The staff of Southern Weekend, a liberal Chinese newspaper based out of the southern city of Guangzhou, has long clashed with censors in its efforts to produce one of China’s most respected weekly publications. But a dispute over a New Year’s editorial has generated an unusually heated public debate, with some reporters and editors threatening to strike and many readers rallying to their defense. On Monday dozens of supporters gathered outside the newspaper’s headquarters, handing out flowers and carrying signs supporting free speech. The standoff is particularly awkward for China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, as the piece that set off the furor ostensibly supported an issue that Xi has endorsed recently, strengthening rule of law and the primacy of the country’s constitution.
The censored editorial was titled “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism” and called for controlling state power through the law. “Only if constitutionalism is realized and power effectively checked can citizens voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently, and only then can every person believe in their hearts that they are free to live their own lives. Only then can we build a truly free and strong nation,” the original message read, according to a translation by Hong Kong University’s China Media Project, which has a detailed look at the editorial and subsequent controversy here. The version that eventually ran softened support for rule of law and declared, “We are now closer to our dreams than ever before,” a quote from the New Year’s greeting of the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily.
Southern Weekend staffers blamed the changes to their message on Tuo Zhen, head of Guangdong’s propaganda ministry. Reporters and editors have long complained about his censorship of the paper, which they say seems bent on ending the southern province’s reputation as a haven for somewhat freer domestic media. An open letter from Southern Weekend employees that called for Tuo’s removal said that more than 1,000 articles were censored last year. Among them, an in-depth piece on Beijing’s deadly July flooding, which had four pages cut. But the changes to the New Year’s greeting have prompted a display of defiance with little precedence in domestic Chinese media. The anger is partly due to the censor’s decision to not only block the newspaper’s message but also to substitute his own in its place, says Michael Anti, an independent commentator on Chinese media. “The journalists think, O.K., you can censor me, but you can’t write for me,” Anti says. “They want to make it clear this is not a protest about freedom of speech or freedom of the press, it’s about autonomy of journalists within the system. That means, I accept the status quo that you control me, but you can’t take away my last pride of writing for myself. That is the pride of a self-censoring writer in China. If you take away their last pride, then you take away everything.”
The Southern Weekend saga has special resonance in China, says Anti, because the newspaper and the group that publishes it, the Southern Newspaper Media Group, were seen as some of the first voices for media autonomy after Deng Xiaoping launched the reform era three decades ago. And while the newspaper’s status as the most prominent liberal voice has been diminished somewhat by the rise of outlets like the Caixin business journal, Southern Weekend is still important to Chinese readers. A group of scholars issued a petition calling for Tuo to be removed from his post. On Monday the debate moved beyond the literati when two of the country’s most popular actresses, Yao Chen and Li Bingbing, posted messages on their Sina Weibo microblogs in support of Southern Weekend’s journalists. While Sina has attempted to restrict discussion of the dispute by blocking searches for terms like New Year’s greeting, the debate has continued, with online opinion falling heavily in support of the newspaper’s stand. When Yao, who is the most popular person on Sina Weibo with 31.7 million followers, posted a quote from Russian dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — “One word of truth outweighs the whole world” — along with an image of the paper’s distinct four-character nameplate, it was reposted more than 30,000 times in less than two hours.