On the evening of June 24, Fang Xuanchang, a 37-year-old science and technology editor at China's Caijing magazine, finished work around 10 p.m. and began his walk home. Half an hour later he was nearing his apartment by Beijing's third ring road when he felt a sudden blow to his back. Fang turned to see two large men behind him brandishing steel bars.
Fang tried to run away and then shield himself as the men, ignoring his attempts to communicate with them, struck him repeatedly across his back and head. Brawny and adept in martial arts, Fang not only remained conscious, but also managed to fight back. Finally, as Fang stumbled toward a taxi, his clothes soaked in blood, the attackers left the scene.
Later that night at Beijing's Navy General Hospital, doctors sutured a 2-inch gash on the back of his head. His assailants behaved like professionals, carrying out the brutal ambush in about four minutes and showing little concern about passersby witnessing the attack. "Their goal was clear," Fang told me in a June 30 email. "It was to kill me on the spot, or stop me from reaching the hospital in time so that I would bleed to death."
Why would someone try to kill Fang Xuanchang? No one knows, or even seems to care. The attackers remain at large, despite an ongoing police investigation and Caijing's best efforts to cooperate with the police and involve the All-China Journalists Association. The attack was covered in brief in Beijing-based newspapers, including a brief editorial in a state-run newspaper arguing that journalists shouldn't be attacked. But no one in the Chinese media has gotten into the question of who would attack Fang -- and more importantly, why exactly Fang might have been attacked.
For Fang's colleagues, however, the message is clear: Reporting on controversial topics, as Fang has done, is unsafe. Journalists who are abused don't necessarily find out who has attacked them or why, but the message sent to their friends and colleagues is clear: Don't go there, or you could be next. It has a chilling effect on a wide circle of people. In the case of science journalism, the financial and political stakes are increasingly high, and the personal risks might be increasingly high as well.
Fang is one of the leading figures among China's scientific muckrakers -- a scourge of academic and government-sponsored pseudoscience and a critic of public and private quackery. For more than 10 years as a journalist, editor, and blogger on the influential (although frequently blocked) Chinese watchdog website New Threads, Fang has taken on academics listing faked awards and publishing plagiarized papers; hawkers of herbal cancer "cures," such as Wang Zhenguo, peddler of the Tian Xian herbal cancer treatment; and Chinese scientists who claim to predict earthquakes, among other targets. But paranoia and anger, even violence, mark some recent responses to Fang's work.