Former managing editor Qian Gang looks back on the Southern Weekly incident and the factors behind it, retracing the Guangdong newspaper’s difficult past and examining why its New Year’s greeting has long-rankled China’s propaganda officials:
Southern Weekly has long been a thorn in the side of Party conservatives and entrenched interests. Over the past 10 years, the paper has suffered repeated assaults from the authorities and many of its best reporters and editors have been forced to move on. Propaganda officials repeatedly tried sending down ideologically rigid officials from Party newspapers down to Guangzhou from Beijing to serve as editors-in-chief of the newspaper. They appointed “reviewers” who would go over copy with a strict eye. But a consistently strong core editorial team at Southern Weekly meant it was able to withstand such encroachments.
In May 2012, the deputy director of Xinhua News Agency, Tuo Zhen (庹震), was appointed propaganda chief of Guangdong province. He made it his mission to bring Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily to heel. The campaign of pressure against Southern Weekly went into high gear. Instances of direct intervention and prior censorship began happening more frequently. In an open letter released in the midst of the Southern Weekly crisis last month, staff at the paper revealed that at least 1,034 reports had been killed in 2012 alone.
Every New Year’s special edition of Southern Weekly since 1999 has included features in which reporters return to the countryside and to city districts to witness the changes underway there. Together these pieces, which always deal with the same places, form a serial portrait of change in China over more than a decade.
Southern Weekly special editions are known for their outspokenness on core ideas like democracy and civil society. The 80th anniversary edition of the May Fourth Movement called for greater democracy. The 50th anniversary edition of the founding of the People’s Republic of China called for an end to a society of feudal subjects (臣民社会) and the building of a civil society. After 2001, the special New Year’s edition of Southern Weekly began choosing persons of the year as well as reviews of important achievements in press monitoring (much of it investigative reporting) over the past year. The newspaper also looked at some news stories it had been unable to cover during the previous year due to censorship instructions.
See also former Southern Newspaper editor Chang Ping’s recent interview with ChinaFile, in which he discusses censorship and China’s changing media landscape, as well as an op-ed by CDT’s Xiao Qiang and Perry Link about the Southern Weekly incident and the “China dream.”