The crisis at the Southern Weekly escalated on Monday after hundreds of supporters gathered outside the headquarters of the leading Chinese newspaper and demanded that the authorities respect media freedom, which is written clearly in the constitution of the People’s Republic of China.
At the same time, hundreds of thousands people, including many popular celebrities, voiced their support for the Southern Weekly on China’s microblogging site Sina Weibo.
About 100 editors and reporters with the newspaper have declared a strike and their negotiations with the authorities are still going on.
The media workers are demanding less intervention from the authorities. However, such demands are unlikely to be accepted by the propaganda officials.
If negotiations fail to satisfy the protesters, which is highly likely, further confrontation between Chinese media workers and propaganda chiefs will occur.
In the worst case scenario, this dispute could push China’s propaganda officials to increase media control, dashing hopes for increased freedom of the press in the wake of the recent 18th Communist Party congress.
The Southern Weekly has long been regarded as a symbolic publication in China for its outspoken opinions and sharp criticism of the government. Many of its former reporters are now influential editors in China’s major media outlets and websites.
In spite of frequent intervention and punishment from the propaganda authority, the publication has managed to survive, thanks to support from its millions of readers, both inside and outside the bureaucratic system.
Like most publications in China, the Southern Weekly was under strict control in the past year, as the Communist Party prepared for its 18th congress.
When the party’s new leader Xi Jinping was sworn in last November, many liberal intellectuals hoped he might kick start a process of long-awaited political reform, with looser media control and the fight against corruption top of the list.
However, these hopes were dashed when the Guangdong propaganda authority ordered the Southern Weekly to change its New Year editorial from a piece calling for outright political reform and abidance with the constitution into a tribute praising the ruling party. The authority also ordered the newspaper to drop many critical articles, or to replace them with soft stories favouring the government.
Ironically, readers found at least two mistakes in the rewritten editorial and rumours said that Tuo Zhen, head of the Guangdong propaganda ministry, rewrote the editorial himself and was responsible for the mistakes.
As a result, Tuo became the primary target of the initial Weibo protest with many web users demanding his resignation.
However, the assumption of Tuo’s involvement proved to be wrong, according to a report published by the Southern Weekly reporters on Weibo, which asserted that the editorial was actually rewritten by editors of the Southern Weekly, under instruction from the authority.
The local propaganda authority has reason to fight back, as the escalating protests can be viewed as an attack against party control of the media, rather than any individual official.
As direct intervention in the media is permissible by the party, they can even argue that such protests could undermine the rule of the party, placing hardliners on solid ground when facing internal critics.
Now, striking editors and journalists have two options: either to bow to the will of the propaganda authority and return to work or to continue to strike and hope that suspension of the publication wins more sympathy from outsiders.
The first course of action would lead the Guangdong propaganda ministry to toughen its stance in the future and many striking journalists and editors would be fired sooner or later.
The second scenario would require the authority to mobilise reporters loyal to them to fill the pages and meet the print deadline.
In either case, the Guangdong propaganda ministry clearly has the upper hand as their actions are in line with party policy and will get support from the party hardliners. Any hope for direct intervention from the central government seems unrealistic.
Thus, the government will strive to achieve a swift resolution both online and offline by issuing clear warnings to those who disobey. In fact, they have already done so.
This crisis rings alarm bells for journalists and liberal intellectuals. While the new government might support economic reforms for both political and economic reasons, real political reforms are far less likely.
This is a sad start for the new Chinese government. More clashes, more confrontations between the authorities and the liberal intellectuals are looming.
Zhang Hong is the deputy editor in chief of the Economic Observer, an influential business newspaper based in Beijing.