Last week in China I saw an extraordinary thing captured on video by the New York Times. One of several hundred protesters outside the gates of the Southern Weekly compound in Guangzhou loudly called for the freedom of expression. “They have all the power!” He shouted, “They control what the paper reports!”
His facial expression struck me as anxious. At times his eyes darted from the left to the right as if he feared he might be reprimanded, arrested, or beaten at any second. Such action would not be a surprise in China, where police brutality—particularly as punishment for confronting the government—is the norm. Still, he continued, “Censorship! It kills stories that should be printed!”
The man was protesting in support of journalists at the Southern Weekly. The newspaper is known for aggressive reporting, exposing government corruption and social injustice in China and resisting censorship imposed by the Central Propaganda Department.
This month, the newspaper intended to run a New Year’s editorial calling for government reform. Since China’s new leader Xi Jinping took office, there has been a wary, cautious sentiment here that his rise heralds a new, more liberally minded era. In his first speech to the country, Xi addressed a wide range of issues—from corruption to the environment to empowering the poor—to give many reason to hope. But what happened next at the Southern Weekly, and the events this week, indicate such hope may be misplaced.
When censors reviewed the Southern Weekly, according to news reports, the local propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, personally oversaw the rewrite. The result was a fawning piece praising the new leadership. Journalists told the Associated Press the “revised editorial was not submitted for review by the journalists, which caused much anger.” That anger led to a strike by many of the journalists and editors. By Monday, protesters had gathered outside the newspaper’s offices in Guangdong Province. At the same time, the ultra-nationalistic Global Times ran an editorial lambasting the Southern Weekly for challenging authority and blamed its insouciance on meddling foreign hands. A directive from the Central Propaganda Department ordered several publications to re-run the Global Times piece.
The incident lit up the blogosphere. Two of China’s biggest celebrities, Li Bingbing and Yao Chen, posted messages of support on Twitter. Together they have more than 50 million followers. Yao Chen quoted the Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by tweeting, “One word of truth outweighs the world.” International headlines followed. Soon, one small newspaper’s street fight over censorship with local authorities became a national call for the freedom of speech.
And that’s where this story became bigger than it might have been just a couple of years ago. What would have been an imbalanced street fight between the paper and local propaganda officials became instead a much bigger headache for top leadership, just two months on the job. China hates when the world watches how it handles internal disputes. Social media handed the newspaper a victory when it opened the window on the injustice forced upon the staff. That in turn led to a protest in cyberspace that then manifested itself as protests in the real world.
It is one thing to tweet the words of a Russian dissident. It is another thing for an average Chinese citizen to draw up a placard and to spend his day—to be allowed to spend his day—shouting about injustices imposed by the new leadership. Over the course of the week, several protesters were taken away by police. But the majority were allowed to voice their grievances and give quotes to the international press. It’s potentially a sign the government was very aware the world was watching. In a further hint the issue registered high on leadership’s radar screen, Hu Chunhua, the newly installed party chief of Guangdong Province, was reportedly sent in to negotiate a solution.
By the end of the week, a deal had reportedly been reached between the newspaper and local officials. The journalists and editors would be allowed to go back to work unpunished for the work stoppage. The paper would not be subjected to the same level of “pre-censorship” as it had been in the past (but still subject to the inherent “self-censorship” requirements; there is no indication censorship at the paper is over). One report said a carefully worded editorial written by the Southern Weekly staff explaining the incident was quashed. As is often the case in China, this report was difficult to confirm as the government has remained silent.
Only the future reporting in Southern Weekly will tell the extent to which the newspaper was punished. But for now, I return to the man with the darting eyes and sure voice—as I do another woman on hand that day. She was aghast at the idea anyone should demand the freedom of speech. “I think it is highly unpractical that they are talking about the freedom of speech,” she said, “because no one in the world has it.”
As a small but encouraging example as the man’s words were, her thoughts show how far the country has to come before a critical mass assembles and demands to be heard.
Photo Credit: Bilonhw