Crusading Chinese Journalists End Their Strike, but Don’t Expect Media Freedoms to Follow

An unprecedented strike by reporters of a crusading publication has put the spotlight on the heartless mechanism of press control in China and the ways, both adamant and subtle, that journalists use to try to get around it

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Vincent Yu / AP

A leftist raises a Chinese national flag during a counterprotest against supporters of the "Southern Weekend" newspaper outside its headquarters in Guangzhou, China, on Jan. 9, 2013

Did they or didn’t they? A week ago, Chinese journalists at the intrepid Southern Weekend went on strike after they said their paper’s editorial praising constitutional governance was rewritten by provincial propagandists to instead glorify the Chinese Communist Party. On Jan. 9, speculation mounted that a settlement had been reached to allow the paper to be published the following day. Indeed, Southern Weekend, which is based in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou and is also known as Southern Weekly, arrived on newsstands on Thursday, although later than normal in its hometown. An account of the agreement that made its way through Chinese social media maintained that striking reporters would not be punished for their actions and that the paper’s censorship, which had gotten more heavy-handed in recent months, might be toned down.

But soon an alternate version of events trickled out that wasn’t quite so positive. This narrative was hard to confirm, given the gag orders imposed on Southern Weekend journalists, especially when it came to talking with media of the foreign variety. But one person close to an editor at Southern Weekend says the newsroom is running scared, with some journalists convinced that punishments will soon be meted out for those who dared to join the protest and whisper support for such radical notions as press freedom.

Up north in Beijing, a different journalistic imbroglio bubbled: on Tuesday night, staffers at the Beijing News — another enterprising publication that was jointly founded by the Southern Media Group, which owns Southern Weekend — complained they were being forced to run a strident outside editorial from a communist-linked publication that condemned the Southern Weekend strike and blamed “external activists” for fomenting the unrest. Sure enough, on Jan. 9, Beijing News published a shortened version of the forceful editorial from the Global Times, albeit buried on page 20. (Other Beijing newspapers had run the editorial the day before.) The decision led some Beijing News journalists to break down in tears, according to accounts on Twitter, which is banned in China but accessible by subverting the Great Firewall. The publisher offered to resign, said staffers, although there was no evidence that his offer was accepted. Police cars soon idled in front of the paper’s office, presumably to ward off any protesters.

(MORE: Censorship of Newspaper’s New Year Message Touches Off Protest in China)

Now add some porridge to the already confusing mix. The same day that the Beijing News reluctantly published the anti–Southern Weekend editorial, an article popped up on its website in the culture section. As David Bandurski, with the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong, reported, the Beijing News piece described the warming effects of rice gruel, known in Mandarin as zhou, during China’s long winter. The Beijing News article waxed rhapsodic, according to Bandurski’s translation:

“Hot porridge in an earthen pot, hailing from [China’s] southland. Just set upon the table, the porridge still writhes with heat. Perhaps it still has a heart of courage. In the deep of the cold night, you open your mouth and white steam billows. There are so many cares in the world, and all you can count on for warmth is this bowl of porridge. A bowl of hot porridge tells us of the power of love and consolation.”

In Mandarin, Southern Weekend is called Nanfang Zhoumou, and its name is often shortened to Nanzhou. Nan means south. Zhou means week. Beijing News’ paean to zhou rice porridge, particularly the southern (nan) variety, is no doubt a thinly veiled tribute to Guangzhou’s crusading newspaper, which is one of the most respected publications in China.

But even if the porridge parry succeeded — and even if Southern Weekend journalists have wrested a decent settlement out of provincial officials — there’s little evidence that any wider media liberalization is set to occur. If anything, the climate has only gotten frostier in recent months, as China prepared for a sensitive leadership transition to new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping. An outspoken publication that gave support to constitutional reforms, the Annals of the Yellow Emperor (or Yanhuang Chunqiu) had its website shuttered. Earlier this month, a directive sent to regional chiefs by the central government’s propaganda office thundered: “The party has absolute control of China’s media. This basic principle is unshakable.”

(MORE: China’s Nobel Laureate Mo Yan Defends Censorship)

Internet censorship has also tightened, with major Western news websites like the New York Times and Bloomberg blocked after the two publications ran long investigative stories on the wealth acquired by Chinese leaders and their families. All too often, the speed of Internet connections has been reduced to a crawl. Virtual private networks that people use to subvert Chinese censors have been attacked.

Striking Southern Weekend journalists weren’t pleading for complete freedom from censorship. That would be too much to ask. Rather, they bridled at having an editorial supporting China’s constitution — a sentiment not so different from one expressed by new Chinese leader Xi — turned into a propaganda vehicle for the Communist Party. No Chinese journalist expects real autonomy to report. “I’m not optimistic about the future of Chinese media,” says respected investigative journalist Wang Keqin, who believes that 2012 was one of the worst years in recent times for Chinese freedom of the press. “Only very few media, using their wisdom, courage and insight, can achieve even a part breakthrough.”

Most Chinese media groups have left behind the days of state subsidization (when they could run the most stultifying or propagandistic content with little fear of alienating readers) for a new era in which papers have to make money and attract readers with alluring content. Nevertheless, each publication must endure the individual ministrations of a Communist Party Secretary, who ensures suitable content. Editors know to self-censor, lest their jobs, or those of their staff, be endangered. In its 2011–12 Press Freedom Index, the watchdog Reporters Without Borders put China 174th out of 179 countries, outdone only by Iran, Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

(MORE: Chinese Microblogging Site Tests Points-Based Censorship)

Nevertheless, the fighting spirit of Chinese journalists, who this month have been showered by support from social-media activists and Chinese celebrities alike, continued on Thursday. In the first edition of Southern Weekend to be published after the strike, the paper ran an article that recommended an editorial from the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece. “The party’s methods of controlling the media must move with the times,” wrote Southern Weekend, summarizing the communist daily’s editorial. Who can argue with that?

— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang and Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

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