A standoff between journalists at a Chinese newspaper and Communist Party propaganda officials that sparked an outcry over censorship this week was defused as staff returned to work, the paper hit the newsstands and police prevented a fourth day of demonstrations.
Today’s edition of the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly featured a cover story about an orphanage fire and didn’t mention the dispute. After three days of standing by as protesters demonstrated for and against the newspaper, police lining the street outside of the paper’s offices told journalists not to linger.
The week-long standoff resulted in an outpouring of support from some of China’s most famous celebrities. The confrontation, a challenge to Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, was met with a government order that newspapers print an editorial saying there is no place for a free media in the country.
Xi “chooses to nip in the bud a movement that can potentially become a challenge to the position of the party or its highly important Propaganda Department,” Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in England, said in an e-mail. “Having made a stand without being punished for it is an achievement in the political environment in China today.”
The demonstrations were sparked after former Southern Weekly journalists said in a Jan. 4 letter that Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief in Guangdong, China’s richest and most populous province, replaced a New Year’s editorial calling for respect for constitutional rights with more supportive commentary, according to excerpts of the two texts posted on the China Media Project’s website.
Editors and reporters returned to their offices yesterday, according to two employees of the paper’s owner, the Nanfang Media Group, who requested anonymity because they weren’t allowed to speak to foreign reporters. Citing journalists at the newspaper, the New York Times reported that a deal was reached that would end the vetting of story ideas and the review of content before publication.
Protesters yesterday clashed with backers of the Communist Party waving signs that read “Angrily Denounce the Traitor Media.” A supporter of the paper wrapped himself entirely in newspaper and carried a sign saying “The media has been kidnapped.”
Today’s newspaper included part of an official People’s Daily commentary from Jan. 7 on management of the media. A postscript added by Southern Weekly said the main theme of the article was that while the Party must maintain control over the media, different methods were needed. It said changing how China manages opinions would be as tough as “gnawing a hard bone.”
Chinese newspapers from the Beijing Times to Southwest Metropolis Daily printed editorials yesterday and Jan. 8 saying that freedom of the press is not in China’s future.
Yesterday’s edition of the Beijing News omitted language about the impossibility of a free media. Beijing News publisher Dai Zigeng confronted propaganda officials over the editorial, the South China Morning Post reported, citing three senior editors at the paper that it didn’t identify. Calls to Dai’s mobile phone went unanswered yesterday.
After negotiations to end the dispute, staff won’t be punished, one of the Nanfang Media Group employees said.
“The regime can solve this incident somehow, but the social demands for freedom of speech, human rights and constitutionalism will increase and show up in various forms,” said Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asia Institute. “Xi is caught between social liberal forces and party conservatives.”
In an open letter to Guangdong Communist Party Secretary Hu Chunhua, 18 mainland academics, lawyers and authors demanded propaganda chief Tuo be removed because he endangers the province’s standing as a leader in economic growth and political openness.
The incident comes after Xi took over as head of the ruling Communist Party in November and then visited Guangdong to highlight his commitment to more economic opening. Xi has warned his comrades that the party’s 63-year hold on power is in danger unless it cracks down on corruption.
The Guangdong Province propaganda bureau said yesterday it couldn’t provide information to foreign media. Reached on his mobile phone yesterday, Huang Can, Southern Weekly’s editor-in-chief, said he was in a meeting and didn’t have time to talk.
— With assistance by Henry Sanderson, and Michael Forsythe