Dissent in China

Of development and dictators

When the story of Chinese democracy is written, a train crash in Wenzhou will deserve a special mention

Aug 6th 2011 | from the print edition

CHINA’S history is full of natural and man-made disasters. Indeed, the ruling Communists think it vital to their own survival to manage these so that they reflect well on the party. By this reckoning, they have done well until now. But the storm created among ordinary Chinese by the collision of two new high-speed trains outside the city of Wenzhou on July 23rd raises doubts about the party’s ability to carry it off in future.

The death toll from the crash was not extreme: 40, according to official accounts, with 191 injured—less than previous railway accidents on conventional lines, and a drop of blood compared with the Sichuan earthquake, in which 69,000 died. But this time is different for China’s leaders, for three reasons.

First, in the past the leaders in Beijing could portray themselves as the bulwark against malign local forces. After the Sichuan quake President Hu Jintao and the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, who likes to be known as “Grandpa Wen”, were the consolers-in-chief against a powerful natural world. And if local corruption was suspected to be behind the collapse of so many shoddy school buildings, how much worse it would be without those good men at the top.

This approach does not fly with the Wenzhou crash. The leaders have pinned their own and the country’s prestige to high-speed rail. From a standing start, China has built the world’s longest high-speed network—a genuine achievement, but one the leaders exaggerated. High-speed rail was a patriotic symbol and the next great export. Yet even before the crash, the network was plagued by breakdowns. Earlier this year the railways minister was sacked on suspicion of vast corruption. A darling programme is in trouble.

Second, the authorities have this time bungled the public relations. They first tried to blame the weather (lightning) before faulting the institute that designed the signalling. Rescuers rushed to bury part of the wreckage, either in haste to get the service going again before all the survivors had been accounted for, or because they wished to hide technology (either Chinese, or some lifted from foreign companies). Corpses were not at first handed over to families. And Grandpa Wen took days to pay his respects to victims. He had been sick, he said, which raised more questions than it answered (see article).

Third, in their unprecedented anger over the crash and its handling, ordinary Chinese and the state media have, amazingly, suddenly found common cause against the government. China has nearly 500m internet users. On Twitter-like microblogging sites, criticisms spread so quickly that censors could not keep up. Even the state-controlled media sharply questioned official explanations for the crash and criticised the government’s response to the accident. On July 29th, when the openness threatened to get out of hand, the censors ordered an end to it, but even then some state publications defied orders. Mao Zedong said that a single spark could start a prairie fire. The capacity of both journalists and the public to speak up in huge numbers has breached a firebreak not crossed since the Tiananmen protests in the pre-internet age.

Autocracy hits the buffers

China’s rulers love to point out the shortcomings of Western-style democracies; the “Beijing model” by contrast gets difficult jobs done. That view is often echoed by Western businesspeople. Yet breakneck economic development has cut corners, distorted priorities and created big conflicts of interest. The railways ministry is manufacturer, operator and regulator of the network. Now ordinary Chinese folk are questioning their country’s less-than-triple-A politics. A hurtling train is a metaphor for runaway development that is generating its share of collapsing buildings, lethal coal mines and bulldozed neighbourhoods. By contrast, Japan’s bullet train has had just one fatality in 47 years, a passenger caught in a door.

China’s technocrats managed to fix its once faulty airlines. But the issue at Wenzhou is not really the rushed engineering. Rather it is the growing need, in an increasingly complex country, for scrutiny, accountability and public debate. It has, in other words, shown the limits of dictatorship. Some of China’s rulers probably know that—but, to judge by the news crackdown now under way, clearly not enough of them.

Largely invisible to a radar screen dominated by concerns over the US and eurozone debt crises, the Chinese economic miracle, one of the few apparent bright spots that remains in a world beset by trouble, has in recent weeks also been showing unnerving signs of strain. Indeed, it may even be about to come off the rails entirely – quite literally.

China's economic miracle may be about to come off the rails

Last weekend, one of China’s new bullet trains rammed into the back of another, killing 39 passengers and injuring nearly 200 more.  Photo: AP

Last weekend, one of China’s new bullet trains, a showcase of the country’s growing economic prowess, rammed into the back of another, killing 39 passengers and injuring nearly 200 more.

The accident has raised questions, not just about the safety of China’s vaunting ambition in high-speed rail, but about the sustainability of the country’s break-neck pace of economic development in the round.

