Southern Weekly Protests: The Big Picture

Further reports have come out about a negotiated agreement between local propaganda officials and Southern Weekly to end the protests over heavy-handed censorship and allow the paper to publish on schedule tomorrow. From the New York Times:

A former editor for the Nanfang Media Group, which includes Southern Weekend, said provincial propaganda officials and disgruntled journalists talked Tuesday in Guangzhou. The talks focused on the journalists’ demands for an inquiry into the New Year’s episode and for the newspaper’s managers to rescind a statement that absolved Mr. Tuo of responsibility for the editorial.

“They want that statement to be removed, and they also want assurances about relaxing controls on journalists — not removing party oversight, but making it more reasonable, allowing reporters to challenge officials,” the editor said. “The other main demand is for an impartial explanation of what happened, an accounting so it won’t happen again.”

While many expressed optimism over news of the settlement between Southern Weekend and propaganda officials, others felt that not much would change in the big picture. From the Financial Times:

…Other journalists familiar with the situation remained pessimistic. “The leaders just want to end this incident, which has been embarrassing for them, but any relief will be temporary,” said a reporter at Southern Metropolis Daily, Southern Weekend’s sister paper. “Apart from that, Southern Weekend is a special case and has always been. A partial victory fought by them doesn’t mean a thaw in the broader censorship climate.”

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos explains why the recent interference of the propaganda department resonated so strongly for Southern Weekly journalists and so many of their colleagues around the country:

Why has this escalated beyond the level of any of the daily acts of censorship at Chinese publications? From the look of it, it violated the delicate balance between dignity and control that allows Chinese journalists to go to work every day and feel good about themselves. As I’ve written before, most Chinese press censorship is subtle; there is usually no man with a red pen striking paragraphs in the newsroom. Instead, it’s up to editors to self-censor or face the possible consequences (unemployment, arrest, etc.), an arrangement that not only allows the government to adjust the boundaries at will, depending on its needs, but also allows journalists to feel that they aren’t enacting Orwell’s vision of 1984. And, for the better part of sixty years, it has worked.

But the balance is getting harder to maintain. In his first two months in office, Xi Jinping has made a highly orchestrated effort to show that he is a more modern figure than his predecessors. He has tried to show that he is down to earth by doing away with some of the Party extravagances, motorcades, and pomp. It’s a campaign that has been distilled into the phrase “four dishes and one soup,” the ostensibly Spartan menu that Xi has ostentatiously adopted to project his political credibility.

And therein lies a problem. For the journalists at Southern Weekend—and, crucially, the widening circle of ordinary middle-class Chinese who are taking an interest in them, thanks to people like Yao Chen—that bargain is no good. They are not willing to play along with the idea that the President’s gestures of reform morally counterbalance the ham-fisted daily humiliation of censorship.

In an interview with Radio Australia, China Media Project’s David Bandurski provides some excellent background on press controls in China which puts this incident in perspective.

On PBS Newshour, James Fallows looks at the historical perspective to explain the significance:

And I think what’s significant here is this is the latest manifestation of struggles that have been going on for 30 years, since China liberalized, and the last five or six years, when the Chinese economy was reaching maturity in many ways and the political system has been lagging behind, that the sophistication of the people and the maturity of the economy.

There have been for four or five years struggles over Internet censorship. Google has been having its — its phrase. There was during the time of the Arab spring that there was a lot of crackdown in China to avoid the counterpart Jasmine protests.

And so the real argument in China is whether the continued development of its economy and its social system will be matched by all the other attributes of a free, liberal society and that’s the real question for China’s future, I think.

[See video of the Newshour program, which also features Ming Wan of George Mason University, at the bottom of this post.]

CNN’s Jaime FlorCruz discusses how the protests may impact Xi Jinping’s new administration:

Just how big a threat the demonstrations pose to Xi’s new regime remains unclear. It is also unclear where Xi stands on the issue of press censorship and free speech.

Some analysts wonder whether Xi or the central government supported the actions of Guangdong officials.
Some blame the row squarely on Tuo Zhen, the newly appointed provincial propaganda chief. One observer in Guangdong blamed his “behavior and work style” for causing the row.

But others see the controversy as bigger than just the Guangdong Propaganda Department versus the Southern Weekly.

“It is a publicity crisis for Xi Jinping’s new administration,” said Xiao Qiang, a founder and editor-in-chief of China Digital Times, a U.S.-based site monitoring China’s Internet and media issues. “Its political credibility and ability to lead is now being tested.

For a different perspective on the significance of the protests, see “Southern Weekend, China, and the bubble” from the Zhongnanhai blog.

After media were forced to publish a Global Times editorial against supporters of the Southern Weekly, Global Times issued another opinion piece about press freedom and its suitability for China:

Is freedom of the press a principle that has a particular goal for society? Perhaps. Is then, this goal to promote social progress? Many will answer in the affirmative.

But freedom of the press must have limits. It should correspond to social demands, but also provide more than that. Once it has reached this stage, freedom of the press will be able to encourage the development of society.

There was almost no space for freedom of the press before China’s reform and opening up. This reform brought us the market economy and new approaches to media operation. The issues that cause public discontent then began to appear in the media. The development of the Internet in China has further expanded the media’s function of expression and supervision. Media critiques have become increasingly sharp. Today, it is not difficult for the media to expose scandals which local governments would rather cover up.

Generally, the Chinese government’s attitude is to work with this process. Sometimes this attitude is due to its own initiative and sometimes not. There has always been pressure from increasingly open media, and this is always an unfamiliar process for governments to deal with.

Video of Ming Wan and James Fallows on PBS Newshour:

For more on the Southern Weekly protests, see
CDT’s post with the latest news updates
“Editorial Ignites Freedom Of Press Debate In China” from NPR
A “reading guide and basic context note” from James Fallows at The Atlantic
– Watch CDT’s own Anne Henochowicz on LinkAsia discussing the weibo response to the protests.