The area outside the Southern Weekly's headquarters in central Guangzhou turned into a people's square yesterday, with several hundred people staging a peaceful demonstration calling for an end to media censorship.
Protesters, mostly young men and women, laid flowers and banners outside the gates of the Nanfang Media Group's headquarters, gave speeches and joined in a brief chorus to protest against the Guangdong propaganda authorities' interference in the paper and measures to silence journalists and the public.
Some said that increasingly harsh censorship had become so intolerable that they had begun to doubt the sincerity of the Communist Party's new leadership in calling for more political reform.
Besides showing support for the Southern Weekly, protesters also called for the resignation of Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen , who has been accused of tightening media censorship since taking up his position in May, and who has been accused of being behind the interference in the newspaper's editorial operations.
One 29-year-old, who works as a trainer for salesmen in Guangzhou, said the incident showed that censorship had gone from bad to worse.
A 21-year-old college student who travelled from Zhanjiang to join the protest said she was afraid the muzzling of Southern Weekly would mean further erosion of freedom of speech.
"Several friends had their Weibo accounts blocked just for discussing this topic," she said.
Scores of leftists staged a rival protest, criticising the paper as "a tool of American imperialism", denying the existence of censorship and engaging in fierce debate with the paper's supporters.
Other protesters warned that the escalating row between the newspaper and censors could bring about a crisis of confidence in the new leadership.
A Guangzhou lawyer said the attempt to silence the Southern Weekly was obviously a deviation from the pro-reform signal sent out during new party chief Xi Jinping's recent southern tour. "Everyone will ask what kind of reform does the leadership really want if it no longer tolerates a rational and mild voice like the Southern Weekly," he said.
Zhou Runan, a lecturer at Sun Yat-Sen University's school of communication and design, said some protesters carried placards demanding further political reform - including one calling for a general election.
Security was restrained, apart from a brief scuffle with one protester. Police took photos and asked several protesters for their identity cards, but stood by as a speaker called for the end to "communist dictatorship".
A 29-year-old father brought his one-year-old baby along, saying: "I hope my child can live in an environment free from fear."