Chinese journalists choose quiet defiance, not mass strike, to protest censorship

Published in Washington Post

BEIJING — A threatened journalism strike in China to protest government censorship appeared to have been averted Thursday, as the reform-minded Southern Weekly newspaper appeared on newsstands and in mailboxes as scheduled.

But in a nod to the past week of turmoil, the Guangdong province-based newspaper ran a brief article on the bottom of page 32 saying China’s ruling Communist Party should protect “reasonable and constructive media” to advance reforms.


The article said it was “fundamental that the party regulates the press” in China. But, the paper added, the party’s method of regulation “needs to be advanced to keep pace with the times” and reforms “need the protection and support of a moderate, rational and constructive media.”

The paper did not demand an end to censorship, as many of its public supporters have advocated. Instead, it asked merely for a freer rein to help the government advance promised reforms.

Meanwhile, after a week of allowing anti-censorship protests outside the paper’s headquarters in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, police began taking a tougher line. Photographs and video quickly appeared on Twitter and other social media sites of officers dragging away screaming protesters.

In Beijing, the anti-censorship movement had penetrated the newsroom of the government-owned Beijing News. Thursday’s edition of the paper contained a protest even more cryptic than the one in the Southern Weekly: an ode to the popular southern Chinese porridge dish known as “congee,” published in the lifestyle section.

The name for Southern congee in Chinese, “nanfang de zhou,” sounds like the name of the Southern Weekly, “Nanfang Zhou Mo,” and the newspaper used the ode to voice thinly veiled solidarity with Southern Weekly.

“Hot porridge in an earthen pot hails from the southland,” the story said, according to a translation posted on the Web site of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, which monitors media-related issues in China. “Perhaps it has a heart of courage. ... In this bitter winter, we all gather around this bowl of porridge to warm ourselves.”

There was confusion over whether the Beijing News publisher, Dai Zigeng, had resigned Tuesday night, after the paper was forced to reprint an editorial from another newspaper, the Communist Party-owned Global Times, that defended government control of the media.

In tweets and off-the-record interviews, journalists described a tense and tearful scene in the newsroom, with a government propaganda official demanding that the Beijing News reprint the editorial or see the entire paper dissolved. Dai said he would quit, according to those accounts.

But on Thursday, the Beijing city propaganda office said everything was “normal” at the Beijing News, although it remained unclear whether Dai’s oral resignation had been accepted. Journalists at the Beijing News declined to comment, saying the situation was too tense to speak with foreign reporters.

The anti-censorship protests began when a front-page New Year’s Day message in the Southern Weekly — expressing a “dream” for a constitutional government — was surreptitiously altered into an obsequious tribute to the Communist Party before the paper was published.

Editors and reporters blamed Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen for altering the editorial.

In a rare act of popular defiance, past and present journalists, university students, academics, actors and business leaders took to weibo — the Chinese version of Twitter — to condemn government censorship and voice support for free expression and for the Southern Weekly.

The unusual public protest against a central tenet of the Communist Party’s rule — its control of information — seemed to pose a critical early test for China’s new leader, Xi Jinping. He took over the country’s top leadership position in November, carrying with him the outsize hopes of many liberal reformers that he might break with the country’s dictatorial past.

Some here expressed disappointment Thursday that more reporters and editors did not join the anti-censorship effort and that most national newspapers meekly followed the Central Propaganda Department’s order to reprint the Global Times editorial.

The Southern Weekly journalists, these critics said, were too quick to rescind their strike threat.

For now, observers said, most journalists seem willing to keep their jobs under the current censorship system rather than risk unemployment and, likely, further harsh retaliation, even jail.

“People still have to care about their rice bowls. They still have the house mortgage to pay,” said Li Datong, who was fired in 2006 as editor of Freezing Point, a supplement of the China Youth Daily, for protesting censorship. “It’s not that easy to resign collectively.”

What was unusual about the protests of the past week was that “ordinary people started to care,” Li said, noting that they joined street protests and, more often, posted messages on social networks.

“That’s a good phenomenon,” Li said. “It shows Chinese people, the whole society, have started to care about freedom of speech. And weibo is their weapon.”

Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.