Action by China’s leaders to contain a row that saw rare protests against censorship shows there is no consensus for immediate change, analysts say, despite rising calls for press freedom and other reforms.
Since Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) was installed as the new Chinese Communist Party general secretary in November, authorities have sounded themes of better serving the people, respecting rights and clamping down on corruption.
However, the way the government handled the rare public dispute — a tangible early test for Xi — suggested radical change is some way off.
The row flared after the liberal Southern Weekly newspaper, based in Guangdong Province, had an editorial urging greater protection for rights replaced with one praising the ruling party. Angered by what they saw as heavy-handed, old-style censorship, demonstrators took to the streets with others speaking out in China’s increasingly vocal online community.
A deal between staff and officials, reportedly on the basis that the paper would not face direct interference in content before publication, resulted in the Southern Weekly coming out on Thursday as scheduled and police removing demonstrators from the scene.
Reports said Hu Chunhua (胡春華), the top communist official in Guangdong Province and a rising star, had stepped in to mediate.
University of Sydney professor of Chinese politics David Goodman saw the accommodation of protests and the quiet defusing of the situation as signs leaders were divided.
“People don’t normally go around protesting in China like that without some level of high-level support,” he said.
“Both camps will have instructed their people who were at the front line in the situation to back off,” he said. “There are people who don’t want change and people who do want change.”
Such challenges to the government were likely to continue, Chinese University of Hong Kong politics expert Willy Lam said.
“I think people are not so naive to believe that Xi Jinping is really serious about abiding by the constitution and so forth because that would mean freedom of expression,” he said. “But I think they want this to be a challenge to Xi Jinping because he has in a high-profile manner committed himself to respecting and abiding by the constitution.”
China’s major Web portals reprinted an official editorial critical of the Southern Weekly, but distanced themselves from the content, while the publisher of the Beijing News reportedly threatened to quit.