The heavy-handed rewriting of the Southern Weekly newspaper’s traditional New Year greeting has triggered a staff strike, a barrage of letters and petitions, and an upwelling of popular support both on- and offline. In the midst of it all, according to the Associated Press, newspaper staff have been trying to negotiate a settlement with their official managers [See below for an update on the meeting]:
On Tuesday, the paper’s editorial committee was to hold a fourth round of negotiations with its top management, which is part of the provincial propaganda office, according to a Southern Weekly editor. The editor spoke on condition of anonymity because of an internal directive not to talk to the foreign media.
Propaganda officials want the newspaper to publish — as per normal — on Thursday but editors are negotiating over whether to do so, and the terms under which they would be willing, for example, if they could include a letter to readers explaining the incident, the editor said.
The committee is also pushing a larger appeal to abolish censorship of the newspaper’s content prior to publication, the editor said. The suggestion is that Communist Party leaders could provide direction but not interfere with reporting and editing, and should refrain from taking issue with content until after publication, the editor said.
Meanwhile, protests continued outside Southern Weekly’s headquarters, with the newspaper’s supporters facing off against a small Maoist counter-protest. From James Pomfret at Reuters:
The scuffles broke out after supporters of the paper, published on Thursdays, jeered and skirmished with a small band of leftists holding posters of Chairman Mao Zedong and signs denouncing the Southern Weekly as “a traitor newspaper” for defying the party.
“These people (leftists) are paid agitators of the government, twisting the truth with propaganda. We had to do something about it,” said pro-press freedom protester Cheng Qiubo.
Dozens of police officers had to intervene, though the protests were allowed to continue. Two technicians with a ladder tried to rig a surveillance camera to the branch of a tree outside the newspaper gates, but were swiftly surrounded and shouted down by angry crowds and forced to retreat.
The Economist’s James Miles observed (using the newspaper’s alternative English name):
— James Miles (@jarmiles) January 8, 2013
The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Mozur posted video of the heated confrontation, while others published dozens of photos on Facebook and other social media sites. Some showed Guy Fawkes masks inspired by the Alan Moore graphic novel V for Vendetta, via the 2005 Hollywood adaptation that aired last month on CCTV. From The New York Times’ Jonah Kessel:
Some freedom of speech advocates wearing v for vendetta masks. Said he saw the movie on CCTV recently and ordered the mask
— Jonah Kessel (@jonah_kessel) January 8, 2013
[… T]hese include some of Chinese social media’s most high profile users from all walks of life. Celebrities such as actress Yao Chen (with 31 million followers) and actor Chen Kui (with 27 million followers) tweeted explicit messages of support on Sina Weibo, a microblog platform. Yao quoted the 1970 Nobel lecture of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author and dissident, along with a logo of Southern Weekend. Chen was more direct: “I am not that deep, and I don’t play word games; I support the friends at Southern Weekend.”
[…] Ren Zhiqiang (@任志强), one of the most outspoken businessmen in China with almost 13 million followers, tweeted on Sina Weibo, “Freedom of press and freedom of speech are rights given to the society and the people by the constitution; they are also symbols of human rights and freedom. Yet they have become pipe dreams without the rule of law, being seriously distorted and restricted. If truth is not allowed to be spoken, would truth disappear?”
Li Chengpeng and Han Han, China’s two most famous bloggers, both wrote articles in support of Southern Weekend. Li wrote, “We don’t need tall buildings, but we need a newspaper that speaks the truth. We don’t need the second highest GDP in the world, but we need a newspaper that speaks the truth. We don’t need a fleet of aircraft carriers, but we need a newspaper that speaks the truth.”
A Global Times editorial, ‘Southern Weekend’s ‘Letter to Readers’ Truly Makes One Ponder‘, on the other hand, reiterated a claim posted by Southern Weekly’s official Sina Weibo account: that provincial propaganda authorities in fact had nothing to do with the controversial edits. China Media Project’s David Bandurski had previously reported that newspaper staff felt this to be “completely at odds with the truth”, and that it was issued “without confirmation or authorization from members of the newspaper’s editorial committee.” The Times editorial went on to hit other points from a propaganda directive obtained by CDT: that “Party control of the media is an unwavering basic principle”, and that “external hostile forces are involved in the development of the situation”—including, it alleged, Chen Guangcheng. From translated highlights at Fei Chang Dao:
These people are making spirited demands, and while on the surface they are going after a specific person and event, its obvious to everyone watching that their target is the entire system that involves the media.
