for investigative journalism may not exist at all.”
Never mind the naysayers, said Hu.
Caixin has more fertile (and safe) areas than ever to investigate in China, she said.
Wang ticked off financial crimes and environmental protection as beats where he plans to beef up staffing.
A month after she officially relinquished the editor position, Hu still sat in her same corner office, her books and pictures untouched. Wang still works on a long narrow table with other editors in Caixin's main newsroom of 400 people.
Her advice for Wang was that “the opportunity is his to take now,” she said, adding: “And I'm still here.”