In this photo taken by activist Wu Wei, a man wearing a mask with words "Silent" holds a banner reading: "Let's chase our dreams together, go Southern Weekly newspaper" during a protest outside the headquarters of the newspaper in Guangzhou, Guangdong province Monday, Jan. 7, 2013. A dispute over censorship at the Chinese newspaper known for edgy reporting has prompted a few hundred people to gather in a rare street protest urging Communist Party leaders to allow greater political freedom. (AP P
BEIJING -- Journalists and activists are pressing their battle against
the Communist Party censorship at one of China's most daring
newspapers, the Southern Weekly, which has seen 20 stories per issue
altered or scrapped by party censors.
Free-speech protesters in
masks Tuesday competed with flag-waving communist loyalists in the
southern city of Guangzhou in a dispute over censorship at a newspaper.
Though government censorship is routine, the killing and changing of
numerous articles at popular Southern Weekly has riled people nationwide and prompted authorities to shut down bloggers who support the paper.
"open and collective protest towards the control mechanism of the
propaganda department" goes far beyond the journalistic community to
include "other intellectuals and netizens in general," said Hu Yong, a
journalism professor at Peking University.
Strict state censorship
has prevailed in China, in print, broadcast and online, for more than
six decades, but last week's wholesale rewriting of Southern Weekly's 2013 new year editorial has unleashed a wave of opposition.
rare street protest was held on Monday, and several online petitions
have emerged that have indicated widespread support for the paper across
the Chinese Internet, including the celebrity power of two popular
"Southern Weekly has a very loyal readership,
and so it has a wide influence," he said of the paper that won an
interview with President Obama in 2009.
The original version of the Southern Weekly editorial focused
on China's unrealized dream of constitutional rule. But it was changed
to a piece praising the Communist Party.
On Monday, Southern Weekly
journalists went on strike, and a peaceful protest for media freedom,
outside its headquarters in southern China's Guangzhou city, attracted
hundreds of supporters.
With no clear signal coming from the
central government in Beijing, the incident has snowballed into a public
test of the new leadership's commitment to political reform following a
decade of paralysis under Hu Jintao, the former party general secretary
who steps down from his less important post as President in March.
is always there; before it was not really secret but nobody really made
it public," as this case has achieved, said Hu Yong.
Widespread support in recent days for Southern Weekly "is a very strong indication that people can no longer bear the censorship as before.
a strong appeal from below that the new leadership must change its
media policy," said Hu in reference to China's fifth generation of
Communist leaders, including top man Xi Jinping, who took over in
He Weifang, a Peking University law professor
who signed a petition supporting the paper, said the matter has become a
test for the new leadership.
"People closely follow this issue
because it has become an issue in which we can clearly see whether the
new leaders will seriously promote reform of the political system," He
said. "The top leadership will definitely be involved in dealing with
this, but I feel their political views are not as open as people hope."
the past year, the control exerted by the party's Guangdong propaganda
chief Tuo Zhen, a former investigative reporter widely blamed for
rewriting the New Year editorial, "has grown ever tougher," while the
newspaper has "increasingly lacked critical spirit," He said. The online
petitions by the paper's journalists and others have called for Tuo's
During his two months in office, Xi Jinping "has
been touting himself as a new kind of leader," with a new style of
governing and media relations, said David Bandurski, a researcher at the
University of Hong Kong's China Media Project. After the crackdown on Southern Weekly,
and a separate, historical journal in Beijing, "we have to ask 'are you
serious about media openness? Is this real? Are you going to take China
Guangdong's propaganda leaders "have
violated the accepted rules of the game," which include two-way
negotiation between editors and officials, said Bandurski.
bottom line, for decades, is that, 'We can't always tell the whole
truth, but we won't tell outright lies.' But in this case outright lies
have been foisted upon Southern Weekly," he said.
attitude among top propaganda officials is really worrying. They feel
it's OK to run roughshod over a paper" that epitomizes the reform spirit
in China, Bandurski said.
Actresses Li Bingbing and Yao
Chen, who have millions of followers in China, are among many thousands
of Internet users who have posted online support for Southern Weekly
on China's versions of Twitter. Entrepreneur Hung Huang wrote Monday
that local official Tuo had overnight destroyed the public trust China's
new leadership strives to re-establish.
After the news
Monday that China will reform its widely hated labor camp system,
following public demands for change, Yuan Yulai, a Zhejiang-based
lawyer, asked his 450,000 followers on Sina Weibo to direct their
efforts towards opposing media censorship.
pressure, often expressed online, can sway China's authoritarian
government, as shown by an official climb-down this weekend over tough
new traffic penalties. But experts warned not to expect significant
changes to the party's longtime system of media control.
"Tuo Zhen will probably not step down, and maybe even Southern Weekly will not be as brave as before in reporting social injustice," said media analyst Hu.