Whether these people like it or not, this is common sense: given the current state of China’s society and government, the kind of “free media” that these people yearn for in their hearts simply cannot exist. All of China’s media can develop only to the extent China does, and media reform must remain part-and-parcel of China’s overall reform, and the media absolutely will not become a “political special zone” of China.
[…] Even in the West, the mainstream media will not choose to openly oppose the government.
A version of the editorial also appeared on the English-language Global Times site.
The Diplomat’s David Cohen reported that, as instructed, the editorial was republished by major web portals including Sohu, Sina and Tencent. Each, however, added a disclaimer to the effect that republication did not equal endorsement. Further defiance was shown in screen grabs of headlines on sites’ front pages, arranged so that their first characters spelled out messages of support. According to Amy Li at South China Morning Post, the editorial also appeared in Guangzhou Information Times, Guangzhou’s New Express Daily, Beijing Youth Daily, Beijing Times, Hangzhou’s City Express, Shenzhen’s Daily Sunshine, Xi’an’s Sanqin Daily, Xi’an Evening News and China Business News.
David Bandurski saw the leaked directive as potentially ominous. From China Media Project:
If it is true, as Berkeley’s China Digital Times reports, that media have been issued a propaganda directive on the Southern Weekly incident that deflects blame from Guangdong propaganda officials toward foreign “hostile forces,” that is not an encouraging sign.
Readers should understand that the Southern Weekly crisis is not just a face-off between pro-reform voices and status-quo Party conservatives. In this case, it was propaganda officials in Guangdong — the spiritual heart of China’s reform and opening — who upset the status-quo by exercising censorship to such an intrusive extent that the situation became unacceptable to working journalists, most of whom had already made an uneasy peace with media controls.
The crisis at the Nanfang Media Group is not just about whether Xi Jinping is serious about the ostensible new openness and responsiveness attributed to him by sustained state propaganda. It is about whether China could be moving backward on the issue of media freedom, which would send worrying signals about the overall direction of the new leadership.
At The Wall Street Journal, Danwei’s Jeremy Goldkorn also discussed the situation in terms of prospects for media and internet freedom, saying that “I don’t believe there’s anybody in the senior leadership who’s committed to those ideals.”
An editorial in The Telegraph suggested that the new leadership’s response will be revealing, finding some encouragement in a People’s Daily editorial with a different tone to Global Times piece:
This is Mr Xi’s first serious test and early indications suggest that he is treading carefully. Demonstrations have been lightly policed and yesterday the People’s Daily, the party’s official outlet, said that propaganda officials should “follow the rhythm of the times” and help the authorities create a “pragmatic and open-minded image”. On the face of it, this heralds a welcome and more tolerant official approach to the media. Whether or not it amounts to anything of substance will become clear in the next few days.
Guangdong’s new Party chief Hu Chunhua will also be under scrutiny: the posting is, in part, a near-final test of his suitability for future national leadership.
Both supporters and critics of Southern Weekend journalists have claimed that Mr. Xi would back their cause.
“I don’t believe that Xi is totally hypocritical when he talks about reform,” said Mr. Chen [Min, also known by the pen name Xiao Shu], who was forced out of the newspaper in 2011.
“The Southern Weekend journalists have said that they accept party control, but the question is what kind of control and how far should it go unchallenged,” Mr. Chen added.
Reuters has reported that Guangdong Provincial Party chief Hu Chunhua has stepped into the fray and negotiated an agreement between propaganda officials and Southern Weekly:
Under Hu’s deal, the source said, newspaper workers would end their strike and return to work, the paper would print as normal this week, and most staff would not face punishment. “Guangdong’s Hu personally stepped in to resolve this,” the source said.
“He gets personal image points by showing that he has guts and the ability to resolve complex situations. In addition, the signal that he projects through this is one of relative openness, it’s a signal of a leader who is relatively steady.”
The standoff at the Southern Weekly, long seen as a beacon of independent and in-depth reporting in China’s highly controlled media landscape, has led to demands for the country’s new leadership to grant greater media freedoms.
It wasn’t possible to immediately corroborate Hu’s involvement in brokering the deal with editorial staff, who may be bound by an agreement not to speak out.