China’s revolt against media controls “has spread to a second newspaper amid mounting public anger over heavy-handed government censorship” after the Beijing News “refused a request from censors to republish a propaganda editorial that criticized Guangdong-based Southern Weekend for fighting back against censorship,” the FT’s Kathrin Hille reports:
The editorial at the centre of the confrontation in the Beijing News newsroom was a piece written by the party-run Global Times and widely republished – by diktat – across Chinese media. The editorial blamed outside forces led by Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist living in New York, for stirring up the controversy at the Southern Weekend. It warned media not to confront the government in public: “If you do this in China, you will definitely be a loser.”
The Beijing News deleted that line from their version.
“This isn’t only about Southern Weekly anymore. The main question is the big public response,” said Qiao Mu, director of the Center for International Communication Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “You have to give the public an answer…that’s a big challenge for Xi Jinping and the propaganda leaders.”
The controversies follow other high-profile unrest around China related to the environment, land and other issues, but the newspaper controversies strike closer to the party’s core.
Media controls have for decades formed a bedrock of the party’s efforts to shape public opinion, and more recently help it counterbalance the constant chatter from China’s hundreds of millions of social-media users, which has blown open the party’s information monopoly….
The party still appoints newspaper editors, and propaganda officials instruct them daily on how to cover sensitive political news and where to place stories on their pages. But it is rare for propaganda authorities to force a newspaper to publish another paper’s editorial.
The events at the Beijing News suggest a tactic rarely seen since the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao, according to Qian Gang, a former managing editor at Southern Weekly who today serves as director of Hong Kong University’s China Media Project.
“This feels exactly like the beginning of [the democracy movement in] ’89,” says Tiananmen veteranYu Gang.
“It is absolutely incredible that we can stand here and say these things and hand out our leaflets and nothing happens,” said one of Mr Yu’s friends. “Any other time in the past, the People’s Armed Police would have moved in a long time ago.”
Hours after censors forced the Beijing News to run an editorial by the party-owned Global Times dismissing the Southern Weekend revolt, the Beijing paper ran a tribute to its sister title cryptically disguised as a food column.
“A bowl of bubbling hot congee in an earthen pot from China’s Southern lands […] it seems to have a brave heart,” it said. “When you open your mouth in the cold night, white steam billows, there is so much ordeal in the world, all you have to warm you up is this bowl of congee, telling you the power of love and consolation.”
In another echo of 1989, some protesters believe that the Communist party leadership might be split over reform policies. Both the Maoist demonstrators and some democracy activists declared that they stood behind Mr Xi.
“The difference between now and 1989 is that, back then, the people thought the dictatorship could be reformed – they would pin their hopes on politicians like Zhao Ziyang,” says Yu. “Now, people’s eyes have been opened. With the Communist party around, there can be no democracy.”
Under a reported deal between the authorities and Southern Weekly, the publication’s journalists will not be penalized and officials will not be allowed to censor content before publication.
“If that’s the case, we’ve got a small victory for the media,” said David Bandurksi, an expert on Chinese media at Hong Kong University. The compromise, he said, might see censors back off the “really ham-fisted approach” they had taken in recent months.
Even if censorship largely remains intact, the standoff has showed the breadth of support newspapers like Southern Weekly have among many Chinese, who are wired to the Internet and increasingly sophisticated in their expectations of the government. That may give censors pause in the future, said Bandurski, the Hong Kong University scholar.
“It might make them more cautious on how they handle the media,” he said.
The anti-censorship protests over “had descended into ideological confrontation, …pitting advocates of free speech against supporters of Communist Party control, who wielded red flags and portraits of Mao Zedong,” The New York Times reports:
The face-off outside the headquarters of the company that publishes Southern Weekend came after disgruntled editors and reporters at the paper last week deplored what they called crude meddling by the top propaganda official in Guangdong Province, which has long had a reputation as a bastion of a relatively free press.
With a number of celebrities and business leaders rallying online to the liberal cause, senior propaganda officials in Beijing began this week to roll out a national strategy of demonizing the rebel journalists and their supporters.
“The Chinese government’s main propaganda organ took a hard line against anti-censorship protesters at the offices of the Guangdong newspaper Southern Weekly, declaring that Communist Party control over Chinese media is “unshakable” and accusing “external” agitators of fomenting the unrest, The Washington Post’s Keith B. Richburg reports:
The “urgent memo” from the ruling party’s Central Propaganda Department was sent to media heads and local party chiefs. It was obtained and translated into English by the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post and the Web site China Digital Times, which regularly publishes edicts from China’s censorship authorities, derisively known as the Ministry of Truth.
But, as The Wall Street Journal reports: Blogger and sportswriter Li Chengpeng skewered the notion of overseas agents interfering in Chinese internal affairs in a sarcastic Weibo post drawing parallels to some recent high-profile allegations of transgressions by Chinese officials. “These foreign forces are odious,” he wrote. “They steal money from the Chinese people and stash it in Swiss bank accounts. Their children drive Ferraris while they ignore Chinese school bus tragedies.”
One journalist at Southern Weekend expressed cautious optimism that the resolution would bring some improvements for him and his colleagues, the FT reports:
“At least we have proved that you don’t die if you fight. Death comes only if you don’t fight,” he said.
But other journalists familiar with the situation remained pessimistic.
“The leaders just want to end this incident, which has been embarrassing for them, but any relief will be temporary,” said a reporter at Southern Metropolis Daily, Southern Weekend’s sister paper. “Apart from that, Southern Weekend is a special case and has always been. A partial victory fought by them doesn’t mean a thaw in the broader censorship climate.”