A group of editors from an influential Chinese newspaper, Southern Weekly, are in a historic standoff with China’s government over its censorship of a New Year’s editorial.
The dispute has drawn hundreds of Chinese to view or join protests at the newspaper’s headquarters in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province. The country’s blogosphere is ablaze with comments and cartoons defending the editors—although official internet censors have deleted many of them.
According to widespread reports, Southern Weekly had planned to publish an editorial last Thursday calling for a national reemphasis of constitutional rights, under the headline “China’s dream, the dream of constitutionalism.” Instead, the paper published a much shorter piece with the headline “We are closer than ever before to our dreams” that praised Communist Party leadership.
In an open letter, former Southern Weekly journalists said government censors had forcibly rewritten the editorial to conform it to party interests. The journalists blamed Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief for Guangdong Province, who has gained a reputation for heavy-handed censorship in one of China’s wealthiest and most progressive regions. Government censors blocked access to the letter shortly after it appeared online.
Joining the journalists’ demands, a group of 18 Chinese intellectuals, including a lawyer and several college professors, called for Tuo’s removal in an open letter of their own: “It is said that ever since Tuo Zhen took up his post as propaganda minister of Guangdong, he has leapfrogged the editorial flow of Southern Weekly, unscrupulously inserting himself in the editorial process, with sense of neither the proper measure of his post nor the nature of decent conduct.”
Chinese advocates for democracy supported the newspaper on Twitter-like social media platforms. Actress Li Bingbing wrote to her 19-million microblog followers she was “hoping for a spring in this harsh winter.” Within China, expressing anti-government sentiments online is usually a short-lived affair: The phrase “Southern Weekend” (the paper’s literal English translation) and even the term “weekend” have reportedly been blocked on popular social media platforms there.
To sidestep censorship, some supporters used code: One regional news website arranged headlines so that the characters aligned to spell out, in a Chinese acrostic, “Go Southern Weekly.” Others posted photos of themselves holding handwritten signs in support of the paper.
Government censors seemed to be offering more leeway to those who stood in front of the gates of the newspaper’s Guangzhou headquarters on Monday and Tuesday. Demonstrators there held yellow and white chrysanthemums to symbolize mourning for the death of free speech. “We hope that through this we can fight for media freedom in China,” one young protestor told Reuters. “Today’s turnout reflects that more and more people in China have a civic consciousness.”
Police stood guard over the crowd but apparently only interfered to break up scuffles between newspaper supporters and a few other citizens who were holding Chinese flags to express solidarity with the Communist government.
The head-to-head protests illustrated growing tensions in China, the world’s most populous country, between those advocating for democratic reforms and others who support the Communist Party regime of strict state control, including over press and religious freedoms.
The divide was evident even within the offices of Southern Weekly, where senior staffers acquiesced to last week’s censorship by propaganda officials while other editors, according to some insiders, went on strike.
The China Media Project, a Hong Kong-based watchdog, cited an unnamed source from Southern Weekly’s publishing group who claimed the newspaper’s editor-in-chief pressured a staff web administrator to relinquish the paper’s microblogging account password. The administrator did so only under protest, and soon afterward a statement appeared on the microblog account claiming the revised New Year’s editorial had been written and approved by the paper’s editors. Other staffers said the statement was “completely at odds with the truth.”
The newspaper’s leadership is meeting with government officials to discuss the content of the paper’s next edition, due this Thursday. According to an editor who spoke to The Associated Press, the newspaper’s leadership is negotiating to include a statement explaining the situation to its readers.
Chinese papers like Southern Weekly, which has gained a reputation for reformist views, walk a thin line with propaganda officials. They agree to submit to some oversight in order to operate without interference, but last week’s editorial censorship was a step too far for many of the paper’s editors.
Other media outlets in the country are full-fledged mouthpieces for Communist leadership, and have criticized Southern Weekly’s stance over the past few days. One such paper, the Global Times, wrote on its English-language website, “We must actively and bravely promote media reform, but meanwhile avoid radical reform that is out of step with political development and China’s reforms as a whole.”
Chinese commentators view the protest as a leadership test for Xi Jinping, the new Communist Party chief installed in November. He has cast himself as a reformer ready to champion constitutional rights and root out corruption, yet his administration has clamped down on freedom of expression over the past two months. On Saturday Xi gave a speech defending the party’s socialist principles. Not very promising for Southern Weekly’s more progressive writers.