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Chinese journalists mourn cutting-edge Caixin editor who died under Beijing lockdown

Journalists working in China’s tightly controlled media industry are mourning the loss of a leading news and investigative editor who is believed to have taken his own life after helping others suffering from depression through his work.

Zhang Jin, former deputy editor-in-chief of Caixin Media and founder of Dogo, a social media platform for people suffering from mental illness, died on Dec. 5 at the age of 56, Caixin Global reported.

“Today we are deeply saddened. … Dogo has lost the founding father who laid the basis for our mission and business, and a leader in exploring ecological healing systems for depression,” the report quoted Zhang’s obituary on Dogo’s WeChat account as saying.

Neither the Caixin report nor the Dogo obituary said how Zhang died, but journalists told RFA he had committed suicide. 

His last WeChat Moments post was dated Oct. 12 and read: “Life is like an ocean, and depression is just a vortex within that ocean, which we experience together, and go through together.”

One comment described Zhang as “a light who brought countless people out of darkness.”

A friend of Zhang’s told Radio Free Asia that he had taken his own life at a time when harsh zero-COVID restrictions in Beijing prevented him from getting the medical treatment he needed following surgery for lung cancer.

“Harsh and twisted restrictions” cut off Zhang’s access to medical treatment, leaving him with “nowhere to go to seek help,” the friend said.

“It’s heartbreaking that such a strong person who had fought this for 10 years and worked so hard to save countless lives finally chose out of a sense of helplessness and despair to end his own life,” the friend said through tears.

One of many

An industry insider said Zhang had “had a relapse into depression” but declined to be more specific.

“His funeral is being arranged by Caixin and his team,” the person said. “It has been tentatively scheduled for next Tuesday. There will be an offline memorial service, and his team will make an announcement.”

A senior journalist in Beijing who requested anonymity also said Zhang’s death had come during lockdown restrictions at his home.

“A while back in Beijing he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere, nor to go outside,” the journalist said. “But this is all basically forbidden to talk about in China.”

The friends said Zhang was one of many people in China who have struggled with mental illness under lockdown.

“There has been a big increase in people suffering from depression in China in the past three years,” the journalist said. “But there are no statistics of any kind on this kind of thing.”

In November, China’s Health Ministry said statistics on suicides under the country’s zero-COVID policy of rolling lockdowns and electronic tracking “are not for release,” following reports that a woman had killed herself in the northern region of Inner Mongolia. A former Red Cross official said such figures are regarded by the ruling Chinese Communist Party as a “state secret.”

Calls to the National Health Commission in Beijing on Thursday seeking comment on Zhang’s death and lockdown mental health issues in general had met with no response by the time of writing.

Exposing ‘China’s Enron’

A senior investigative reporter said many former investigative journalists had posted condolences, remembering him as the kind of editor who protected reporters who investigated sensitive stories.

Zhang’s former employer, Caijing, was among the first Chinese media organizations to send journalists to report from the disaster zone during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which left around 87,500 people dead.

Zhang had also presided over investigative reports on the SARS crisis of 2003, as well as corporate governance scandals at Yinguangxia, which was dubbed “China’s Enron,” the investigative reporter said.

Under Zhang’s leadership, Caixin also published a number of hard-hitting reports on the suppression of press freedom and purges at the Guangzhou-based Southern media group in 2012.

“We’ve lost one of the best people of our time,” the Caixin report quoted a WeChat user and former student as saying.

“I came out of the darkness only through the light of Mr. Zhang, and I am forever grateful,” it cited another comment as saying.

A ‘beloved’ editor

Zhang graduated in Chinese literature from Nanjing University before enrolling in a highly regarded graduate journalism program at Renmin University in 1988.

He worked after graduation for the trade-union newspaper, the Workers’ Daily, before joining Caijing in 2000. He co-founded Caixin in 2009.

“As an editor, Zhang was beloved by reporters for his professionalism, modesty and low profile,” the Caixin report said. “He was well known for patiently taking the time to teach junior reporters how to structure their articles, use materials, and start and finish their stories.”

He was known as a soft-spoken, studious man with messy hair and glasses, who never spoke harshly to subordinates, it said.

His articles on the WeChat platform Dogo were based on his own experiences in fighting depression, and aimed to clear up public misconceptions and prejudices about mental illness, helping depressed people understand their condition better, the report said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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