An expert's point of view on a current event.

China’s Press Freedom Goes South

Will Southern Weekly's protest against censorship change the face of journalism in China?

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

On the night of Jan. 2, when the special New Year’s edition of Southern Weekly had already been edited and typeset, the publishing plan for China’s most liberal newspaper suddenly changed. In what many saw as a move overstepping his boundaries, Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief in Guangdong province, ordered the newspaper’s editors to change the theme of the special edition and the content of its annual New Year’s greeting letter. Instead of a provocative editorial calling for constitutional reform, Southern Weekly readers were greeted the next morning with Communist Party propaganda, laced with factual and editorial errors.

But the meddling by Communist Party officials backfired, igniting rare protests outside the newspaper’s office and sending shockwaves all the way to Beijing. For two days, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in Guangzhou, singing the Chinese national anthem and reciting Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution, which protects the freedom of speech, press, and assembly, among other civil liberties, while several editors and reporters protested and walked out.

Unlike in Russia, there is no real democratic opposition in China. But the fight against censorship, which has flared up occasionally in the past two decades — as journalists publish unapproved content and magazines and newspapers get shut down — underscores the fragility of the tacit agreement the Chinese have with their government: economic success instead of political reform. With Xi Jinping less than two months into his new job as Communist Party chairman, there remains the expectation that he could be more open-minded than his predecessor Hu Jintao. Even though it’s highly unlikely that he had any contact with Xi, Tuo’s actions make it seem less likely that Xi will be a reformer.

On Tuesday evening, Jan. 6, the paper and the provincial government appeared to have reached a deal for a reduction in censorship. But by that time, the protests in Guangdong had galvanized a surprising level of support, drawing out reporters from other newspapers, cable television hosts, and even Weibo celebrities. Actress Yao Chen quoted Russian Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to her 32 million Weibo followers, writing, "One word of truth outweighs the whole world" (also the title of the 2006 New Year’s letter from Southern Weekly.) Two of China’s most famous bloggers, Li Chengpeng and Han Han, both posted messages in support of the newspaper. "We don’t need tall buildings, but we need a newspaper that speaks the truth," Li wrote on Jan. 7.

Why, then, did the muzzling of Southern Weekly — not an unusual occurrence in authoritarian China — ignite such a fury?

One reason is the heavy-handedness of Tuo’s approach. Media censorship is commonplace in China, but is usually more subtle: for example, censors typically describe directives over the phone rather than by email (where it leaves a trail). And it is extremely rare for propaganda officials to directly change layout or content without going through the front-line editors and journalists.

Other reasons are specific to Southern Weekly, which holds a special place in the hearts and hopes of Chinese liberals. For 29 years, the paper has pushed the boundaries of what authorities would tolerate, delivering dependable, hard-hitting news to its 1.7 million weekly subscribers and training a generation of respected journalists. The paper’s annual New Year’s greeting letters are an important part of that tradition. Some of them have become widely cited classics, with lines like "give strength to the weak, rouse pessimists to march" (1999) and "hope is ourselves" (1997).

The original greeting letter for 2013 was entitled "China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism," but it failed to pass the censors. The editors then produced a second, toned-down version, entitled "Dreams Are Our Promise of What Should Be Done." The even more watered-down version that appeared on newsstands, "We Are Now Closer to Our Dream Than Ever Before," offered only a recapitulation of a speech that Xi gave in November, in which he said the country is the closest it has ever been to "the great renewal of the Chinese nation." The message: political reform and introspection are unnecessary.

Angered editors and reporters vented their displeasure with government meddling on Sina Weibo beginning late on Jan. 2 and posted the three versions for readers to compare. The crackdown came quickly. Sina Weibo blocked the search term "Southern Weekly;" and comments about the incident were deleted nearly as fast as they were posted. Within 24 hours, the Weibo accounts of several editors and reporters were blocked, and at least five Southern Weekly reporters’ accounts were deleted. (Sina Weibo later notified some journalists that their accounts will be reinstated in 30 days.)

On the afternoon of Jan. 3, Southern Weekly‘s official Weibo account issued an open letter titled "Explanation about the Publication Accident Regarding Our 2013 New Year’s Message," which described the incident and demanded a thorough investigation. In his verified Sina Weibo account, Tan Weishan, deputy director of the video production department of Southern Metropolis Daily, a sister publication to Southern Weekly, wrote on Jan. 4 that "the reason we have been silent is because we live in a time when you can be fired as a result of someone in power phoning in to dismiss you … a sword is hanging over the head of each journalist and you never know when it will fall."

The following day, the official Weibo account of Southern Weekly‘s finance department issued a second letter entitled "To Readers and All Who Care about Southern Weekly." It read: "Two days ago, we published an open letter calling for a thorough investigation of the incident. Two days have passed, the facts have not become clearer, but more and more people have been shut up…. Thank you! Because of you, we are still standing." The letter also stated claimed that at least 1,034 stories from Southern Weekly had been either rewritten or killed by censors in 2012.

What happened to Southern Weekly is nothing new in China, where press censorship has long cast a shadow over news organizations. On several occasions, censors have killed Southern Weekly‘s stories at the last minute, replacing copy with large ads on its front page, as they did when the paper was supposed to run an interview with President Barack Obama in 2009. But the furor over this New Year’s debacle has been unusually potent, with journalists across China venting their frustration. The publisher of Beijing News, an influential paper in the capital, offered to resign after his paper was forced to publish an editorial criticizing Southern Weekly; the decision to publish reportedly caused some staffers to break down in tears.

Shen Changwen, former editor-in-chief of Reader, a Chinese literary magazine, once said that Chinese intellectuals are a community of kneeling rebels. The last time a newspaper rose in rebellion was when "Freezing Point," a weekly supplement to China Youth Daily, was shuttered for criticizing the Communist Party. After authorities closed down the supplement for two months, its deputy editor-in-chief apologized, saying: "I never want to be on my knees again; I want to rebel even though I still have to stoop."

Will Southern Weekly’s journalists feel the same way?

Annie Zhang is a Hong Kong-based journalist.