Millions of Westerners got a rare glimpse inside the Chinese government’s propaganda machine in January, when journalists at Southern Weekly, a popular newspaper based in Guangzhou, revolted against Communist Party oversight. In an internal standoff that lasted a week, newspaper staff threatened to strike unless government officials agreed to relax censorship of their work.
News of the conflict brought hundreds of protesters into the streets—either to support the paper or criticize it—illustrating a growing tension in China between free speech advocates and Party loyalists.
The standoff arose after Propaganda Department officials reviewed drafts for Southern Weekly’s New Year’s edition and demanded changes. Unhappy with an editorial calling for a national reemphasis on constitutional rights—titled “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism”—the censors ordered revisions transforming the editorial into a eulogy to Party leadership. The title became “We Are Closer Than Ever Before to Our Dreams.”
After the edition went to press, newspaper staff complained and leaked word of the unusual intrusion and censorship. A group of former Southern Weekly journalists posted a letter online demanding the removal of Tuo Zhen, the provincial propaganda chief.
Internet censors quickly blocked access to the letter and deleted web posts expressing support for the newspaper on Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter. Outside the Guangzhou headquarters of Nanfang Media Group, owner of Southern Weekly, protesters gathered and held yellow and white chrysanthemums in symbolic mourning of the death of free speech. Plainclothes police eventually carried some protesters away in vans.
Communist officials tried to stop pro-reform sentiment from spreading. They instructed Chinese newspapers to reprint an editorial published in the state-owned Global Times that criticized Southern Weekly. Some did so only with a disclaimer explaining the editorial didn’t reflect their views.
Meanwhile, Southern Weekly staff reached an agreement with propaganda officials that allowed them to go to press on schedule: In exchange for promises of somewhat looser censorship, the editors agreed not to write about the standoff in the upcoming edition. Tuo, the propaganda chief, kept his job.
The fracas highlighted the thin line Chinese journalists walk every day. China has about 2,000 newspapers, some state-run and others merely monitored. Editors avoid forbidden topics and must sometimes submit article drafts to local officials to ensure nothing contravenes Party interests. Problematic material often leads to reprimands or forced resignations.
Southern Weekly is a 29-year-old paper that built a reputation for bold, investigative reporting. Former editor Qian Gang, who directs the China Media Project in Hong Kong, said censorship of the paper increased seven years ago. The problem became stifling last May, when Tuo was installed in Guangdong Province and insisted on reviewing the theme of each upcoming edition. For news staff, Propaganda Department controls “are like a nightmare that goes on day after day, month after month,” Qian wrote in a commentary on the situation. Qian was the paper’s executive deputy editor-in-chief for three years, until government officials forced him out in 2001. “Southern Weekly is a commercially operating enterprise whose boss ultimately is the Chinese Communist Party.”
Progressive Chinese hope Xi Jinping, the Communist Party chief installed in November, will loosen restrictions on free speech in newspapers and online media. Xi has spoken in favor of economic reforms, but his Party’s attempt to squelch support for Southern Weekly, along with new internet restrictions the government introduced in December and January, don’t make free speech reforms very promising.