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NYT Tentative Deal Reported in Chinese Censorship Dispute

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Tentative Deal Reported in Chinese Censorship Dispute

Censorship Incites Protests in China: Protests over censorship at one of China's most liberal newspapers descended into ideological confrontation on Tuesday.
Published: January 8, 2013 48 Comments

GUANGZHOU, China — A tentative agreement to defuse a newsroom strike by Chinese journalists over censorship controls in this southeastern provincial capital had been reached by early Wednesday, and some reporters working for Southern Weekend, the newspaper at the heart of the dispute, were told that the paper would publish as usual on Thursday, one journalist in the newsroom said.

A supporter of the Chinese Communist Party outside of the Nanfang Media Group on Wednesday.

Free speech advocates and Communist Party supporters faced off on Tuesday over the censorship of a New Year’s editorial.

“The paper is coming out tomorrow, and the propaganda department is going to hold a meeting with staff about this tomorrow,” said the journalist, who spoke Wednesday on the condition of anonymity. Several other reporters said that details of the agreement remained murky Wednesday morning, and that the deal could fall apart.

Protests over censorship at Southern Weekend, one of China’s most liberal newspapers, had descended into ideological confrontation on Tuesday, pitting advocates of free speech against supporters of Communist Party control, who wielded red flags and portraits of Mao Zedong.

The face-off outside the headquarters of the company that publishes Southern Weekend came after disgruntled editors and reporters at the paper last week deplored what they called crude meddling by the top propaganda official in Guangdong Province, which has long had a reputation as a bastion of a relatively free press.

With a number of celebrities and business leaders rallying online to the liberal cause, senior propaganda officials in Beijing began this week to roll out a national strategy of demonizing the rebel journalists and their supporters. The Central Propaganda Department issued a directive to news organizations saying the defiant outburst at Southern Weekend, also known as Southern Weekly, had involved “hostile foreign forces.”

The order, translated by China Digital Times, a research group at the University of California, Berkeley, that studies Chinese news media, said that Chinese journalists must drop their support of Southern Weekend and insisted that “party control of the media is an unwavering basic principle.”

An editor at a party news organization said the term “hostile forces” had been used in an internal discussion with a senior editor about the Southern Weekend conflict. Several Chinese journalists outside Guangdong said Tuesday that a call by Southern Weekend reporters and editors for the dismissal of Tuo Zhen, the top provincial propaganda official, who took up his post in May, was probably too radical for higher authorities to accept.

The protesting journalists at Southern Weekend blame Mr. Tuo, a former journalist, for ordering a drastic change in a New Year’s editorial that had originally called for greater respect for constitutional rights. The revised editorial instead praised party policies. Mr. Tuo has not commented on the accusation.

Early Wednesday, there was online chatter among Chinese journalists that Dai Zigeng, the publisher of The Beijing News, had balked at an order from the Central Propaganda Department to print an editorial attacking Southern Weekend. A truncated version ran on Wednesday deep inside the paper, and several Beijing News reporters confirmed that Mr. Dai had been uncomfortable with it.

A former editor for the Nanfang Media Group, which includes Southern Weekend, said provincial propaganda officials and disgruntled journalists talked Tuesday in Guangzhou. The talks focused on the journalists’ demands for an inquiry into the New Year’s episode and for the newspaper’s managers to rescind a statement that absolved Mr. Tuo of responsibility for the editorial.

“They want that statement to be removed, and they also want assurances about relaxing controls on journalists — not removing party oversight, but making it more reasonable, allowing reporters to challenge officials,” the editor said. “The other main demand is for an impartial explanation of what happened, an accounting so it won’t happen again.”

Senior Chinese officials have not commented publicly on the censorship dispute at the paper, which could test how far the recently appointed Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, will go in support of more open economic and political policies.

“I don’t believe that Xi is totally hypocritical when he talks about reform,” said Chen Min, a prominent opinion writer for Southern Weekend who was forced out of the newspaper in 2011 during a party-led crackdown on potential dissent.

Defenders of Communist orthodoxy turned up at the newspaper headquarters on Tuesday to make the case for firm party control of the media.

“We support the Communist Party. Shut down the traitor newspaper,” said a cardboard sign held up by one of 10 or so conservative demonstrators.

“Southern Weekend has an American dream,” another sign said. “We don’t want the American dream. We want the Chinese dream.”

Most of the party supporters refused to give their names. One who did, Yang Xingfa, 50, from Hunan Province, said: “Southern Weekend belongs to the people. However, the paper always ignores the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party and asks why China isn’t more like the United States. Outrageous!”

The participants said they had come on their own initiative.

The dueling protests outside the newspaper headquarters reflected the political passions and tensions raised by the quarrel over censorship. Finding a resolution to the standoff poses a challenge both to the central authorities and to Hu Chunhua, the new party chief of Guangdong and a potential candidate to succeed Mr. Xi in a decade.

Hundreds of bystanders watched and took photos on cellphones as the party supporters shouted at the 20 or more protesters who had gathered to denounce censorship, and shoving matches broke out.

One defender of the Southern Weekend journalists was Liang Taiping, 28, a poet who wore a Guy Fawkes mask popularized by “V for Vendetta,” the Hollywood movie and British comic book. Mr. Liang said he had bought the mask after watching the movie recently on state-run China Central Television, which had surprised many Chinese with its willingness to show the film uncut, since the film advocates the overthrow of a one-party dictatorship.

“It’s the only newspaper in China that’s willing to tell the truth,” said Mr. Liang, who added that he had traveled by train about 350 miles from the southern city of Changsha. “What’s the point of living if you can’t even speak freely?”

Edward Wong reported from Guangzhou, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong. Jonah M. Kessel contributed reporting from Guangzhou, and Jonathan Ansfield from Beijing. Mia Li contributed research from Guangzhou.

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