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.
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.
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).
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.
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."
Weekly's journalists feel the same way?