Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-backed management and rebellious staff at an influential weekly newspaper stepped back yesterday from a contentious standoff over censorship that spilled over to the wider public and turned into an unexpected test of the new Chinese leadership’s tolerance for reform.
Hopes among supporters of the Southern Weekly that the dispute would strike a blow against censorship appeared to fizzle with a tentative resolution.
Under an agreement reached on Tuesday, editors and reporters at the paper will not be punished for protesting and stopping work to protest a propaganda official’s heavy-handed rewriting of a new year’s editorial last week, said two members of the editorial staff, who asked not to be identified. One, an editor, said officials will no longer directly censor content prior to publication, though other controls remain.
“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 might see censors back off the “really ham-fisted approach” seen recently, he said.
Executives at the newspaper and its parent company, the state-owned Nanfang Media Group (南方報業傳媒集團), declined to comment on the agreement other than to say that staff were at work yesterday and the Southern Weekly would be published as normal today.
Aside from getting the presses rolling, the agreement appears likely to deflate the confrontation that presented a knotty challenge to CCP leader and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平). Xi has raised hopes of more liberal party rule and of a wider role for the media in helping Beijing in a renewed campaign against corruption.
While the crisis began over the propaganda official’s rewriting of an editorial calling for better constitutional governance, it soon evolved into calls for free expression and political reform by intellectuals, university students and others.
Nearly 100 supporters gathered in protest for a third day outside the Southern Weekly’s offices, flanked by dozens of police, who separated them from about 20 left-wing CCP loyalists who waved Chinese flags and portraits of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東).
The standoff echoed through the Beijing News, which is co-owned by Nanfang Media, and has a reputation for aggressive reporting. Editors at the newspaper all week defied an order to run a commentary which many other newspapers carried blaming resistance to censorship on foreign meddling. According to accounts by reporters, a propaganda official showed up Tuesday to insist they print it.
At a tearful late-night meeting, staff voted to hold out and publisher Dai Zigeng (戴自更) said he would resign, the accounts said.
Still, a reporter and a phone operator at the Beijing News said Dai remained in his post yesterday. The newspaper also carried an abbreviated version of the commentary that left out criticisms of the Southern Weekly and its supporters.
The agreement to keep propaganda officials from censoring articles before they appear rolls back more intrusive controls put in place in recent months, but it does not mean an end to censorship. The Propaganda Department, which controls all media in China, chiefly relies on directives, self-censorship by editors and reporters and dismissal of those who do not comply.
The Southern Weekly editor said it was hard to call the agreement a victory because controls remain and punishment of staff, though stalled for now, may be imposed later.