As Shen Minggao, chief China economist at Citi, has observed: “High-speed rail in some sense represents China’s fast growth. When you care so much about speed, you sometimes pay less attention to the quality of the growth.”

China’s political leadership has long dreamt of an entirely new rail network, from the prosperous eastern seaboard to remotest inland China, and over the past four years they’ve set about building it with a determination which no other country would seem remotely capable of.

But in so doing, they appear to have put speed before safety, and economic ambition before commercial viability. It is not just the quality of the bastardised foreign designs, copied and botched together to feed China’s insatiable appetite for growth, which is now being questioned.

The funding of this grand ambition is beginning to look increasingly shaky too. Financially, the project has already effectively broken the Ministry of Railways. At the last count, the ministry was nearly 2 trillion yuan (£200bn) in debt and clocking up losses at the rate of about £400m a quarter. On any Western definition, the ministry is completely bust. To meet the plan, another 2.8 trillion yuan has to be found in the next three and half years. Where’s the money going to come from?

In recent debt issues, the railway has had to pay way above the going rate of interest, despite the fact that its bonds are implicitly and in some cases explicitly underwritten by the state. Of equal concern is that the newly opened links have failed to achieve anywhere near expected traffic levels. In the West, they would be dubbed a massive white elephant.

Concern over the new network’s safety has created an even bigger hill to climb in terms of driving the necessary demand. Many of the trains are as empty as the ghost towns that sprout randomly upon China’s vast open plains. For many Chinese, both are too expensive to contemplate.

The Chinese approach to development is to build the infrastructure in the expectation that the demand and economic activity will naturally follow in its wake. Yet in its impatience for economic advancement, China has ignored the dangers and cut corners. Last weekend’s rail crash can be seen as a harbinger of wider economic catastrophe to come.

As everyone knows, progress never proceeds in a straight line, yet when it comes to China, many have managed to deceive themselves that it can and will. No one is more guilty of this delusion than the Chinese themselves. The swagger and arrogance of Chinese officialdom has all the hallmarks of pride before the fall.

Nowhere is the unsustainability of Chinese growth more apparent than in its spectacular real estate bubble. Prices have been growing like topsy, despite a growing overhang of vacant new development. Conscious of the dangers, the Chinese authorities have taken a number of steps to cool the overheated housing market. Early evidence is that it seems to be working. Prices have risen by “only” 7pc over the last year and transaction volumes are lower.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that. China is on a treadmill of unsustainable development which it knows not how to get off without damaging growth and thereby provoking political and social instability. Residential and commercial property development in China is such a big component of overall growth that anything that damages the property market threatens to upset the entire apple cart.

According to the most recent International Monetary Fund staff report on China, the property market directly makes up some 12pc of the country’s GDP. Indirectly, it is a lot more, as the property market is highly connected to the output of basic industries such as steel and cement, as well as downstream industries such domestic appliances and other consumer durables.

The banking sector is also highly exposed, having financed much of the recent development. Direct lending to real estate (developers and residential mortgages), accounts for nearly 20pc of all bank lending in China.

For a long time now, the Chinese leadership has been conscious of the economy’s dangerously high reliance on investment and net trade to fuel growth. Economic and financial calamities in the West have convinced policy-makers of the need to move more swiftly than they would have liked to address these imbalances.

Yet despite the rhetoric, the country has failed appreciably to wean itself off the dependence. Domestic consumption still accounts for a woefully small proportion of the economy. In the round, public policy still overwhelmingly prioritises investment and exports over higher disposable incomes.

The longer China takes to make the switch, the more likely it is that China’s present phase of investment-led growth will end badly. In high-speed rail along with much else, China is trying to run before she has properly learned to walk. Rampant corruption, cronyism and poor governance only add to concern over the sustainability of the present economic and social model.

So when China lectures the US on its absence of economic leadership and the suicidal tendencies the world’s richest nation is displaying in putting political infighting before the interests of financial stability, it perhaps ought to look to the mote in its own eye. The imbalances China has deliberately created in its pursuit of economic advancement are a large part of the overall mischief that has taken place in the world economy this past decade.

By supporting its trade surplus through massive purchases of US Treasuries, China, one of the poorest countries in the world, has in effect been lending the US, the richest, the money with which to buy its goods. How stupid is that? Debasement of the vast dollar assets China has accumulated in the process is the least it can expect by way of payback for a flawed economic model.

