Recent protest, including strikes by some reporters, against Chinese authorities’ heavy censorship of new year articles by the Southern Weekly, a Guangdong newspaper known for its hard-hitting investigations, points to Chinese people’s strong desire for freedom of speech and expression.

The protests should be taken as an expression of the Chinese people’s deep resentment of a widening disparity between rich and poor, rampant corruption and the Chinese Communist Party’s iron grip on society. Freedom of speech may not be coming anytime soon in China, but the people’s desire to attain this right will not die down despite the party’s efforts to suppress it.

The Southern Weekly protest started after it came to light that the propaganda section of the Communist Party’s Guangdong committee heavily censored a New Year’s message and other articles that the Southern Weekly had planned to publish on Jan. 3.

The original New Year’s message, titled “Dream of China. Dream of constitutional politics,” stated that the Chinese people should have been free people from the beginning. But the party’s propaganda section pressured the chief editor to alter this and other articles. Despite protest from reporters, he was pressured into complying. The revised New Year’s message became much shorter and included strong praise for the party. Its new headline read, “We are closely approaching (our) dream as never before.”

On Jan. 3, the newspaper issued a statement protesting media control by the party. Reporters posted the original articles on the Internet. Support for the newspaper spread. Reporters also posted an open letter demanding an apology from and the resignation of the provincial propaganda section chief.

Such heavy-handed censorship is reported to be unusual in China. It is also said that the public rebellion by reporters against the Communist Party’s propaganda authorities is unprecedented.

To calm the situation, the Southern Weekly posted an online statement on the night of Jan. 6 denying that it altered content under Communist Party pressure. But this only fanned the flames. Reporters posted a statement saying that the newspaper’s statement had also been issued under pressure from the party. Hundreds of people also gathered outside the newspaper’s office in the city of Guangzhou last week, calling for freedom of speech and expression.

The Beijing News, co-owned by Nanfang Media Group, the parent company of the Southern Weekly, resisted carrying an editorial from the state-run Global Times that stated that provincial officials were not responsible for altering Southern Weekly articles and that elements outside China’s media industry were inciting some members of the media to become confrontational. Under party pressure, it eventually carried the editorial on Jan. 9 deep inside the paper on page 20.

A compromise appears to have been reached between the Communist Party and the Southern Weekly: censorship before publication will be reduced but the practice of self-censorship will remain. But the newspaper on Jan. 10 issued an editorial calling for renewal of the method to control public opinion and for rational and constructive protection of the media.

One thing is clear. The Chinese leadership’s commitment to the rights enshrined in the Chinese Constitution — including freedom of speech, of the press and of assembly — and to reform, including the eradication of corruption, will continue to be tested.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.