Monday, 7 January 2013

Protestors 1, Management 0

The row over editorial influence at Southern Weekly has escalated into a strike with protestors gathering in front of its offices today in Guangzhou.

Reuters reported hundreds of people were there, protesting against censorship. One banner read: "We want press freedom, constitutionalism and democracy."

Demonstrations are not welcome in China and it is telling that the police did not do much if anything to break up the gathering. Perhaps the new party chief in Guangdong Hu Chunhua is anxious to show he is open and flexible to protests.

It remains to be seen if new leader Xi Jinping will wade into the controversy, thus revealing who's side he's really on.

The strike was called by editorial staff after management took over the paper's official microblog and said the New Year editorial was written by its staff and not a last-minute change by Guangdong propaganda officials. Management also blamed an editor for a mistake in the article.

Staff fired back by writing on another microblog denying management's account and announced they were striking. The letter was also signed.

"The statement [on the official microblog] does not represent the opinion of the editorial staff. It is a result of pressure applied by the authorities on the... management," the message said. "The editorial staff will fight against the falsified statement... Until the issue is resolved, we will not do any editorial work."

The Southern Weekly journalists also wrote on their own microblogs that Guangdong propaganda chief Tuo Zhen, who they claimed had changed the annual New Year essay, had held meetings with management yesterday.

I last reported the journalists posted an open letter calling for an investigation into the alleged editorial interference, and since then a second petition issued by 27 academics from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan have called for Tuo's resignation.

Having worked in Chinese state media for three years, I have seen first hand how it is controlled by the propaganda department. Instructions are usually issued verbally on the phone to avoid any paper trace. These commands are typically given to the chief editors who then disseminate the orders to their underlings, again orally or in terse text messages. Staff are expected to understand the meaning and not to question the instructions; everyone must do as they are told otherwise it's quite easy to figure out who is out of line.

But Southern Weekly is an anomaly amongst Chinese state media because it is physically far from Beijing and close to Hong Kong that is has a tradition of being more critical of the government and more daring in exposing issues like corruption and breakdowns in rule of law. As a result, readers have come to value the publication and hold it up as China's closest thing to press freedom.

And so when Tuo began meddling in the paper's content and style, the staff were upset and so were the readers.

Already the paper has gained celebrity support. "Hope for a spring in this harsh winter" is what actress Li Bingbing wrote on her microblog that has 19 million followers, while another actress, Yao Chen quoted Russian Nobel laureate and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "One word of truth outweighs the whole world."

How will this controversy continue or end?

It's quite unprecedented that a demonstration was allowed to take place; now we shall see how management, and more specifically the top echelons of power respond.

How they react will determine China's direction, whether it becomes more open or closed, and it will also affect how the people react.

The ball is now in their court.

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