China ranks as one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom, coming in at 168 out of 175 countries last year by Reporters Without Borders. But China's media are no longer an instrument of the state, says Hu Shuli, a Chinese journalist who is renowned for her investigative reporting in China.

I don't think the media in China now are still an instrument of the state. I think the media today are very diversified, says Hu, a speaker at the Reporting New Realities media conference held recently in Hong Kong in response to a question about overcoming the culture of the media being an instrument of the state.

You can see lots of different voices, you cannot take the media as only one voice. It was the situation maybe 30 years ago, but not now, especially in the past 10 years.

Hu Shuli

It is improbable that anyone can accuse her of naivety in reading the lay of the land. For 11 years, Hu was at the helm of Caijing, a financial news magazine famous for pushing the boundaries of press freedom with carefully calibrated exposures of business and political corruption. These include the cover-up of the Sars epidemic, the illegal privatisation of state assets, and the construction flaws that led to the collapse of schools during the Sichuan earthquake. In recognition of her work, Hu received the 2007 Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism from the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University.

Last year Hu resigned from Caijing following disputes over editorial interference and attempted budget cuts by the owner, the well-connected SEEC media group. Most of her editorial team resigned en masse to join her at Caixin Media, a new company that she started in January.

Currently the editor-in-chief of Century Weekly, a Hainan-based magazine, and the dean of the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-Sen University, Hu credits the internet as a key factor in the success of Caijing, as it helped expand the magazine's influence. Indeed, she argues that the future of journalism in China lies with the internet, as more than 80 per cent of over 400 million internet users in China surf the web primarily for the news. Furthermore, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have transformed the concept of the news circle, Hu adds.

To cater to the burgeoning demand for multimedia news, Hu says she now makes her reporting staff conduct interviews on camera.

I think it may be necessary to redefine professional journalism. We need them (journalists) to take a wider initiative in how they tell the stories, says Hu, arguing for an overhaul of the traditional business model of the declining print journalism industry in the West.

We need a management structure to foster their creativity. We need better governance and incentive systems to let them share the future of the company.

Asked how much revenue she expects to generate from her online products, she says Caixin Media is still experimenting, but she notes that the print journalism industry in Asia is still growing, unlike in the West.

I hope we still have time to find the right business model and catch up with the tide. That's why I said we should take opportunities before it is too late.

And to the question about her main means of generating revenue, Hu explains that the advertising market in China is still growing strongly, especially for magazines. She adds that Caixin Media charges for online access to its magazines and for online searches. The company is also exploring new business models for its products, she says.

But when prodded about why she left Caijing and whether she thinks that her international profile has helped or hindered her in her work, Hu's answers are short, saying that her reputation abroad has been an aid rather than a hindrance. She was also reluctant to talk about her resignation, only saying that the details are very complicated and that she and her editorial team's interest in continuing their investigative journalism differed from that of the management's.

To another question about the difficulties journalists face in China, Hu was decidedly upbeat in her answer. While she has seen and experienced many reasons to drop pens and walk away...we just do what we can.

We don't worry too much about difficulties. We'll worry more about opportunities.

In any case, China has come a long way since the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping spearheaded reforms aimed at liberalising China's economy and opening up to foreign trade in the 1980s. Mike Chinoy, senior fellow at the US-China Institute at the University of Southern California, views China as a paradox.

Speaking to INSEAD Knowledge on the sidelines of the media conference, Chinoy, a former CNN foreign correspondent and Beijing bureau chief, says China's society is vastly more open with the explosion in domestic internet use and the commercialisation of the Chinese media. But at the same time, the Chinese government remains determined to maintain control of the media and political freedom.

You have this dramatic embrace of the market which has liberalised and opened Chinese society in many ways, says Chinoy.

Although Beijing still exercises heavy-handed control over the media, there has been impressive investigative journalism that has uncovered a lot of scandals and corruption stories, says Chinoy.

Within certain limits, it's quite vibrant and free. Once you bump up against those limits, the heavy hand of the state can come down quite quickly.

But he concedes that some journalists practise self-censorship and second-guess what is acceptable to the government because political transgressions may not be apparent.

Chinese journalists operate in an environment where the state and the Communist Party have the final say and the rules are sometimes murky. So you don't really know from one story to the next what's crossing the line and so journalists do get into trouble, explains Chinoy.

And that happens frequently and we hear about it frequently. At the same thing, there are other journalists who are pushing the limit and are offering more coverage of different kinds of things. I think it's much freer when it comes to economic news, business news. I had Chinese journalists say to me in the area of business, you can function many ways, quite similar to Western counterparts.

That's absolutely not the case on political issues, the controls are much, much tighter. And there's this permanent sort of testing the limits. People push, the authorities push back. Something gets out on the internet, they try to squeeze it back in, it pops out somewhere else and it's a permanent ongoing kind of struggle. Add to that the dramatic changes in the technology that are making more information and more subjects more available to more people than ever before, and it's hard to see in the end how the government can completely keep the lid on.