China and America

The trouble with democracy—and dictatorship

Aug 1st 2011, 2:45 by Banyan

BOTH America and China seem to have been suffering crises of political faith.

As a massive investor in American sovereign debt, China’s government will be as relieved as other observers that last-ditch agreement has been reached in Washington, DC, to avoid a technical default. Some commentators in the official press, however, may rather miss the opportunity to highlight the perceived flaws in America’s political system.

After all, a crackdown on coverage of the high-speed rail disaster on July 23rd, in which at least 39 people died, inhibits them from discussion of some of the flaws in China’s.

China’s press loves to point out the failings and hypocrisies of the “advanced democracies”. The China Media Project at Hong Kong University has noted coverage of the phone-hacking scandal gripping Britain that gloats over the “deficit of professional ethics among news professionals in Western media”.

Even last month’s massacre in Norway, home of the Nobel peace prize awarded to both the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo, a jailed dissident, was grist to this mill. The official Xinhua news agency produced a commentary entitled “the Nordic version of September 11th to break the myth of Nordic peace”.

But it was the spectacle of American political gridlock, along with fear of the dreadful consequences it might have for the world as a whole, that provided the best opportunity for what, during the Cultural Revolution, was called “teaching by negative example”.

After all, even Barack Obama has said America risked having its credit rating downgraded because “it didn’t have a Triple-A political system to match”.

For Chinese observers, the showdown highlighted some structural difficulties: the checks and balances that hinder swift, decisive action; the tendency, between elections, for political parties to pander to their hard-core activists and neglect the moderate centre; and the lack of influence of those without votes, such as the future generations who will have to pay off America’s debts—and the outside world.

Xinhua raised these points in two succinct questions: “How can Washington shake off electoral politics and get difficult jobs done more efficiently? And how can US politicians improve their mindset so that they will care at least a bit more about the rest of the world when handling domestic affairs with global reverberations?”

But the first of these questions also helps explain why it is hard for even the most nationalist Chinese commentators to go to town at the moment about the superiority of the “Beijing model”. One of its supposed advantages is precisely that it “gets difficult jobs done more efficiently”. And one example often pointed to as a source of wonder and pride is the rapid development of a world-beating high-speed rail system.

That is why this disaster seems to have provoked even more outrage than previous scandals—such as those in 2008 over the shoddy building that made schools especially vulnerable to the Sichuan earthquake and the revelation that some baby-formula was tainted with melamine.

Both involved presumed corruption and official connivance. But neither undermined a central pillar of the party’s and government’s own claimed achievements.

All three scandals showed the limits to dictatorship—the lack of openness and accountability; the shortage of public scrutiny over government decisions; and the absence of public debate about them among politicians, however ugly that debate may sometimes look.

A train crash in China

A new third rail

Suddenly the Communist Party’s showcase project is in trouble

Jul 30th 2011 | BEIJING | from the print edition

 

NO TRANSPORT accident has caused such an outcry in China as did the collision on July 23rd of two bullet trains, in which at least 39 people died. With the accident and the railway ministry’s crass response, public grievance is widespread. A cherished project, the rapid expansion of what is already the world’s longest high-speed rail network, is in tatters.

The crash on a viaduct near the coastal town of Wenzhou is above all a big embarrassment to the Communist Party itself. Only a few weeks earlier party officials had been crowing about the network’s latest, and most expensive, addition: a 1,320km (820-mile) line between Beijing and Shanghai that cost more than $30 billion. Its opening was timed as a celebration of the party’s 90th birthday on July 1st. Soon services on the new line were disrupted by power cuts. Angry passengers waited for hours in sweltering heat.

The collision occurred on another line that opened two years ago. It was the four-year-old network’s first fatal crash, and the bloodiest train accident since more than 70 people died in 2008. As it did then, the railway ministry responded to this week’s fatalities by sacking officials from the region responsible, in this case Shanghai. But as even some state-owned newspapers have pointed out, the man appointed to succeed the bureau’s disgraced chief had himself been demoted in connection with the 2008 accident.

