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).