Southern Weekly Editor Replaced to Calm Dispute

The uncertain resolution of a stand-off between Southern Weekly staff and Guangdong propaganda authorities continues to unfold. At the South China Morning Post, Li Jing and Mimi Lau report the ousting of Southern Weekly editor-in-chief Huang Can, who was behind a deeply contentious message sent from the newspaper’s official Sina Weibo account near the start of the stand-off. The weibo post, which staff described as “completely at odds with the truth”, denied propaganda officials’ role in drastically altering the paper’s traditional New Year greeting. In a further concession apparently aimed at restoring normality, the newspaper was finally allowed to publish corrections to the rewritten greeting.

A source close to Guangdong’s provincial government said Wang Genghui, a deputy editor-in-chief of Nanfang Media Group, which owns the newspaper, had taken over from Huang Can, Southern Weekly’s editor-in-chief since 2009. Huang had been sidelined and was likely to be transferred to another post in the group.

“Wang has a rather popular image as he is more willing to listen to editors and journalists,” the source said. “But this is likely to be a transitional role to restore normal operation at the newspaper as soon as possible.”

This week’s newspaper included a veiled protest saying that editorial procedures should be respected and made corrections – a typographical error, the erroneous numbering of the edition and a factual flaw that said flood control work by “Yu the Great” happened 2,000 years ago, instead of 4,000 years ago.

A comment below the corrections, signed by editorial staff, read: “Newspaper mistakes are always in black and white. In every link of editing and publishing a newspaper, its standard processes should always be respected and followed. We have never been more keenly aware of this.”

A report at Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, meanwhile, described Xi Jinping’s alleged displeasure at propaganda chief Liu Yunshan’s handling of the affair. Though the account is based on information from unnamed sources, Bill Bishop commented in his Sinocism newsletter that “[I] hear from other reporters that this report could be credible, that this paper has had other scoops recently..if true then very interesting.” One sign of the report’s accuracy might come in or after March when, it predicts, Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen will be removed from his post.

At a meeting in Zhongnanhai in Beijing on the night of Jan. 9, Xi, visibly displeased, asked if the media control division was not adding to confusion, sources familiar with the discussions said.

[…] Liu had decided to impose penalties, including dismissals, against editors and reporters who disobeyed the order. But Xi gave instructions not to punish journalists who protested the propaganda department, according to a party source formerly involved in media control.

Xi has apparently attempted to contain the fallout even by accepting demands from Southern Weekly reporters.

He decided to remove the chief of the propaganda department of the Guangdong provincial party committee, who led prior screening of the Southern Weekly.

The official is not expected to leave the post until at least March, when the National People’s Congress is scheduled to convene, because an immediate removal would reveal confusion within the party.

In particular, Xi reportedly suggested, Liu’s order for other outlets to republish a Global Times editorial expressing the Party line had turned a local problem into a wider one. (The order was conveyed by a Central Propaganda Department directive obtained and published by CDT.) Certainly, it spread the stand-off as far as Southern Weekly’s half-sister, the Beijing News, which initially refused to republish the article at all, and eventually buried an abbreviated version under a non-committal headline deep within the paper. At Reuters, Sui-Lee Wee described what had threatened to become the Beijing News’ last stand:

“This is the first time in China’s history, with the exception of June 4th, that there’s been such a large-scale collective protest by Chinese journalists against the central government’s propaganda department’s restrictions and suppression,” said Cheng Yizhong, who co-founded the Beijing News with Dai [Zhigeng], referring to the Tiananmen Square protests.

But Cheng said he expected no improvement in freedoms, predicting authorities would try to pre-empt any direct challenges by strengthening controls over social media. Cheng was arrested in 2004 on embezzlement charges that his supporters said were politically motivated. He was later released.

The editor at the Beijing News said management had warned staff not to talk about the incident, especially to foreign reporters, who “could make the higher-ups lose face”.

“It’s possible that after this, they might settle scores.”