Twitter-like social-networking services have played a huge role in exposing the government’s cack-handed response. These have become enormously popular (Twitter itself is banned). The government often tries to rein them in during crises by blocking the use of sensitive keywords. But in this case the authorities have resisted interfering. Online, many have demanded the dismissal of the new railway minister, Sheng Guangzu. The last one, Liu Zhijun, was sacked only in February for presumed corruption. His removal ushered in a less feverish approach to high-speed rail construction. But many Chinese still complain that the new services are too expensive and that cheaper, conventional services are being cut.

Mr Sheng has certainly failed to improve the typical high-handedness of his ministry. It waited more than a day before holding its first press conference on the accident. Rail officials have been sparing in their expressions of regret. Officials were slow to explain how one train crashed into the rear of the other. On July 28th they finally blamed signal failure. Most astonishingly, the ministry appeared in unseemly haste to remove the wreckage and, mystifyingly, even bury some of it.

In defiance of an order from rail staff, police reportedly persisted with their search through one badly damaged carriage and found a two-year-old survivor hours after the ministry had said there were no more signs of life. A video clip widely circulated online shows what some viewers say were two bodies falling out of carriages as they were being moved away from the line. Officials have also been criticised for allegedly offering victims’ families extra money if they agree to quick compensation deals.

The disaster is a setback for the ambitions of Chinese companies hoping to use their experience in building high-speed trains and railways to cash in on demand for such technology abroad. China’s relatively low prices will now be less of a selling point. For comparison, Japan has operated bullet trains for 47 years without a fatal accident.

Yet the party will worry most about the political repercussions. Some state-controlled newspapers have defied orders—secret but, as often, leaked on the internet—from the party’s powerful propaganda ministry to accentuate the positive, such as tales of heroism and sacrifice in the relief efforts. The Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, said the railway ministry was not alone in its “arrogance”. Public opinion, it said, could no longer stand this. “The relationship between the government and public is like that of a ship and water. Water can keep the ship afloat or sink it.” With even its own media giving such warnings, the party has reason to fret.

Xinjiang

Let them shoot hoops

China’s turbulent west is unlikely to be calmed by plans for economic development

Jul 30th 2011 | from the print edition

THE situation in Xinjiang, said a Chinese foreign-ministry official in early July, is “good and stable”. Less than two weeks later, on July 18th, the restive region in China’s far west was again rocked by violence. Officials say police opened fire on separatist rioters in the oasis town of Khotan, killing 14. Two security officers and two people described as civilian hostages were also killed in the clash, the bloodiest in Xinjiang in two years. Recent government efforts to buy calm with dollops of aid do not appear to be working.

Exactly what happened in Khotan is uncertain. An exile group campaigning for Xinjiang’s independence from China said the police fired on protesters who had been peacefully airing grievances about police repression of Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic group of Turkic origin who until recently dominated Xinjiang but now form less than half the population. Officials say the police came under attack by “terrorists” armed with Molotov cocktails, bombs and knives. The assailants, says one official account, stormed a police station and unfurled a banner “promoting separatism”. Another account says they had black flags on which were written: “Allah is the only God. In the name of Allah.”

The incident must have rattled the authorities, both in Xinjiang and in Beijing, 3,200km (1,990 miles) east of Khotan. The previous large outbreak of unrest, an explosion of inter-ethnic violence in July 2009 in Urumqi, the regional capital, left some 200 dead. That shocked the authorities. For months they shut down the internet in Xinjiang, believing that limiting communications would keep a lid on violence. More recently, however, they have been showing signs of renewed confidence after Xinjiang’s Communist Party chief, Wang Lequan, much disliked by Uighurs, was replaced and the internet was switched back on (though still heavily censored). On July 5th, the second anniversary of the Urumqi riots, the new party chief, Zhang Chunxian, like all senior party secretaries a member of China’s ethnic-Han majority, visited a Uighur bazaar where he drank beer, ate kebabs and hailed diners with a cheery “Go Xinjiang!”.

Officials in Khotan had been celebrating too, with the launch at the end of June of the remote city’s first passenger-train service. This, they hope, will enable it to cash in on the boom now being enjoyed by Kashgar, 490km along the new line to the north-west. Kashgar has long been a hotbed of Uighur separatism, a problem the authorities have recently been trying to cure with a big campaign to turn it into a trading boom town in the mould of those along China’s coast. Just as prosperity has helped dampen demands in eastern China for political change, officials reckon it can also silence separatism in the west.

