Beijing News: Defiance, Tears, and Porridge

On Wednesday, the row over censorship at the Guangdong-based Southern Weekly spread to Beijing, as its half-sister the Beijing News initially refused instructions to republish a critical Global Times editorial on the controversy. After a series of conflicting reports, it seems that the newspaper’s publisher Dai Zigeng verbally submitted his resignation in protest, but Beijing propaganda chief Lu Wei refused to accept it. “Naturally,” China Media Project’s David Bandurski had previously commented, “prop[aganda] leaders will want to keep Dai on as publisher until this blows over.” From Teddy Ng and Li Jing at South China Morning Post:

“We sincerely hope [Beijing News] can faithfully record the progress of our time, speak for the people… and serve its duty in promoting [social] progress, good governance with rule of law, and a civilised society,” Dai said.

Police cars were seen outside the newspaper office yesterday, a sign that the authorities were concerned that journalists might stage a protest or that members of the public might rally in their support, one source said.

[…] Beijing News, along with Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily, are among the most respected newspapers on the mainland because of their outspoken comments and reports on sensitive issues.

After its transfer to the direct control of the Beijing party committee in 2011, there were widespread fears that the newspaper’s bold reporting would be reined in, and that did appear to be the case last year.

Various accounts have emerged of the struggle over the editorial’s republication. The New York Times quoted an online posting by one journalist at the paper: “Some people look sad; some burst into tears; some shout that they are going to quit. We don’t want to kneel down, but our knees have been shattered. We are kneeling down this one time while gnashing our teeth.” A longer account appeared at China Real Time Report:

Yesterday we all felt happy and proud that our leaders had decided not to reprint the editorial. We thought if only we could stand firm for a couple more hours, this situation would go away.

Later we realized that the pressure really was huge. Propaganda officials were all waiting for the results. No matter how it appeared, the editorial had to be published.

When Mr. Dai and the other leaders saw that all of our journalists and editors had rushed back from home, they called us into a meeting room and asked for our opinions. Everyone said they were opposed to publishing the editorial. We discussed the worst-case scenario if we refused to publish it – maybe we wouldn’t be able to put out the paper at all. According to coworkers who understood the situation, this was a result the higher-ups [in the propaganda department] would be willing to see happen. When everyone heard this, the room fell silent. [Starts to cry]

[…] [Sobbing] I don’t think we compromised. We did everything we can do.

As far as the question of Mr. Dai resigning, I personally can’t represent him, but when he and Ms. Wang were discussing things with us they mentioned resignation, and according to one of the top leaders who was in meetings, Mr. Dai and Ms. Wang verbally threatened to resign in front of the propaganda authorities. What changes will take place with our newspaper’s management in the end, right now nobody knows.

Like other reluctant republishers, the Beijing News also issued a thinly veiled message of support for Southern Weekly: in this case, a love letter to southern-style congee porridge. From David Bandurski at China Media Project:

In Chinese, the word for “porridge,” zhou (粥), is a homophone of the first character in “weekend,” zhoumo (周末), the second half of Southern Weekly‘s publication name. The shorthand for Southern Weekly is nanzhou (南周), which sounds very similar to “porridge of the south,” or nanfang de zhou (南方的粥).

[…] Hot porridge in an earthen pot, hailing from [China's] southland. Just placed upon the table, the porridge writhes still with heat. Perhaps it has a heart of courage yet. In the deep of the cold night, you open your mouth and white steam billows. There are so many troubles in this world, and all you can count on for warmth is this bowl of porridge.

On Twitter, Gianluigi Negro pointed out a previous gesture of defiance from the paper after it was forced to condemn America’s role in Chen Guangcheng’s escape last year. As China Media Project reported at the time, an enigmatic apology subsequently appeared on the newspaper’s official Sina Weibo account, comprising a black and white photo of a smoking clown, and the message: “In the still of the deep night, removing that mask of insincerity, we say to our true selves, ‘I am sorry.’ Goodnight.”