Southern Weekly Conflict Resolved; Concerns Linger

After a weeklong stand-off with local propaganda officials, which included street protests, a staff strike, and weibo battles, Southern Weekly published its weekly edition Thursday as scheduled. But the publication did not come without its hiccups. Following a negotiation with propaganda officials and Provincial Party chief Hu Chunhua, staff agreed to publish the paper. Because newspaper staff were requested not to talk to foreign media, few details about the agreement are known so far. From the Los Angeles Times:

The exact terms of the deal were not released, but it appears that the journalists agreed to refrain from airing their grievances in public about Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief for Guangdong province accused of the heavy-handed censorship that sparked the standoff. The staff had planned to publish details of more than 1,034 stories they said were censored or deleted in 2012, according to a journalist who asked not to be quoted by name.

Southern Weekly staff members were instructed not to speak to reporters for foreign media about the protest.

When the paper was finally issued Thursday morning, it was reportedly distributed at newsstands in Beijing and Shanghai before its hometown of Guangzhou. Some issues of the paper were missing sections. From South China Morning Post:

The newspaper, which is published on Thursdays, was not available in at least six newsstands in Guangzhou, which normally carry the paper. The paper appeared as normal in Beijing, carrying a cover story on the aftermath of a fire in an orphanage in central Henan province.

Thursday’s edition led with a two-page investigation into a fire at an orphanage in central China’s Henan province, in photo via Sina Weibo.

“It’s not coming today,” said one newspaper seller in a kiosk near the Southern Weekly’s headquarters in Guangzhou.

[...] In Shanghai, two sections of the paper were missing − one focused on a new regulation on land reclamation and the other on “the dramatic changes” in reform.

The front page carried a story about children killed in an orphanage fire, and did not contain any news about the dispute. The paper republished a People’s Daily editorial but added its own commentary. From Reuters:

In a show of continued resistance, the Southern Weekly republished a Monday editorial from the Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, that said “the party’s methods of controlling the media must move with the times”.

In its interpretation of the People’s Daily editorial, the Southern Weekly said the remaining reforms that need to be done are as difficult as “gnawing at bones”.

“They need the protection and support of a moderate, rational and constructive media,” the Southern Weekly said.

On his South China Morning Post blog, John Kennedy reports that not all planned content made it into this week’s edition:

However, Zuo Zhijian, director of features at Southern Media Group’s 21st Century Herald’s Shanghai office, revealed on his Sina Weibo microblog last night that censors killed an editorial commemorating the 30th anniversary of Southern Weekly’s founding that was meant to run in the issue scheduled to hit stands today.

According to one microblogger, today’s issue of Southern Weekly is two 4-page sections shorter than usual, absent its current affairs and commentary sections.

But the fact that the staff were able to secure enough of their demands to be willing to publish this week is seen by some as a victory, albeit a limited one. China Media Project’s David Bandurski tells AFP:

The agreement is a “small victory” in a long-running struggle between journalists and censors in China, said David Bandurski, a Chinese media researcher at Hong Kong University.

“It’s a victory in the most concrete terms, it’s a turn back to a normalcy of censorship that journalists have become accustomed to,” he said, adding that the high-profile stand-off could persuade officials not to further tighten controls.

But not everyone was satisfied. Editors told Al Jazeera that, despite publication, there was still lingering resentment among staff:

Still fuming, some editors and reporters tried late on Wednesday to insert a carefully-worded commentary praising the newspaper as a tribune of reform, but were rebuffed by management, an editor said.

The editor, who asked not to be named because he had been repeatedly warned not to talk to foreign media, described the mood among editorial staff as indignant.

He predicted that some staff would resign, either voluntarily out of anger or forced out by management.

“There’s complete disappointment,” the editor said.

A small number of protesters continued to gather outside the newspaper offices to make broader calls for press freedom and human rights, as well as Maoists there to oppose them. Other citizens who rely on the paper to have their stories heard also gathered. Mark MacKinnon of the Globe and Mail was tweeting from the scene:

Some protesters in Guangdong and elsewhere reported being detained or questioned. A video of protesters being dragged away by police was posted by @JoFloto.

Several Chinese journalists expressed concern that the deal reached for Southern Weekend would not positively impact conditions at other media and may in fact lead to tighter control. Zhang Hong, deputy editor in chief of the Economic Observer, writes in the South China Morning Post:

One result of the strike is that the Guangdong propaganda ministry clearly has the upper hand as its actions are in line with party policy and will get support from the party hardliners. Any hope for direct intervention from the central government seems unrealistic.

Thus, the government will strive to achieve a swift resolution both online and offline by issuing clear warnings to those who disobey. In fact, it has already done so.

This crisis rings alarm bells for journalists and liberal intellectuals. The new government might kick-start economic reforms in certain areas, to ensure continued growth. But swift political reforms are not on the top leaders’ agenda, as they are still calculating resistance from conservative blocs. The Southern Weekly row could even be cited by conservatives as an argument against looser media control. This could be viewed as a frustrating setback for reformers.

In an interview with Asahi Shimbun, popular blogger and journalist Li Chengpeng says:

We don’t need high-rise buildings, the status of the world’s second-largest economy, or an aircraft carrier. What China needs now is a newspaper that tells the truth.

That is because the right to tell the truth represents human dignity. Major powers that command respect worldwide possess newspapers that speak the truth.

Our authorities have long exerted control on speech, but this time they altered an article and made a newspaper tell lies.

To me, this feels as if the insult toward freedom of speech has been lifted up a level. I cannot stand it, and I believe many other people feel the same.

The original protests by Southern Weekly journalists were directed at Guangdong Provincial Propaganda Chief Tuo Zhen. Tuo has been widely criticized for tightening controls over Southern Weekly, which had found space to operate with some independence within the censorship regime before he took office. Reuters reports:

While the system of government oversight had already been well established, including an internal censor to vet stories, current and former staffers said the levers of control tightened substantially with Tuo’s arrival last May.

Xiao Shu, a former columnist at the Southern Weekly, said Tuo treated the paper not as an asset for pursuing the truth but “as a burden, or a negative thing, to trample on as much as he liked”.

[...] While many Southern Weekly staff have declined to speak on the record, a picture has nevertheless emerged of Tuo pushing too far, just as China’s new leadership under party chief Xi Jinping tries to project a more reformist image.

“I think pressure on media has been accruing for so long,” said Li Datong, a former journalist sacked for challenging censorship. “It’s no wonder that a relatively small thing caused an explosion. Journalists have a lot of anger built up.”

Read also about recent events at Beijing News, a sister publication of Southern Weekly, which has suffered significant collateral damage as a result of this controversy.