The Legacy of the Southern Weekly Protests
Now that Southern Weekly has returned to publishing following heated protests against a heavy-handed censorship order, the question remains over what impact this incident will have on journalism in China. In the Atlantic, Helen Gao writes that the protests showed a new consciousness among Chinese journalists that may impact the way they do their jobs in the future:
“We are like frogs being slowly cooked in warm water,” the former Southern Weekend journalist told me. “We were perishing slowly without knowing it, until this bowl of boiling water was dumped on us.”
“All these years, people like us have seen our articles killed and our voices silenced, and we’ve started to get used to it. We started to make compromises and to censor ourselves,” reflected Lin Tianhong, a Chinese journalist at Renwu magazine, in a message that had been reposted over 5,000 times. “We’ve gone too far, as if we have forgotten why we had chosen this industry to begin with.”
Just as journalists consider their collective acquiescence to censorship in the past partially responsible for their current humiliation, citizens who decided to speak out are also demonstrating a keener awareness of their own civil responsibilities. Large-scale protests in China in the past were triggered mostly by perceived foreign affronts or economic grievances, and limited mainly to the working class. In the most recent protest over speech, however, both online and on the street, middle- and upper classes have come out in large numbers. Besides the traditionally more vocal government critics like writers, lawyers and academics, movie stars, corporate executives, students, and tens of thousands of other ordinary citizens have joined the fight. Many of their messages at the protests show a new sense of urgency.
“If I don’t stand up today, I won’t be able to stand up tomorrow,” a sign outside Southern Weekend’s Guangzhou headquarter read.
Southern Weekly’s former executive deputy editor-in-chief Qian Gang, who is currently director of the China Media Project, provides an account of how the recent censorship of the New Year’s Letter was enacted. He ends by discussing the significance of the protests for the future of press freedom in China:
The Southern Weekly incident is important first and foremost because it exposes what has been happening behind the scenes. Over a period of several years, media controls have been transforming and becoming much stricter. Methods of prior censorship have been applied shamelessly in the darkness.
The staff at Southern Weekly had suffered long. But this time they hit their limit. Their demands were specific. They wanted a rollback of prior censorship. They wanted editors to have autonomy again.
Propaganda leaders may be more careful after this showdown over censorship. But the road to freedom of expression as guaranteed in Article 35 of China’s Constitution will be a long one. The orders and bans will continue. Punishments will still await those who step too far over the line.
But we can say that things have begun. For the first time, the word “NO” has resounded within China’s media system. The game of competing interests we saw played out this week was like none we have seen before.
Read more about recent events at Southern Weekly via CDT.