Journalists at a prominent Chinese newspaper, Southern Weekly, have gone on strike after the paper’s New Year message — which called for guaranteed constitutional rights — was altered into praise for the Communist Party by a propaganda chief. The strike, which broke out last weekend in the southern Chinese province of Guangzhou, is a rare occurrence in China with its one-party system and highly centralized, state-controlled media.
A Sunday editorial on Southern Weekly’s official microblog denied that the New Year’s message had been censored. These updates on the microblog were written by senior editors and are said to have sparked the strike, as other members of the staff disagreed. About 100 editorial staff members have joined the strike, which has gotten the support of a number of Chinese media outlets. While most news organizations have run an editorial from the state-sanctioned Global Times critical of Southern Weekly’s journalists, they have also run a disclaimer saying they do not share its views; some say they were directed to post the editorial by a government directive.
In two open letters, 35 prominent former staff of the paper and 50 interns have demanded the resignation of the propaganda official, Tuo Zhen, saying that he is “dictatorial” at a time when there is “growing openness.” Since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, was chosen two months ago — he will take office as China’s president in March — he seems to display a more open-minded approach, though he has lately affirmed that China must adhere to its socialist roots.
On Monday, a huge crowd of supporters stood outside Southern Weekly’s offices, some carrying banners saying “We want press freedom, constitutionalism and democracy.” Brief scuffles between them and police were reported though a former journalist from Southern Media Group noted to BBC Chinese that “security wasn’t tight.” On Tuesday, up to 100 people, some wearing face masks and carrying flowers in symbolic mourning for the “death of press freedom” in China, showed up to protest.
The BBC’s Martin Patience describes Southern Weekly as China’s “most respected newspaper, known for its hard-hitting investigations and for testing the limits of freedom of speech.” The protests are thought to be the first in which journalists and party officials have been engaged in a “direct showdown.”
Chinese authorities have been censoring any mention of the strike on Weibo, China’s popular microblog service that is similar to Twitter. One post removed on Monday by a former Southern Weekly reporter was addressed to current editor-in-chief Huang Can and stated the matter simply:
If the newspaper no longer exists, where shall we pursue our ideals?
Naive as I was, I firmly believed that it’s always better to dance with shackles than to have no right to dance.
Actress Yao Chen posted Southern Weekly’s logo and quoted Soviet dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn to her 32 million followers: “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.” Another actress, Li Bingbing, wrote on her microblog to her 19 million followers “Hoping for a spring in this harsh winter.”
Whether that spring will happen remains very uncertain. Southern Weekly journalists are now in talks with propaganda officials in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, says the BBC, though Monday’s negotiations reportedly “did not go well at all.”
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