New York Times journalist David Barboza spoke to roughly a dozen students and faculty Saturday afternoon about his time in China as a foreign reporter and the process of writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the family wealth of former Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
Barboza’s series “Princelings,” which was published in 2012 and won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, highlighted how influential government officials benefited financially from businesses connected to the state and identified the companies and investments in which the Wen family hid at least $2.7 billion. During the talk, which was hosted by the China Economic Forum in the Calhoun Fellows Lounge, Barboza described the high-risk nature of such reporting, noting that he received many death threats before, during and after the publication of the series.
“If I was wrong I was dead; if I was right I was dead,” he said. “I still cannot believe that we could publish this, and that I’m alive and my wife is okay.”
The event attracted journalism enthusiasts and sinophiles alike, and the variety of topics Barboza covered catered to a broad range of interests. He spoke about his evolving interests growing up: his childhood passion for sports, his desire to do “crazy things as a student journalist” at Boston University, and his 11 years living in China as the Shanghai bureau chief for The New York Times.
School of Management Professor Zhiwu Chen GRD ’90, an advisor to the China Economic Forum who has known Barboza for many years, also attended the talk.
Barboza — who was part of a team that won another Pulitzer in 2013 for a series on globalized high-tech industries — said that though he has achieved success, his countless failed investigations have taught him the most about journalism. The inquisitive nature of an investigative reporter continues to inform his writing in other areas, he said.
“That’s part of being an investigative reporter,” he said. “I like the mystery of going down a road you really don’t know about and finding something unexpected.”
Despite major censorship and media biases in the Chinese government’s favor, Barboza maintained that Chinese journalists are extraordinarily knowledgeable and capable reporters — “if only they had the freedom to publish it.” He described Chinese journalism as simultaneously amazing and corrupt.
Barboza also credited his translators and assistant journalists in Shanghai for accepting the “inherent risk” associated with working for The New York Times as Chinese citizens.
“I did all I could to protect them by not involving them in certain things,” he said. “They are my heroes in China. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Nicholas Religa ’19 said he attended the event because of his interest in China’s government and economy.
Religa also said he was impressed by Barboza’s ability to conduct such a thorough investigation given the obstacles of censorship and restrictive government regulation in China.
Several other attendees also described the importance of Barboza’s reporting in the face of government censorship.
“Dr. Barboza’s brand of investigative journalism offers a crucial alternative perspective to the state-run media rhetoric,” Simiao Li ’18 said.
CEF co-president George Shen ’18 said he would have enjoyed hearing more about Barboza’s personal interactions with government officials.
“Chinese politicians are typically not as open about showing or creating their public personalities,” he said. “This might provide important insights to understanding their decision-making.”