In Kashgar they speak of the city’s “leapfrog development”. Their model is Shenzhen, the grandfather of Chinese boom towns, on the border with Hong Kong. Kashgar, they say, is to become a trading hub and manufacturing centre that will tap markets in South and Central Asia and even Europe with a web of new roads and railways. Its new “special economic zone” (a concept pioneered by Shenzhen) will produce everything from petrochemicals and cars to halal food, they say. “In the east is Shenzhen, in the west is Kashgar,” is the new official slogan. Yet the gulf between the two is immense. Kashgar prefecture is one of the poorest parts of Xinjiang, which itself is among the poorest of China’s provinces. Shenzhen is China’s richest city.

Although he appears more affable than his predecessor, the new party chief is just as tough on separatists. Uighur exiles accuse the local government of tarring any expression of Uighur nationalism with the brush of terrorism. Mr Zhang, like Mr Wang before him, portrays Xinjiang as a target of an al-Qaeda-inspired jihad.

For every banner across Kashgar’s streets proclaiming its glorious future, a government poster or wall slogan in the back alleys paints a more troublesome story: injunctions against “illegal religious activities” and unauthorised pilgrimages to Mecca; posters calling on “ethnic separatist leaders, violent terrorist criminals, chiefs of religious extremist forces, serious criminals and suspects on the run” to turn themselves in; and urgings for citizens to report audio or video material containing “reactionary” content. In January Kashgar’s mayor, Maimaitiming Baikeli, said that the government should “gain the initiative by striking the first blow” against separatists.

Little evidence backs claims of terrorism linked to al-Qaeda. Violence in Xinjiang shows few hallmarks such as suicide bombings or attacks on civilian targets. Security measures in Kashgar hardly suggest a preoccupation with terrorism, but rather an attempt to keep the population cowed. On February 20th, during calls online for a “jasmine revolution” in Chinese cities, Kashgar police stationed water cannon near the city’s main mosque, while riot police lurked in a government compound. Plainclothes goons routinely follow and harass visiting correspondents.

Mr Baikeli has made active Muslims a special target of efforts to drum up enthusiasm for Kashgar’s economic plans. Their support is critical. Islamic traditions have seen a strong revival in Xinjiang over the past two decades. In Kashgar alcohol is rarely served in Uighur-run restaurants, and many women cover their heads. (The violence in Khotan, some reports say, was fuelled by efforts to curb wearing of the full-length chador.) Officials, the mayor says, should “propagandise the superiority of socialism” in order to bring the “thoughts and actions of the clergy and broad masses of the faithful in line with the excellent situation of big construction, big opening and big development.”

Irresistible. Yet Uighurs worry that any wealth that comes Xinjiang’s way will be grabbed by Han Chinese. Xinjiang’s economy has been growing at double-digit rates, yet Urumqi still erupted with violence in 2009. Unemployed young men from southern Xinjiang, including Kashgar and Khotan, were apparently prominent among the rioters. The authorities accused Xinjiang separatists abroad of stirring up the unrest. But a government researcher says economic factors were “at least half” to blame.

Xinjiang Economic Daily, closely controlled by the government, reports that Kashgar’s new zone could create as many as 600,000 jobs, a staggering figure given that only 460,000 people live in the city’s core urban area. The government speaks of training thousands of Uighur peasants to help them transfer to factory work. But the newspaper recommends that soldiers from other parts of China be offered incentives to work in the zone—in effect, continuing a half-century Communist practice of resettling soldiers and other Han Chinese in Xinjiang. The paper suggests that Kashgar’s only college be upgraded to a university and provide subsidised places for students from coastal provinces. It says wealthier cities and provinces directed to funnel aid to Kashgar (Shenzhen and Shanghai among them) should send some of their skilled migrant workers to the city. Officials speak airily of boosting Uighur employment by attracting handicraft industries to Kashgar’s zone—southern Xinjiang is famous for its carpets. But unless new markets can be found, such businesses will have few prospects.

The government hopes the new rail line between Kashgar and Khotan will promote tourism. But the experience of Lhasa in neighbouring Tibet suggests they should be careful what they wish for. In Lhasa efforts to attract visitors from the Chinese interior backfired badly when anti-Han rioting broke out in March 2008, triggering upheaval across the Tibetan plateau. The rioting was fuelled by resentment towards an influx of Han Chinese after a railway to Lhasa opened in 2006.

