The January 10 front page of the Southern Weekly, featuring a story about child abduction.
After a protracted stand off with censors, Guangzhou-based newspaper the Southern Weekly has gone to press for the first time since propaganda officials replaced the paper’s pro-reform New Year’s editorial with a less controversial puff piece.
As Shanghaiist reported earlier this week, Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua personally stepped in to resolve the dispute, reaching a last minute deal with striking Southern Weekly staff members. According to the New York Times:
Propaganda officials in the southern province of Guangdong have agreed to loosen some controls over an embattled newspaper whose struggle against censorship has galvanized free-speech advocates across China, according to journalists at the newspaper. But the paper’s weekly Thursday edition went to press late partly because of internal disputes over content, one senior editor said.
The publication delay on Thursday was due in part to a disagreement between the newspaper’s leadership and employees over whether to publish an editorial defending the newspaper and letters of support from readers, the senior editor said. The leadership chose not to publish the editorial or the letters in an effort to calm the crisis, he said.
While propaganda minister Tuo Zhen, who allegedly instigated the crisis with his heavy handed interference at the paper, will almost certainly retain his position (for now), it is uncertain what the future holds for Huang Can, the editor in chief of Southern Weekly considered an ally of the propaganda bureau (and, conversely, an enemy to reporters at the paper). Huang, a lower level Party official than Tuo, may very well find himself sacrificed to placate journalists and protesters.
The paper, available in Beijing and Shanghai, does not seem to have been distributed to Guangzhou resellers. Reuters reports that the Southern Weekly was “not available in at least six newsstands in Guangzhou, which normally carry the paper.”
Though Thursday’s edition of the paper did not overtly mention the conflict that had almost kept it from newsstands, an editorial called for regulation of the press to “keep pace with the times”.
“It’s fundamental that the party regulates the press, but its method of regulation needs to be advanced to keep pace with the times,” the editorial said.
As the ‘Southern Weekly incident’ begins to die down, police and security forces have cracked down on bloggers and protesters who openly supported the paper’s battle against censors. The SCMP reports:
Three members of the banned Chinese Democracy Party in Hangzhou said they were detained for “allegedly inciting subversion of state power”. Writer Lu Gengsong said police raided his home on Tuesday night and detained him overnight. Mao Qingxiang was also held overnight, and Ren Weiren was held for five hours
Lu and Ren said police interrogated them over a photograph circulating online showing seven Chinese Democracy Party members holding up pieces of paper that said: “In support of Southern Weekly”.
In Guangzhou, a handful of protesters said police detained them on the charge of “illegal gathering”. The group included writer Ye Du, poet Langzi, and activists Huang Bin, Ye Yin, Yuan Fengchu and Liu Yuandong. Some bloggers were also reportedly summoned and warned by police.
This crisis rings alarm bells for journalists and liberal intellectuals. The new government might kick-start economic reforms in certain areas, to ensure continued growth. But swift political reforms are not on the top leaders’ agenda, as they are still calculating resistance from conservative blocs. The Southern Weekly row could even be cited by conservatives as an argument against looser media control. This could be viewed as a frustrating setback for reformers.
This is a sad start for the new Chinese government. Long-awaited political reforms are just a dream that will not come true soon. The media and liberal intellectuals will find the environment for reporting and free speech as stifled as it has been in the past. With social discontent growing, more confrontations between authorities and liberal intellectuals loom.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, the fate of the Beijing News, whose publisher reportedly resigned after the paper was strong armed into printing a pro-censorship editorial, is uncertain. The paper, whose first editor in chief was legendary reporter Cheng Yizhong (who spent years irritating censors at the Southern Metro Daily until he was finally forced out), was already in the Party’s bad books, having been brought under the direct control of the Beijing propaganda office in 2011. Police cars were reportedly stationed outside the paper’s offices in Beijing yesterday, authorities apparently concerned that staff or members of a public would stage a protest in support of the paper.