A controversy last month in the offices of Southern Weekly, one of China’s more liberal publications, appeared to be mainly about censorship. It spread to the streets and widely on the Internet, and the focal point was indeed freedom for journalists. At a deeper level, though, the issue was a precursor of the new year. It was about alternative national dreams.

Xi Jinping, who was installed as the Communist Party leader in November, opened the “dream” discussion with these words in his acceptance speech at the 18th Party Congress: “Our people love life; they hope for better education, more stable jobs, more satisfactory incomes, more reliable social guarantees, higher-level medical and health services, more comfortable living conditions, a more beautiful environment, and they hope that their children can grow up better, work better and live better. The wishes of our people for better lives are the goals of our struggles.”

Xi spoke of material matters, but soon he seemed to realize that his “dream” should include more spiritual elements. In a speech two weeks later, he said:

“Everyone has ideals and pursuits. … The greatest dream of the Chinese people in recent times has been to realize the great renaissance of the Chinese nation. … The future and the fate of every Chinese person is tightly bound to the future and fate of the state and the nation. … No one will be well off unless the state and the nation are well off.” Now Xi’s version of the China dream had two levels: a daily-life material level and spiritual aspirations at the level of state and nation.

Editors at Southern Weekly, a publication based in Guangdong, saw a crucial gap, right at the dream’s center: It left out dignity for citizens. So they drafted an editorial, “China’s Dream: The Dream of Constitutionalism,” that said in part:

“Our dream today cannot possibly end with material things; we seek a spiritual wholeness as well. It cannot possibly end with national strength alone; it must include self-respect for every person. … We will continue to dream until every person, whether high official or peddler on the street, can live in dignity.”

This thirst for dignity, not quenchable by money or the success of a state, does much to explain why the Southern Weekly statement drew explicit support from many — public intellectuals, students, movie stars, popular bloggers such as Han Han and countless other Internet users, including the editors of major news Web sites. People responded to the “dignity” issue because they had seen it in their own experience. Southern Weekly’s fine contribution simply put the issue into the public arena; no one needed to be told the problem was there.

One might ask why Southern Weekly’s notion of dignity cannot simply be inserted into Xi Jinping’s China dream. Why should it conflict with either material improvement or national strength? The problem — and Southern Weekly editors wrote the point plainly — is that personal dignity depends on personal rights, and such rights can be secure only under a constitutional system of government. “Constitutional government is the basis for the entire beautiful dream,” they wrote. “Only when we have established constitutional government, only when the powers of government have been limited and separated, will citizens be able to voice their criticisms of authority with confidence and be able to live in freedom, in accordance with their inner convictions. Only then will we have a free country and a country that is truly strong. … The real ‘China dream’ is a dream for freedom and constitutional government.”

This is the part of the editors’ statement that Communist Party authorities could not abide. The language does not go quite as far as Charter 08, the citizen manifesto largely responsible for Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year prison sentence. Charter 08 had called for elections and a multiparty system. But the echo is unmistakable. Some lines are almost identical, such as “after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, our forebears set up the first republic in Asia, yet a constitutional China — free, democratic, and strong — was not the result.”

After officials of the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department “revised” the Southern Weekly statement, all of the lines quoted above had been removed and were replaced with words from Xi Jinping’s speeches about materialism and state power. It was announced that the editors had made these changes, and the result was published as “Message for 2013: We Are Closer to Our Dream than Ever Before.”

Propaganda officials’ actions sparked popular outrage in Guangdong and online. At the same time, the strong-arm tactics show the weakness of the party’s position. China’s rulers are well aware that something is missing in their version of the dream. Charter 08 and the original Southern Weekly statement both put “individual dignity” at the dream’s center.

If it were true, as the regime often maintains, that such ideas are “Western” and stirred up by “external hostile forces,” then there would be no reason to censor them or to jail their proponents. Authorities could simply publish the ideas and then watch the Chinese people inoculate themselves by rejecting them as “un-Chinese.” But no one is clearer than China’s rulers that this would not be the case.

Xiao Qiang is an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information. Perry Link teaches Chinese literature at the University of California, Riverside.