Luckily, perhaps, neither Kashgar nor Khotan have the same appeal to Chinese tourists as Lhasa does. A fear of terrorism puts many off. Still, Kashgar is already being transformed by migration, helped by its own first link to the railway network in 1999. It has taken on Lhasa’s appearance of a city divided. Great swathes are the spitting image of any provincial Chinese town, with hardly a Uighur to be seen. In older districts, Han faces are equally rare. In one Han area, a woman hands out leaflets advertising a big luxury-housing project. They are printed entirely in Chinese.

Urban renewal, or resentment?

Housing could prove a flashpoint. In 2009 the authorities launched a controversial effort to revamp Kashgar’s famous old city, with its labyrinthine alleys of mud-brick houses. Its 200,000 residents are nearly all Uighur. The government said houses would either be rebuilt in a traditional style, but proofed against earthquakes; or, if their occupants agreed, they would be demolished. The government would resettle these people in newly built blocks on the city’s edge. It said the space created in the old city would be used to widen roads and improve access for fire engines.

Yet urban renewal programmes anywhere in China stir resentment. In Kashgar they fuel suspicions that the programme is somehow aimed at Uighur culture itself. One Uighur woman says the old city’s residents are not convinced of the need to improve building safety. Allah, she says, will protect against earthquakes.

Back in Urumqi the government also hopes that slum clearance will help remove the breeding grounds of ethnic violence. Many Uighurs involved in rioting in 2009 lived in shanty towns. People from these are being moved into new, six-storey buildings. There, many enjoy running water and central heating for the first time. But only those who have lived in Urumqi for at least two years are eligible. In other words, the city is closing down a cheap housing option for the most impoverished new settlers, who often happen to be peasants from the south. This will hardly reduce social tensions.

Tang Lijiu of Urumqi’s East-West Economic Research Institute says that creating the right kind of jobs for Uighurs is the key. “Because of their lifestyle, asking them to go into big industrial production, onto the production line: they’re probably not suited to that,” says Mr Tang, who is Han Chinese. Better, he suggests, to develop something like, well, basketball. That, Mr Tang says, might work in the same way that America’s National Basketball Association creates “more job opportunities for blacks”. This kind of musing perhaps helps explain why the vast region of Xinjiang remains perilously unstable.

Photographs and an audio report on the Uighur people of Xinjiang

How China’s ‘whole nation’ system works

China’s Soviet-style sports system China has changed dramatically since it began reforming its Communist system three decades ago. But one vestige of Soviet-style central planning remains in its “juguo” or “whole nation” sports system.

By Malcolm Moore in Shanghai

1:04PM BST 18 Jul 2011

Under the “whole nation” system, China roots out talented young children and puts them in special academies from as young as four years old.

If they are able to progress, athletes who make the cut are put into a relentless training programme, filled with targets they must regularly hit, and paid by the government a monthly wage of between 1,000 yuan and 3,000 yuan a month (£96 to £288).

Each year, the best athletes are sent to national training centres in Beijing, where they compete to enter China’s national team. If they succeed, they will move with their families into the training centre and live there all year round.

Outsiders who have glimpsed inside the Chinese National Gymnastics centre, like Sir Matthew Pinsent, have been dismayed by what they saw.

“I know it is gymnastics and that sport has to start its athletes young,” he said, before the Beijing games. “But I have to say I was really shocked. I do think those kids are being abused.” One note, found pinned to the wall of the training centre before the Beijing Olympics simply read: “Leaders put pressure on us, subordinates put pressure on us, pressure each other. Pressure yourself. There will be no breakthrough without the hardest hardship. You cannot be a champion without going through the ultimate pressure”.

A special report on the news industry: WikiLeaks and other newcomers

Julian Assange and the new wave

A host of non-profit actors have entered the news business, blurring the line between journalism and activism

Jul 7th 2011 | from the print edition

THE BEATEN-UP RED car crunched up the driveway and came to a halt outside an English manor house. A tall, strangely hunched woman emerged into the November night and hurried indoors. In fact it was Julian Assange, the boss of WikiLeaks, who had donned a wig to disguise himself as an old woman as he travelled from London to a safe house in Norfolk. That may have been a tad dramatic, but there can be no doubt about Mr Assange’s prominence among a group of unconventional new actors in the news business that have emerged lately.

