BEIJING — Late at night, a senior police officer guided Liu Wanyong, then a budding investigative journalist, through the inner sanctum of one of the scariest domains in China, the Ministry of Public Security.
The rooms were empty. Mr. Liu was directed to a locked filing cabinet.
The officer pulled out a dossier, laid the documents on a desk and — this being the era before cellphone cameras — gave Mr. Liu 30 minutes to scratch down the contents.
The documents laid out the story of an innocent businessman who had been jailed for the crimes of a corrupt politician. That’s news in most places, but not of the stop-the-presses variety. But in China in 2005, a leak like that was rare, and Mr. Liu’s account of how a party official had used his power to arrest an innocent man created a sensation.
Eventually, the businessman was released and the politician, a retired Communist Party secretary, went to prison, though not before his supporters attacked Mr. Liu outside the courthouse. For that story, and many others, Mr. Liu earned the nickname “Tibetan Mastiff” for his perseverance at the China Youth Daily, a paper run by the Communist Party but with a reputation for sometimes bending the rules.
More than a decade later, Mr. Liu, 48, has quit journalism. More than just a personal decision, however, his departure from the newspaper where he worked for 21 years represents the end of investigative journalism in China, a profession left in tatters by the pressure of Communist Party orthodoxy under President Xi Jinping.
Mr. Liu was about the last person standing of a group of hard-hitting journalists who worked at places like Southern Weekly and Caixin, the standard bearers of truth-seeking journalism that ebbed and flowed before Mr. Xi came to power.
The departure of Mr. Liu meant investigative journalism would never be the same, a social media account run by Chinese reporters declared. He was the pillar of the trade, it said, adding: “The most important figure in investigative journalism has disappeared.”
“If China wants to develop in a healthy, normal way, we must have a huge amount of media that can report justly,” Mr. Liu said as he poured tea in his spartan new office at an asset management firm where he is tending to the company image. He has given up the T-shirt and baggy pants look of the newsroom for a white open-neck business shirt and tailored trousers cinched by a big belt.
“But news is not like news anymore,” he said, and “journalism isn’t like journalism.”
His decision was a reluctant one, forced upon him, he says, by a tightening vise of censorship, as at least 100 “juicy” stories were killed at the Youth Daily in the past two years. He grew weary of the response “just wait” — code, he says, for “Don’t even dream of tackling this topic” — when he discussed story ideas with editors.
Sometimes, journalists were silenced, forbidden to write for months as punishment for writing articles that ran afoul of the censors. The journalists were then compelled to compile reports confessing their mistakes.
Instead of investigations, the party wanted “positive-energy stories” that would make people feel good as the economy sours, he said.
In the last year, accounts of the turmoil around financial scams that cost millions of people their savings were banned in the interests of “social stability.” The facts behind a huge explosion at a chemical factory were never explained.
“The question of who is responsible is one of the first things people want to know in a calamity like that,” Mr. Liu said. “But if you read our news, do you find this out? No.” The propaganda chiefs demanded articles about the blast that told people how to remain safe, a ludicrous notion since the explosion had already done its damage.
The toughened controls on journalists began after Mr. Xi became president in 2012. It became impossible to chase criminal and corruption cases in ways that were independent from the prosecutors, Mr. Liu said. “Now, you just record the process,” he said. “The government’s policy is that the government decides anticorruption cases, not the journalist.”
In early 2016, Mr. Xi visited the main media outlets: People’s Daily, Xinhua news agency and the state-run television network, CCTV. During the highly publicized events, he resurrected the Communist edict that journalists reflect the will of the party. Editors interpreted that to mean that Mr. Xi’s political thought was central to all articles. That was the official beginning of the end for independent reporting.
A 2016 survey by Zhang Zhian, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, had already shown a dramatic drop in the ranks of experienced journalists, with more than half fleeing to other professions.
“There is hardly any reporting in China now,” said Zhan Jiang, a former professor of journalism at Beijing’s Foreign Studies University. “We have returned to the propaganda of the Mao era.”
Mr. Liu, 48, was born into poverty in a village less than an hour from the center of Beijing. As the youngest of seven children of an illiterate mother, he never went to the capital until he was in his late teens. There were no books in the house, and well into the 1980s the family dumped human feces in the fields as fertilizer.
“My parents didn’t even know what news was,” he said.
He was young enough to miss the Cultural Revolution, when the schools were closed, but was forced to learn Chinese under a reign of terror imposed by a harsh teacher. “Every day you lived in fear of having your palm hit by the teacher’s stick,” he said.
In college, he showed a flair for journalism, writing campus news in the style of Xinhua, the state-run news agency. He tried out for a job at the China Youth Daily, and sailed through a test that required writing both in everyday Mandarin and classic Chinese.
“The core of being a journalist is that you need to love your job,” he said. “The text of the story is not so important. You either have compassion for the lower class or you don’t.”
At the China Youth Daily, Mr. Liu rapidly proved adept at unveiling the corrupt links between politicians and businessmen. After the 2005 case, more leaks came his way, and he built a cadre of reporters into an investigative unit. One of his favorite articles foreshadowed the college admissions scandal that erupted in the United States this year.
It involved the daughter of an influential politician who lacked the grades to go to college. Mr. Liu showed how she had used the identity of a much better student to dupe admissions officers into granting her a place. After that, the Ministry of Education began requiring photo IDs on application paperwork.
His string of reports on corrupt politicians burnished his paper’s reputation and helped build its circulation. He kept at it as the censorship screws tightened, writing even last year about a businessman who was seeking compensation for wrongly serving seven years in prison after himself being swindled by a provincial police chief. That was the last. His once flourishing unit has been reduced to two inactive journalists.
He has not entirely given up on journalism. He makes guest appearances at journalism classes, encouraging students to persist even in the current hostile environment. He offers a slew of tips on how to outwit the authorities. After checking into a hotel, he says, the first rule is to canvass the room for drugs that the police have planted, a time-honored trick to silence a journalist whose work is inconveniencing the powers that be.
Despite leaving journalism, Mr. Liu has remained true to his humble roots. He has barely traveled: a junket to the Seychelles with a party propaganda unit here; a trip to India there; and another to South Korea.
His passion remains the search for truth, or as close as he can get to it under such dire censorship.
“When I read the Chinese press, I know there are problems,” he said. “In the trade war, when Trump said China had withdrawn from the agreement, there is no way the Chinese media can say what China retreated from. I read the information in the Western press.”