Hu Shuli has resigned as editor-in-chief of the business magazine Caijing (财经).
Rumors surfaced on the Internet this afternoon, and the Wall Street Journal has confirmed the news with various sources. The magazine, which is known for its hard-hitting investigative reporting, recently had a number of senior editors walk out over a reported dispute with the magazine’s owners.
In an interview, Zhongshan University emphasized that Hu Shuli had accepted a position as dean of the School of Mass Communication and Design as a full-time, tenured professor, and the invitation letter had been issued a few days ago. Note: the school stressed that it was “full-time”.
Blogger Hecaitou, who mentioned the rumors earlier in the day, put up a blog post on Hu’s change of careers:
Goodbye, Editor Hu! Hello, Dean Hu!
News came at midday saying that Hu Shuli will resign as editor of Caijing magazine and move on to become the dean of the School of Mass Communication and Design at Zhongshan University. I’m sure that the media is going crazy contacting people at the university to confirm the news and scrambling to get it as a lead headline in this evening’s or tomorrow’s papers. If the news is correct, then I should congratulate my classmates at Zhongshan University. Your new dean is a ferocious characters, not some ivory-tower academician. She’s got blood on her blade and her clothing smells of gunpowder.
Hu Shuli is a media person, but she cannot continue in journalism this time, probably thanks to the media. Ever since the high-level changes at Caijing came out, Hu became a focal point of media attention wherever she went. If I recall correctly, she even decisively announced a new workplace, future partners, and a new magazine name. Perhaps all of this was true — in China, there has to be an official denial before we’re able to determine the truth of a piece of news. But pushing Hu Shuli into that raging storm is tantamount to treating her resignation like a rivalry or breaking off a friendship, a situation that the new boss would be loath to accept. Comparatively speaking, Hu is stepping back to the academic world, out of the controversy for a few years, is probably a generally acceptable outcome for all concerned. The more the media reports on Hu’s new magazine, the further it recedes from her. More than a little ironic.
In Chinese society, crafty use of various powers, precise measurement of the bounds of speech, and sensitive preservation of position allowed Hu Shuli to reach the very edge of the limits of speech. So it will be hard for there to be another Hu Shuli; there will not be a Caixin to succeed Caijing. We are accustomed to seeing legendary individuals in the media, and while this may be good fortune for the individual, it is not beneficial for the media. The existence of legendary individuals means that there is an invisible barrier preventing other news people from writing reports that ought to be reportable. It also means that there exist within a single industry multiple standards and values, that there is imperfect competition within the industry. The presence of these legendary individuals for so many years means that we have not been able to read true journalism for that length of time. Falling short vs. being prevented from even attempting: this is the difference between a hero and a legend.
Hu Shuli’s resignation totally kills off the possibility of the style of news that would kill her off. The media has its own life force and free will, and the power that once protected and supported it may in the end turn into an obstructive force. And this test of strengths is no purely capital operation or business transformation; what lies behind is something far more complicated that the norms of an industry can tolerate. A model in which media professionals provide knowledge services in return for limited, conditional cooperation cannot be sustained for very long. Within this model, the passage of time and the accumulation of profit will cause both sides to feel that they’ve put in an unfair share, and that the opposite side has contributed nothing substantial. There will always come a day to fight over “who has the final say,” but the victor was decided upon on the day the partnership was set up. Good business, a professional team, and high-quality news content may make it seem like this was a media outlet operating under a free market system. It looked like it could really continue to develop and become an independent media entity that could possibly go public. At issue: Who started this game? Who decided upon the rules?
Starting today, the media may be losing an editor, but a university is gaining a dean. Some of industry’s shortcomings were brought out into the light of day. Now everything is patched up, as if nothing at all has happened. The Bible says that there is nothing new under the sun. At the end of every legend, how much have we really progressed? This is the question I would like to submit.
Update (2009.11.10): Jonathan Ansfield at the New York Times has an in-depth look at the situation that led to Hu’s departure.