These are non-profit organisations that are involved in various forms of investigative journalism. As funding for such reporting by traditional media has been cut, they are filling the gap using new methods based on digital technology. Some of them make government information available in order to promote openness, transparency and citizen engagement; some gather and publish information on human-rights abuses; and some specialise in traditional investigative journalism and are funded by philanthropy.

And then there is WikiLeaks. Launched in late 2006, it was intended to be “an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis”, with the aim of “exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet block, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East”. Inspirations included Wikipedia, the web encyclopedia written by volunteers, and the leak of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times during the Vietnam war, which ultimately led to a Supreme Court ruling that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” WikiLeaks welcomes documents from whistle-blowers and provides anonymous drop boxes. It is funded by donations and staffed by volunteers.

In its first three years WikiLeaks published leaked material on a range of subjects, including corruption in Kenya, the church of Scientology, Sarah Palin’s e-mails, the membership of a British nationalist party and a Peruvian oil scandal. But in 2010 it abandoned the wiki-style approach and adopted a new, editorialising tone. In July that year it worked with three mainstream news organisations—the New York Times, DerSpiegel and the Guardian—to publish a cache of 75,000 documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. Speaking to The Economist at the time, Mr Assange explained that such partnerships gave it more impact than if it simply posted leaked material online and expected people to seek it out. “We see actually that the professional press has a nose for what a story will be—the general public becomes involved once there is a story, and then can come forward and help mine the material.”

A further cache of nearly 400,000 documents, relating to the Iraq war, was released in October, and in November five newspapers began to publish highlights from over 250,000 diplomatic cables sent by American embassies around the world. But by this time the relationship between WikiLeaks and its media partners was breaking down, and WikiLeaks itself was in turmoil. Mr Assange was fighting an extradition request in the British courts from Swedish prosecutors who want to question him about two alleged sexual assaults, and his increasingly imperious behaviour prompted the departure of several of his key associates. Ironically, WikiLeaks itself sprang a leak and some of its material was passed to its estranged media partners, which no longer felt they had to co-ordinate publication with Mr Assange.

Despite WikiLeaks’ difficulties, its approach is being adopted by others. Al Jazeera has set up a “transparency unit” with a WikiLeaks-style anonymous drop box. The Wall Street Journal launched a drop box of its own in May, but was criticised for not offering enough protection to leakers. “Everyone’s looking at the idea,” says the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger, “but if you’re going to do it you have to make it really secure.”

Conspiracy theory

What happens next depends in part on the fate of Mr Assange and of Bradley Manning, an American soldier who has been charged with passing confidential information to WikiLeaks. If American prosecutors can show that Mr Assange encouraged Mr Manning to leak the material, they may try to charge WikiLeaks’ boss with conspiracy. That would be worrying for news organisations in general, because it would strike at the idea that journalists should be able to develop relationships with confidential sources without fear of prosecution.

WikiLeaks seems to be hoping that by calling itself a news organisation it will be protected by the First Amendment. The “about” page on the WikiLeaks website, which used to describe the organisation as “an excellent source for journalists”, has been rewritten to describe its activities as journalism, its staff as journalists and Mr Assange as its editor-in-chief. There has been much debate about whether Mr Assange should be regarded as a journalist; Mr Rusbridger calls him “a new breed of publisher-intermediary”. Jay Rosen of New York University says such arguments show that in the digital age “the very boundaries around journalism are collapsing.” WikiLeaks is not the only example.

The Sunlight Foundation, based in Washington, DC, also campaigns for government openness and transparency, but in a different way from WikiLeaks. Its aim is to make government data more easily accessible, both to journalists and to ordinary citizens. Its Transparency Data website, for example, is a database of federal and state campaign contributions, federal grants and contracts, and lobbying disclosures going back 20 years; Party Time keeps track of the political party circuit; Checking Influence is a database of campaign contributions and lobbying activity by companies. All this provides raw material for journalists, but the compilation and presentation of these data sometimes shades into journalism.

Ellen Miller, the organisation’s co-founder, cites the example of Sunlight Live, which combines a live video stream of government proceedings on a web page with information from Sunlight’s databases to provide context. “As different people speak, we talk about their backgrounds, whether they have campaign contributions, whether they are involved in lobbying,” says Ms Miller. “That’s clearly journalism.” Sunlight Live won an award for innovation in journalism last year, and its technology will be made available to other organisations. Sunlight also takes pictures of people attending public hearings so that it can identify lobbyists. That is journalism too, says Ms Miller: “We want to use the tools of journalism to open up government.”

