Behind the Scenes Features

Breaking a New Dawn: Investigative Journalist Chai Jing’s New Chapter

It was late at night, and my reporting partner and I were sitting at our desk, eagerly and anxiously waiting for a call from Spain. 

A few minutes later, we were speaking with Chai Jing, one of the most prominent figures in Chinese investigative journalism now living in Spain after her blockbuster documentary “Under the Dome” revealed the magnitude of the air pollution crisis in northern China and the ineffectiveness of the country’s environmental regulations. Chai’s 2012 memoir, “Seeing,” translated into English in 2023, has been distributed over millions of times by 2013. The book and her journey in investigative journalism inspired a whole generation of young Chinese journalists who dreamed of affecting positive social change through journalism. My reporting partner and I are among that generation. 

Chai Jing is holding her book "Seeing" on a stage with a black background displaying the book's name.
Chai’s 2012 memoir, “Seeing,” translated into English in 2023, inspired a whole generation of young Chinese journalists who dreamed of affecting positive social change through journalism.

This would be one of the few interviews she has given over the past decade.

Released in late February 2015, a year after quitting her job as a reporter for China Central Television, “Chai Jing’s review: Under the Dome – Investigating China’s Smog,” was heralded by some in Western media as China’s “Silent Spring” moment and garnered over 300 million views. 

Chai was interviewed by the official news outlet after the documentary aired, initially signaling the government’s support. However, seven days later the government removed the documentary from all news hosting sites on the Chinese internet on orders from the Central Propaganda Department. The interview was deleted from the official site, and Chai disappeared from public view. 

Return to the Stage

With her career as a journalist in China effectively ended, Chai relocated with her family to Barcelona in 2017. 

“I gave away all my suits I wore for work, which I regret now,” she said. “And I made up my mind. I went to Barcelona. I lived there, loved it there.” She considered herself retired. 

One month later, all that changed.

“A terrorist attack happened and my husband was there and a three-year-old boy died on the street,” she said.

The boy’s father implored the public to seek the truth. His plea struck a chord with Chai. As a Chinese journalist, the roots of terrorism remained a distant concept for her, but she decided to return to journalism. 

“I am a stranger to Europe, I knew almost nothing of its language, culture, and religion,” she said. “However, [as a journalist,] I am the trained one.”

On August 17, 2023, nearly ten years after she vanished from public view, Chai released her documentary series, “Stranger: Talking to Jihadists” on YouTube (a simultaneous release on Chinese video platforms was blocked within an hour). 

Chai Jing is talking to Jihadists, with a headline that reads, "Will you kill me? Theologically speaking, your species doesn't exist."
On August 17, 2023, nearly ten years after she vanished from public view, Chai released her documentary series, “Stranger: Talking to Jihadists” on YouTube. It centers on conversations with former Islamic extremists as an attempt to understand the zeal and motivations of violent political ideologues.

The documentary, which centers conversations with former Islamic extremists as an attempt to understand the zeal and motivations of violent political ideologues, quickly garnered over 200,000 views. 

“If this is truly a question that gnaws at me,” said Chai. “I possess the sincerity to delve to its depths, perhaps one day I might find myself on the other side of the bridge,” she said. “Without that belief, I doubt I could even take the first step.”

Life as a YouTuber

Chai continues to explore these questions in independently produced investigative interviews aired on her YouTube channel. While the life of a YouTuber is relatively new to her, adjusting to new mediums has been a recurring theme. 

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“The form of media has always been changing,” Chai said. “But in a larger sense, our desire to communicate has not changed. The emergence of new media just removed the intermediary, technical, operational barriers. These platforms allow for us to have direct communication with our readers and viewers, and we can then produce programs at a lower cost – and there is no censorship process. This brought me a lot of joy.” 

Chai has been corresponding with her audience since early 2010 on her personal blogs where she can directly write and connect with her readers. 

More recently, X(former Twitter) has helped Chai regain the flexibility and freedom to tell stories on her own terms. In the past year, Chai has been interacting with viewers of her past and current work as well as posting more general updates. 

“Today a reader apologized for the ‘negative’ sentiments he wrote about,” said Chai. “That is not necessary. I don’t think anything is ‘negative’ or ‘positive’. I appreciate authenticity; it enriches me. This is why I entered this field [of journalism]… I find the responses between strangers on the internet to be deeper and more profound than any I can offer.”

The Role of Journalism

Chai believes that the role of the journalist is to uncover, not to act. 

“There are some questions that seem to find a degree of resolution just by being accurately illuminated,” she said. 

