Investigative reporter Deng Fei won plaudits and nearly 3 million Chinese microblog followers with a string of articles on sensitive topics such as child trafficking, organ harvesting from death-penalty victims, and shoddy school construction.
Now he is parlaying his reputation into a groundbreaking project to turn his readers into active agents of social change in China. And he is changing the face of Chinese philanthropy as he does so.
Last year Mr. Deng gave up journalism, including his job at a Hong Kong magazine, and put his blogs to another use. He launched a charity to help provide lunches to rural schoolchildren free of charge. Within six months he had raised $3.7 million from individual donors who knew his reporting work and trusted him with their money.
“Journalists can do more than just write articles. They can take action,” Deng says. “I reported on the secret dark side of China, so I know what the problems are. As a journalist and as a citizen, I have a responsibility to try to solve those problems.”
Deng made his name over the past 10 years with articles published in Phoenix magazine in Hong Kong, where censorship is not the problem it is in mainland China. He magnified the articles’ impact several thousandfold by posting them on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like service with Facebook elements, and Tencent, another massively popular social networking site.
But it was an incident in 2010 that opened his eyes to the potential of these new tools. A fellow journalist told Deng he had just received a phone call from two young women on their way to Beijing to petition the government to save their home from expropriation. They had been waylaid in the bathroom at Nanchang Airport by the local Communist Party chief, who was preventing them from leaving.
Deng called the young women and began live blogging about their confrontation with the official.
Then he took an unusual step for a journalist. Learning that three of the women’s relatives had set fire to themselves to protest the destruction of their home and that two of them required hospital treatment, he asked people who had followed his live blogging to send him money to pay for the women’s medical care. They did.
“That was when I saw the power of new media to organize and encourage people to do things in line with the public interest and human nature,” he says. “This may change the definition of a journalist.
“In China you can write articles, but they don’t often change things. We need action, and the government reacts very slowly to social problems.”