The line between activism and journalism has always been somewhat fuzzy, but has become even fuzzier in the digital age. The Sunlight Foundation has been closely involved in the campaign to get the American government to provide more information about its workings, which led to the data.gov site being set up in 2009 (though its funding is now under threat). There have been similar initiatives in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and several American cities and states have made information available about anything from procurement contracts to traffic accidents. Websites have sprung up that present such data in a user-friendly form, such as mySociety.org’s TheyWorkForYou, which provides information on British politicians and is starting to add brief summaries of their activities. Is that journalism? No, says Myf Nixon, a spokesman for mySociety, because the website merely aggregates facts that are available elsewhere. But the same could be said of the Sunlight Foundation.

In the developing world, transparency campaigners are pushing for greater openness about aid flows and the governance of natural resources, and campaign groups are often the most credible sources of information about human-rights abuses. In the past, bringing such information to wider attention meant working with news organisations and getting them to publish the information. Yet thanks to the web, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can now also publish material independently. “The same internet that has blown a gaping hole in media budgets is also allowing NGOs to reach their audiences directly,” observed Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a global campaigning group, in a report published in January. But that requires NGOs to change the way they operate.

This is beginning to happen. HRW now sends photographers and radio producers to work alongside its researchers in the field. Amnesty International is creating a “news unit” staffed by five journalists, and Médecins Sans Frontières produces photographs and video of its work. “We are beginning to realise that there’s a far wider range of people who are qualified, have the integrity and are competent to be part of the reporting picture—and NGOs are part of that picture,” says Sameer Padania, who advises human-rights groups on the use of technology. But no matter how painstaking the reporting, it has been produced to serve a particular agenda. So being able to verify the accuracy and provenance of material is vital, he says.

Dan Gillmor, a veteran journalist who is now a professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, observes that some of the best reporting on conditions at Guantánamo Bay was done by the American Civil Liberties Union, and that HRW produced an excellent report on the abuse of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. But he says reporting by advocacy groups often falls just short of journalism. Such groups may not give sufficient weight to opposing views or fully reflect nuances in the subject. In the end, says Mr Gillmor, what matters is not whether or not particular people qualify as journalists but whether the work they produce is thorough, accurate, fair and transparent enough to qualify as journalism.

Making up for a market failure

There is also growing interest in investigative news organisations that operate on a non-profit model, particularly in America. The Centre for Investigative Reporting (CIR), based in Berkeley, California, was founded in 1977 and describes itself as “the nation’s oldest non-profit investigative news organisation”. Since 2008 it has expanded and reinvented itself as a multimedia news producer under the leadership of Robert Rosenthal, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Centre for Public Integrity was founded in 1989. A more recent entrant to the field is ProPublica, launched in 2008 under the leadership of Paul Steiger, a former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.

All three organisations produce stories that are syndicated to newspapers, television and radio stations and websites across America. Non-profit news outfits have been popping up at the state and city levels, too. They are needed because there has been a market failure in the creation of some kinds of content, including investigative reporting, says Dick Tofel, general manager of ProPublica. His organisation’s aim is to help fill that gap. ProPublica has already won two Pulitzer prizes for its work, including investigations into the financial crisis and the provision of health care in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (with the New York Times magazine). But although these three organisations are well funded for the next few years, the long-term viability of philanthropic funding is still uncertain.

All these organisations work across a range of different media, producing versions of the same story for different outlets, which has led to some innovative work. ProPublica collaborated with journalism students to produce a music video called “The Fracking Song”, part of an investigation into the impact of shale-gas extraction. The CIR exposed failings in the enforcement of earthquake-safety laws in California’s schools in a project entitled “On Shaky Ground” which resulted in a series of articles, audio and video, as well as interactive maps and databases—and a colouring book in five languages to help educate children about earthquake safety. “I ran a newspaper with 630 people and a $75m budget and we never would have dreamt of doing this,” says Mr Rosenthal. The project also shades into activism, providing contact details for local officials. “You can point people to information, guide people to take action,” Mr Rosenthal adds. “Getting people to come together around problems is something the media can do more and more.”

The discussion about where lines should be drawn between non-profit journalism and journalism by non-profits is still evolving. But it is clear that non-profit groups of various kinds are beginning to fill some of the gap left behind as traditional news outfits shrink.