Farid Benyettou, a former jihadist featured in “Stranger,” told her that “the solution to a problem is to articulate it clearly.” 

That is reflected in her series of interviews on Ling Zhu’s case. These three-part interview programs revisit the unsolved case of Ling Zhu, a chemistry student at Tsinghua University who was poisoned multiple times between 1994 and 1995. Chai interviewed the scientist who conducted hair tests on Zhu, her classmate, and Zhu’s parents.

Zhu Ling's black and white portrait in the middle. Chai Jing's portrait on the left. On the right, she lies in the coffin while her parents stroke her face. A headline reads, "Chai Jing talks to Zhu Ling's parents. Zhu dies with a remaining grievance."
Chai’s recent work features a series of three interviews that re-examine the unsolved case of Ling Zhu, a chemistry student at Tsinghua University who was poisoned multiple times between 1994 and 1995.

 “Solving the case is not my duty. What I want to prosecute is: what led to a case remaining unsolved… What factors led to it, and are those factors reasonable?” Chai said.

Zhu’s case marked Chai’s first foray into investigative journalism conducted entirely online. Reporting thirty years and thousands of miles from where the case occurred, the internet provided Chai with the means to access a wealth of material. 

Every interview, report, and piece of evidence featured in the program was meticulously curated online. Yet, amidst the kaleidoscope of information on the web, the key lay in how to verify and harness these resources.

“If you pay attention, you’ll notice that I hold these texts and posts to fairly strict standards,” she said. “For instance, I’ve used text records between her [Zhu’s] roommate, Wang Qi, and her mother, which I consider firsthand information. I’ve verified the timing of the records, the circumstances under which they were made, whether they were shared with any third parties as corroborating evidence – all thoroughly checked and validated with third parties.”

For Chai, the greatest anxiety doesn’t stem from political or commercial pressures, but from facing her audience without certainty in her words. 

“Working in the media, if you’re clever, you can sidestep certain issues. If you don’t bring them up, neither will others, and maybe they’ll just pass. But deep down, you know full well (that) you haven’t figured that thing out.”

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Because of this, she has undertaken many undisclosed “clumsy efforts”. In Zhu’s case, in order to determine how Zhu was poisoned, Chai formed a volunteer research group consisting of four PhDs specializing in chemistry.

“We hypothesized that if the poison was in the coffee, it was possible that the thallium salt particles, due to their different density and size compared to coffee granules, could settle through the instant coffee particles, resulting in a higher concentration at the bottom. We even used computer simulations to calculate the particle sedimentation rate,” she said.

Follow the Heart within Bounds

The online platforms may have brought Chai a sense of freedom, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t subject to any constraints. 

“I operate within a relatively free space, but there are many factors for me to consider, especially the people within mainland China,” she said. “I must consider the individuals, the reality, the reality of the homeland thousands of miles away.”

Sometimes, interviewees may not be aware of the consequences of accepting Chai’s interview, whose documentary still has a big impact in China.

“Even if you have asked them and they say it’s okay. Ethically speaking, you might think it’s sufficient: I’ve informed them, and they are adults (so that they are responsible for their own actions),” she said. “But our interviewees actually don’t understand what the consequences will be after it airs.”

Yufeng Dong, Zhu’s classmate at Tsinghua University, was interviewed and his photo appeared on the cover of that episode. However, when the video aired, his family panicked after they received inquiries from viewers interested in the case. As a result, Chai replaced his photo with an image of Tsinghua University.

Her focus on protection is not only for her interviewees but also for the volunteers she has worked with on her productions. Although these volunteers also contributed to the documentaries, Chai couldn’t credit them for safety concerns.

“If it weren’t for the support and assistance of the team behind ‘Under the Dome’ and ‘Undercover,’ I would never have been able to complete them. The quality of those two programs is entirely credited to them,” Chai said.

Mindful of the dangers to those working with her, Chai has since decided to work alone.

“It’s a beautiful tragedy,” she added.

Unshakable Armor

By now, it was nearly the early hours of the morning in Barcelona, yet Chai’s voice showed no signs of fatigue. What was once a contemplation of retirement has now led her back to work, and she seems to revel in it.

“As you mull over things, you find yourself sitting at your desk in the morning, and before you know it, it’s dark, then it’s light again. Days turn into nights, clouds roll by, can you imagine that? It’s living, and it’s quite beautiful. I don’t know what else in this world could be better than that, so I just go with the flow and keep doing it,” said Chai. 

Chai believes that the role of the journalist is to uncover, not to act. 
Chai believes that the role of the journalist is to uncover, not to act. 

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