Monday, January 07, 2013

Censorship Protest Gains Support in China

BEIJING—Protests by journalists over alleged heavy-handed censorship at one of China's most daring newspapers have garnered high-profile support in the media and blogosphere, with prominent academics, bloggers and even movie stars joining in.

The outburst has been fueled in part by expectations of change under new Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, who has stirred up hopes since taking office in November with optimistic comments about the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

On Monday, several hundred protesters gathered outside the headquarters of the Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, to vent their anger at the reworking of a New Year's editorial that originally called for greater legal rights but ended up as a celebration of the government's achievements.

"Abandon press censorship. Chinese people want freedom!" read a handwritten placard attached to a bouquet of flowers left in front of the main gates of the building.

Demonstrators laid bunches of chrysanthemums, a flower associated with funerals, outside the newspaper's offices, in mock mourning for the demise of the newspaper's hard-hitting style, photographs posted on Sina Corp.'s SINA -0.36%Weibo microblogging service showed. One image showed a protester seated on a sidewalk wrapped head-to-toe in newspapers like a bandaged burn victim.

Online reports said Southern Weekly's news staff had staged a strike to protest the rewriting of the editorial, but the accounts couldn't be confirmed. Calls to the news department rang unanswered on Monday, suggesting the newsroom was empty. "That has never happened before," a receptionist who tried to put a call through said.

Mr. Xi, China's new leader, hasn't said he intends to pursue meaningful political overhauls. But he has adopted an informal style and dispensed with wooden Communist Party rhetoric, an approach that some see as a signal that he plans to make his administration more open and responsive to people's concerns.

In the kind of statement that has fed hopes that Mr. Xi will soften the edges of an authoritarian government, China's official Xinhua news agency on Monday announced planned reforms to China's system of "re-education through labor."

The system allows police to sentence people suspected of minor offenses such as petty theft or prostitution, as well as petitioners and others who create a political nuisance for authorities, to up to four years of forced labor without judicial review.

The forced-labor system came under fire last summer after it was revealed that a woman named Tang Hui had been sentenced to 1½ years in a labor camp after "disturbing social order" by protesting for tougher punishment of seven men who raped her daughter and forced her into prostitution.

A group of lawyers issued an open letter calling for reform of the system amid public anger over the treatment of Ms. Tang, who was released shortly after the details of her case emerged.

A number of media organizations have rallied behind journalists at Southern Weekly by posting veiled messages of support on social media and their own websites. Sina Corp.'s Tianjin news portal, for example, arranged its front page so that the first character in each headline spelled out an acrostic message: "Go Southern Weekly."

Chinese writer and race-car driver Han Han described in his popular blog Monday how Chinese writers live in constant uncertainty over what they can and can't say.

"Even if you want to talk about the regulations, they won't clearly tell you what they are, so every person more or less is in violation of the 'regulations,' " he wrote. He lamented what he described as the anonymity of an invisible Chinese censor. "He covers your mouth and tells everyone you're cheerful," the post read.

Southern Weekly's problems are also attracting attention from celebrities who normally avoid political commentary. Film actress Yao Chen, a social-media star with more than 31 million followers on Sina Weibo, posted a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn—"One word of truth outweighs the whole world"—over the Southern Weekly logo.

Even the Communist Party's flagship People's Daily appeared to argue for a softer approach, saying that a stable society "must rest on a healthy public opinion environment for support."

The commentary argued that challenges facing China's propaganda officials were unprecedented, and said "blunt preaching" must be rejected.

The Southern Weekly protests are an unusually direct challenge to provincial government and party leaders in Guangdong province, China's export-manufacturing powerhouse and a trailblazer for economic overhauls.

A draft of the editorial that sparked the furor called on authorities to respect the constitution, which guarantees the right of free speech and assembly.

Southern Weekly employees said Guangdong provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen rewrote the editorial. Employees at the newspaper are demanding his resignation. Mr. Tuo couldn't be reached, and local propaganda officials declined to comment.

"Readers should decide whether content is good or bad. It isn't for officials to judge," said Ah Qiang, a writer and public-rights activist who attended Monday's protest. "Everyone knows about media censorship, and for the most part everyone has learned to deal with it. But this time they crossed a line and that caused people to unleash a lot of pent-up frustration."

Adding to the public anger was a message posted to the newspaper's Sina Weibo account late Sunday night that denied censorship of the editorial, saying "the relevant online rumors aren't true." A short while later, several dozen Southern Weekly employees released a statement that the account had been forcibly taken over and that the message denying the censorship was untrue.

The protests outside the newspaper's offices on Monday were orderly, with police intervening to keep traffic flowing outside the newspaper's offices but otherwise standing aside, demonstrators said. The crowd included elderly retirees as well as middle-school-aged children, according to the witnesses.

"I was deeply moved," said Ye Du, a dissident writer who spent 2½ hours at the protest before being forcibly taken home by state security agents. "This wasn't just about Southern Weekly. It was about Chinese peoples' desire for more political freedom."

Some journalists affiliated with Southern Weekly have portrayed the protests as targeting Mr. Tuo rather than the political system as a whole.

"Tuo set up a prepublication censorship system that Guangzhou didn't have previously. There was censorship before, but it wasn't institutionalized," said Xiao Shu, a former senior commentator at the newspaper. "If Tuo steps down, everyone wins. Southern Weekly wins, and so does the party."


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