And for the newspaper bureaus that survive, China is a rich source of big stories. The last two Pulitzers for international reporting have gone to China coverage: an assorted package of Wall Street Journal stories in 2007, and before that, The Times series by Mr. Kahn and Jim Yardley about China’s justice system.
Mr. Kahn said that the prizewinning stories were born of an effort by him and Mr. Yardley to avoid settled China-reporting habits—and the usual expectations of editors. Rather than telling a speculative story of how reform might possibly be brought to pass, Mr. Kahn said that he and Mr. Yardley told The Times that they wanted to write about “the legal system as it exists … not as it might be headed.”
“’We’re going to do a whole piece about the status quo,’” Mr. Kahn said.
The editors, he said, were skeptical at first, but the series was a success. “That for me opened a door to covering China that I sort of felt didn’t exist before,” Mr. Kahn said.
Mr. Kahn’s bureau had a more direct encounter with the justice system in 2004, when researcher Zhao Yan was arrested and charged with betraying state secrets. The authorities accused Mr. Zhao of wrongfully obtaining and giving The Times information about changes in the national leadership—though The Times maintained he had played no role in the story that they ran. That charge was eventually thrown out, but Mr. Zhao was convicted on a separate count of fraud, and he served three years in prison.
Mr. Zhao’s case was the “huge exception,” Mr. Kahn said, to an overall sense that government interference with the press has been lessening. But the experience led him to cut Chinese assistants out of the loop entirely on high-level political coverage. “I used to be much more open to talking about what I’m doing,” he said. Now, he said, he doesn’t even mention such stories to the researchers.
“If you’re going to do that kind of stuff,” Mr. Kahn said, “you have to do it on your own.”
Tom Scocca is a writer based in Beijing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.