China Paper That Set off Protests Still a Tinderbox ; Liberal Publication Has Long History of Tangling with Government Censors

By Chris Buckley; Edward Wong | International Herald Tribune, January 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

China Paper That Set off Protests Still a Tinderbox ; Liberal Publication Has Long History of Tangling with Government Censors


Chris Buckley; Edward Wong, International Herald Tribune


Southern Weekend, a liberal publication, has a long history of tangling with government censors.

The demonstrations have died down, reporters are back to work at China's most prominent weekly newspaper and its latest issue was published on schedule, but Southern Weekend is sure to remain a crucial battleground over Communist Party censorship.

The protests that erupted at Southern Weekend's offices last week over a heavily rewritten New Year's editorial were one of the most dramatic outbreaks yet of tensions between party controls and journalistic defiance that have coursed through the newspaper's 29- year history and made it a weather vane for Chinese press restrictions.

The newspaper appeared on newsstands Thursday after protesting journalists accepted a compromise that promises to loosen some of the more intrusive censorship controls over their work. The police in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, moved in to deter any fresh demonstrations at the entrance to the Nanfang Media Group, which owns the paper.

The latest edition of Southern Weekend featured an investigation into a fire at an orphanage in central China that left seven people dead, as well as discussions of proposed changes to labor camps and farmland seizure laws. But there was no direct mention of the protests against censorship that had turned the newspaper itself into a major story.

The protesting journalists had directed their anger at Tuo Zhen, the head of party propaganda in Guangdong, whom they blamed for tampering that turned a New Year's editorial urging respect for citizens' constitutional rights into an error-marred paean to party rule.

But the closest that the latest edition came to touching on that controversy was a reprint of a commentary on the role of the media from People's Daily, the Communist Party's main paper.

"Party control of the media is a principle, but the manner in which the party controls the media must keep up with the times," Southern Weekend said in reference to the People's Daily piece.

Southern Weekend has been at the forefront of the changes that have brought China's increasingly commercially driven press into conflict with the party's restraints on reporting of scandals, corruption, protests and other sensitive subjects. Now the paper is at the heart of the next big test -- of whether the recently appointed Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, intends to extend his broad promises of economic reform into a measure of political liberalization, including more scope for the media to challenge officials.

"There was an accidental element to the Tuo Zhen incident, but it also erupted out of long-accumulated grievances over interference in reporting and editing," said Zhang Ping, a former editor and columnist with the paper who was dismissed from the Nanfang Media Group under official pressure in 2011 and also goes by the pen name Chang Ping.

"For me, the most important thing about this incident is that it's exposed the dark insides of the Propaganda Department," said Mr. Zhang, speaking from Germany, where he now lives, about the censorship uproar. "It's almost impossible to appeal against the Propaganda Department. You couldn't question their decisions. There was no appeal. But now we have this incident."

Much more was at stake than a botched editorial. For the disgruntled journalists, Mr. Tuo embodied increasingly meddlesome censorship that angered young editors and reporters impatient with party controls, said journalists who have worked for Southern Weekend and academics who have studied it.

"Nowadays, most newspapers in China have to pay their own way and make a living, but when editors act like censors, they can throttle a paper to death," said Yan Lieshan, a senior editor and columnist with the Nanfang Media Group.

"Tuo Zhen seemed to have no understanding that running a paper is a business, but it certainly is," said Mr. Yan.

The journalists' grievances go back years, including an incident in 2009 when propaganda and Foreign Ministry officials micromanaged publication of an interview that President Barack Obama gave to the newspaper, said Mr. …

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