Censorship in China

China targets celebrities over speech freedom comments in censorship row

Celebrities who backed journalists in their campaign are invited 'to have tea' with the authorities as propaganda officials seek to end row

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 7:18am

As Southern Weekly published its first edition yesterday following a row over editorial intervention by propaganda officials, mainland-based celebrities who showed support for the newspaper were invited to "have tea" with the authorities while activists who joined a protest in Guangzhou were taken away by police.

The steps indicated that the authorities were keen to put an end to the censorship crisis.

The newspaper's politics section, usually four pages, was replaced with photos, while other sections, including commentary, culture, economics, energy and special reports, appeared as usual.

A number of celebrities, including Taiwanese singer Annie Yi and former Google China chief Li Kaifu, who posted support for the outspoken newspaper and calls for freedom of speech on microblogging sites, appeared to have been asked to "have tea" with officials - a euphemism for being given a warning for posting messages deemed inappropriate.

Yi said on her Sina Weibo microblog: "I'm going to tea now, hope it tastes good." The post was soon deleted.

Li, a Taiwanese-born American, said on his microblog: "From now on, I will only talk about east, west and north, as well as Monday through to Friday" - omitting references to the south or the weekend. The newspaper's Chinese name is literally translated as "Southern Weekend".

Others invited for tea included Ren Zhiqiang, chairman of Huayuan Real Estate.

One celebrity said the authorities had warned them to be cautious with their online comments.

Searches for the Chinese characters for "Southern Weekly" remain blocked on microblogs and have also become a sensitive term on WeChat, a mobile phone text and voice messaging communication service developed by Tencent.

In Guangzhou, police cleared people protesting in support of Southern Weekly and leftists, who accused the newspaper of undermining the socialist system and one-party rule, from outside the headquarters of the Nanfang Media Group.

At around noon, plainclothes police grabbed disabled activist Xiao Qingshan, a petitioner who had travelled from Shenzhen to Guangzhou to express his support for media freedom, and took him away in a van. Xiao shouted: "This is abduction!" A student from Guangdong University of Technology was also taken away after giving an interview to reporters.

The police had tolerated demonstrations from Monday to Wednesday, including speeches calling for an end to media censorship, and even one-party rule.

The newspaper hit newsstands in Beijing and Shanghai as usual yesterday, but was not available in at least five newspaper kiosks in Guangzhou. Kiosk owners said the newspaper usually arrived on Friday, adding that more readers asked for the newspaper yesterday.

The normal publication of Southern Weekly suggests that the week-long stand-off between journalists and provincial censors over alterations to its New Year editorial has ended following personal mediation by new Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua .

Yesterday's Southern Weekly republished a Monday editorial from the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, which said the party must regulate the press but that its methods of exercising such control must move with the times.

Some journalists expressed concern about worsening self-censorship despite discussion of the possibility that propaganda officials would stop pre-screening proposed assignment topics. A source said an editorial commemorating the 30th anniversary of the newspaper, supposed to appear in yesterday's edition, had been ditched.

Others said they were worried they would still face punishment and were looking at other jobs.

Additional reporting by Laura Zhou