Protesters yesterday gathered at the Guangzhou headquarters of a Chinese newspaper at the center of a censorship row, in a rare demonstration of public support for media freedom in the country, with both the Taiwanese government and the leaders of a student movement against Chinese influence in local media closely watching the developments.
Hundreds of people, including students and white-collar workers, gathered outside the Southern Weekly’s office, holding signs and shouting slogans calling for freedom of speech, political reform, constitutional governance and democracy.
The demonstration came after censors on Thursday last week blocked a New Year article in the popular liberal newspaper calling for the realization of a “dream of constitutionalism in China” to protect people’s rights.
“I feel that the ordinary people must awaken,” one of the protesters, Yuan Fengchu, said by telephone. “The people are starting to realize that their rights have been taken away by the Communist Party and they are feeling that they are constantly oppressed.”
Another protester, Guangzhou writer and activist Wu Wei (吳偉), who goes by the pen name Ye Du (野渡), said the protest marked a rare instance in which Chinese were making overt calls for political freedom since large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed in a military crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“In other cities, we’ve seen people march, but most of the time they are protesting environmental pollution or people’s livelihood issues,” Wu said. “Here, they are asking for political rights, the right to protest. The Southern Weekly incident has provided an opportunity for citizens to voice their desires.”
Last week’s act of censorship caused journalists and their supporters, including students at nearby Sun Yat-sen University, to write open letters expressing their outrage.
“Our yielding and our silence have not brought a return of our freedom,” Hong Kong University’s China Media Project quoted the students as saying in their petition on Sunday. “Quite the opposite, it has brought the untempered intrusion and infiltration of rights by [government] power.”
The protests had turned into a real-time melee in the blogosphere on Sunday. The newspaper’s economics and environmental news staff appeared to say they were on strike, while editors loyal to the government shut down or took control of the paper’s official microblogs. One widely distributed staff declaration with 90 signatures said the publication’s microblogs were no longer authentic.
Searches for “Southern Weekly” on one popular microblogging site were blocked yesterday.
The crackdown on freedom of expression comes despite pledges of change from the new Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership, headed by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), which has promised a more open style of governance since the party congress in November.
A Chinese-language editorial in the state-run Global Times, which has links to the CCP, said China was determined to maintain the status quo when it came to the media.
“No matter whether these people [angered by the censorship] are happy or not, common sense says it is impossible to have the kind of ‘free media’ they dream of under China’s social and political systems today,” it said. “The media will by no means become a ‘political special area’ in China.”