Chinese journalists and local government officials are in an escalating standoff over the censorship of a southern Chinese newspaper. In what has become known as the “New Year’s greeting incident,” the Southern Weekend, based in Guangdong, ran an editorial on Jan. 3 which in its original draft called for political reforms but when published praised China’s current system. (See a comparison of the two versions here.)
Over 96 staff signed a statement announcing a strike, claiming that editors never agreed to the published editorial, and hundreds protested outside the paper’s offices today. Across China’s blogosphere, celebrities, entrepreneurs and regular Chinese posted both veiled and direct statements of support. Celebrity Chinese actress, Yao Chen, quoted a Soviet dissident on her microblog account, writing “One word of truth outweighs the whole world,” which was reposted over 83,000 times.
Of course, censorship is nothing new in China. In their letter of protest, the staff of Southern Weekly said that over 1,000 stories had been censored or blocked in 2012. Foreign news sites are regularly blocked and social media sites that can’t be controlled by Chinese officials, like Twitter and Facebook, are banned.
So why the fuss in this one case? For one, the direct interference of officials was unusual. Chinese media outlets generally self-censor, getting directives from central propaganda officials on how to report on stories. Online services like the microblogging site Sina Weibo employ in-house censors who delete sensitive posts. (The Chinese government does not officially admit to censorship; when asked about the Southern Weekend story today, a foreign ministry spokesperson said (paywall), “There is no so-called news censorship in China.”)
Another reason for the uproar was that the move undermined hopes that China’s new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will relax restrictions, albeit within the confines of Chinese socialism. In his first major public appearance after being anointed last November, Xi toured the southern province of Guangdong—an obvious nod to Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour, which preceded the country’s opening and reforms in the early 1990s. Xi’s pledge to crack down on corruption, the source of many scandals for the Communist Party in 2012, also raised expectations of change.
But those changes are slow in coming—if only because Xi and the other members of the new leadership don’t officially take up their posts until this spring. “There are still no clear rules on the media, and so officials stick to using their habitual ways to control the media,” Li Datong, the former editor of a Chinese newspaper, tells the New York Times. In the meantime, the expectations that Xi will change things seem to be fostering pent-up demand for more media freedom, and local governments can expect to see more and increasingly bold protests.