The Southern Weekly protests caught the attention of the world. The dispute over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) party-state system’s hold on press freedom is now seen as a major political challenge and a test of the sincerity behind CCP General Secretary and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) promises of reform.
What will happen in the aftermath of the demonstrations will depend on Zhongnanhai, and it is an issue that the international community is paying close attention to.
Taiwan, which finds itself in an area most directly affected by China’s rise, will be more affected than many other countries.
The Southern Weekly incident offers Taiwan’s government and public a fresh opportunity to gain an understanding of whether the same weaknesses, differing in degree only, are present in Taiwanese freedoms, media policies and media environment, and whether we need to take stronger action to protect these values.
The Southern Weekly incident began when the weekly newspaper planned to run a New Year’s message voicing its dream of better constitutional governance in response to a speech by Xi in which he stated that the Chinese constitution must be implemented for the nation to survive and to become authoritative.
However, the article was not approved by the Guangdong provincial propaganda department, and after some heavy editing, became an uncontroversial piece in praise of China.
This triggered a backlash among the editorial staff, who are known for being critical of government policy and for exposing irregularities. They signed a statement demanding the resignation of Guangdong provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen (庹震). Chinese intellectuals, writers and artists also spoke up.
Amidst the uproar, an unverified “urgent statement” from the CCP propaganda department appeared, stating that “hostile foreign forces” had interfered in the incident and saying that “party control of the media is an unshakable fundamental principle.”
Since both CCP propaganda chief Liu Yunshan (劉雲山) and Tuo are viewed as left-wingers, the whole incident has taken on the overtones of a power struggle. This was followed by rumors of a crackdown on more liberal publications.
The incident highlights one of the innumerable flash points in China. It is a counterattack against the one-party dictatorship, which has placed itself above the constitution and the law. The US Department of State has expressed its concern, and in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led intellectuals in protesting against the incident, while the Mainland Affairs Council also issued a statement.
As for Taiwan’s government, it did what it always does when fundamental values conflict with relations with China: It remained silent.
This behavior shows how the nation’s head of state lacks strong democratic and human rights convictions and maybe even harbors a nostalgic longing for the old party-state system.
This attitude can be seen in the disregard and ambivalence with which the government has handled the anti-media monopolization demonstrations, and how Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators have handled the issue in the legislature.
While China grapples with the Southern Weekly issue, Taiwan is faced with a similar issue in the Next Media Group buyout. Both are but two sides of the same coin.
If the “urgent statement” from the CCP’s propaganda department turns out to be true, the accusations about interference by hostile foreign forces is simply a matter of the CCP, a propaganda specialist, crying thief to cover up its own behavior.