Southern Weekly has long been the most daring of Chinese publications, perhaps enjoying a lower level of scrutiny from Beijing due to its base in the city of Guangzhou, just north of Hong Kong.
The paper now finds itself, however, at the center of a battle over censorship in the country that is spinning wildly out of control. As The Atlantic's James Fallows notes, it could be a very important issue for China in 2013 — or it could go nowhere, we don't really know yet.
The situation began over the New Year, when the newspaper staff prepared to publish an article titled "China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism". The article, part of a yearly tradition, would this year openly call for reform in the country.
Between the editing and the publication, the core of the article was changed: the new title would be "We are closer than ever before to our dreams" and the article would have a very pro-government stance.
Staff at the newspaper were furious — feeling that local propaganda boss Tuo Zhen had overstepped even China's strong censorship laws by editing the article after it was sent out to publication. Editors took to Weibo, China's popular microblogging service, to denounce the new article. An open letter was published on the service, accusing the censors of "raping" the newspaper's editorial judgement.
"We demand an investigation into the incident, which has seen proper editorial procedure severely violated and a major factual error printed," the open letter said, according to Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (the letter has since been deleted from Weibo).
Two subsequent open letters were posted online, the second of which was signed and openly called for strikes.
By January 7th, the newspaper's staff were in the street protesting — something unheard of at a major newspaper for over two decades, SCMP reports. Protests spread amongst universities in Guangzhou and Nanjing. Perhaps the best indication of the issue's spread is the fact that Weibo's most popular user, actress Yao Chen, posted a message in support of the strikes to her 31 million followers. "One word of truth outweighs the whole world," she said, quoting Soviet-era Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Yao's words show how far a relatively wonky debate over censorship had gone in China.
"When a Chinese ingénue, beloved for her comedy, doe-eyed looks, and middle-class charm, is tweeting her fans the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, we may be seeing a new relationship between technology, politics, and Chinese prosperity," Evan Osnos of the New Yorker observed this week.
The government, however, did not taken all this lying down. Pro-government counter-protests have been taking place in Guangzhou, according to the SCMP, with video showing the two groups engaging in physical confrontations. Weibo has seen a huge number of pro-protest posts censored.
State-owned newspaper Global Times published a pro-censorship article titled "Southern Weekly’s ‘Message to Readers’ Is Food for Thought Indeed." According to a memo apparently leaked to China Media Project, censors reminded publishers that "party control of the media is an unwavering basic principle" and that the Southern Weekly protests were prompted by "external forces".
The same note forced publications to republish the Global Times article, and many did, though often with a disclaimer explaining it did not represent the beliefs of the publication, the Diplomat reports. According to Shanghaiist, the publisher of one independent newspaper, the Beijing News, resigned after being forced to print the article (apparently the editors were later able to slip a message of support to the Southern Weekly staff in an article about porridge).
The latest news suggests that Southern Weekly's staff may finally have found a deal with management — a relief after rumors that the paper would be shut down. But many observers wonder if the timing of the protests — during the leadership transition that will soon see Xi Jinping formally become president — could prove a difficult test of the limit's of Chinese reform.
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