GUANGZHOU, China (AP) — An influential weekly newspaper whose staff rebelled to protest heavy-handed censorship by China’s government officials published as normal Thursday after a compromise that called for relaxing some intrusive controls but left lingering ill-will among some reporters and editors.
The latest edition of the Southern Weekly bore no hints of the dispute that erupted last week over a New Year’s editorial that was rewritten to praise the Communist Party and that drove some staff to stop work in protest. Still fuming, some editors and reporters tried late Wednesday to insert a carefully-worded commentary praising the newspaper as a tribune of reform, but were rebuffed by management, an editor said.
The editor, who asked not to be named because he had been repeatedly warned not to talk to foreign media, described the mood among editorial staff as indignant. He predicted that some staff would resign, either voluntarily out of anger or forced out by management. “There’s complete disappointment,” the editor said.
The weeklong fracas at the Southern Weekly evolved quickly from a row over censorship at one newspaper to a call for free speech and political reform across China, handing an unexpected test to the party leadership headed by Xi Jinping just two months into office.
Hopes that the dispute would strike a blow against censorship initially ran high. Internet microblogs crackled with messages of support. Liberal-minded academics wrote open letters. And hundreds of people this week gathered outside the newspaper’s offices off a busy street in the southern commercial center of Guangzhou, waving signs that called for freedom of expression.
But expectations for change began fizzling Wednesday as a compromise to end the dispute took shape. Under the deal, according to the editor and another staff member, editors and reporters would not be punished for protesting and stopping work, and propaganda officials would no longer directly censor content prior to publication, though many other longstanding controls to ensure party control would remain in place.
The outpouring challenged one of the key levers of party rule — its right to control the media and dictate content — and officials pushed back this week to reassert authority.
“This crisis rings alarm bells for journalists and liberal intellectuals. The new government might kick-start economic reforms in certain areas, to ensure continued growth. But swift political reforms are not on the top leaders’ agenda, as they are still calculating resistance from conservative blocs,” Zhang Hong, deputy editor-in-chief of the business newspaper Economic Observer, wrote in a commentary Thursday in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.
In a further sign of tightening, police attempted Thursday to prevent more of the protests outside the compound housing the Southern Weekly and its parent company, the Nanfang Media Group, in Guangzhou, a city long at the forefront of reforms. About 30 police officers guarded the area and ordered reporters and any loiterers to move away, saying there had been complaints about obstructing traffic.
The standoff echoed through the newsroom of the Beijing News, which is co-owned by Nanfang Media and has a reputation for aggressive reporting. Editors at the newspaper all week defied an order to run a commentary that many other newspapers carried that blamed resistance to censorship on meddling foreign forces. Then, according to accounts by reporters on microblogs, a propaganda official showed up Tuesday to insist.
At a tearful late-night meeting, staff voted to hold out, and publisher Dai Zigeng said he would resign, the accounts said. Still, a reporter and a phone operator at the Beijing News said Dai remained in his post Wednesday. The newspaper also carried the commentary, in an abbreviated version under a bland headline that left out criticisms of the Southern Weekly and its supporters.
The Southern Weekly dispute was touched off after provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen rewrote the New Year’s editorial, which called for better constitutional government, to insert heavy praise for the party. The revised editorial was not submitted for review by editors before publication, violating an unwritten practice in censorship and enraging the staff, which saw it as an attack.
The Southern Weekly has been a standard-bearer for hard-edged reporting and liberal commentary since the 1990s. Throughout, senior party politicians and propaganda functionaries have repeatedly attempted to rein in the newspaper, cashiering editors and reporters who breach often unstated limits.
Even if censorship largely remains intact, the standoff has showed the breadth of support independent-minded media like Southern Weekly have among many Chinese, who are wired to the Internet and increasingly sophisticated in their expectations of the government.
That may give censors pause in the future, said David Bandurski, a China media expert at Hong Kong University.
“It might make them more cautious on how they handle the media,” he said.