Chinese reporters say censorship leaves them 'dancing in handcuffs'

Though Chinese journalists are back to work at a prominent weekly after major protests, the paper has become a focal point for debate about Communist Party censorship.

Vincent Yu/AP
A man buys a latest edition of the Southern Weekly at a newspaper stand near the Southern Weekly headquarters in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China, Thursday. The staff of Southern Weekly returned to work after some controls were relaxed, but public demands for the ouster of the top censor were ignored.

As the proverbial smoke clears from the battlefield where journalists from the feisty Southern Weekend newspaper fought government censors this week, the reporters’ victory seems to have yielded only meager gains. 

Staffers at the weekly, based in the southern city of Guangzhou, won a pledge that their paper will no longer be subjected to prior censorship, according to sources close to negotiations. Instead, the authorities will rely on reporters and editors to censor themselves, as they had traditionally done.

“This was not an ambitious aim,” says Yan Lieshan, Southern Weekend’s associate chief editor until he retired a year ago. “It was the most limited, most practical goal.”

Still, the journalistic rebellion, which involved strike threats, “represents progress, because the staff did stand up and fight against censorship,” says Mr. Yan in a telephone interview.

“I don’t think censorship will disappear or become less important in [the government’s] management of the media,” adds Gong Wenxiang, professor of Journalism at Peking University. “But the openness of this conflict was new and significant.”

Staff at Southern Weekend, an independent-minded weekly that in the past has been more critical of the government than most Chinese media, erupted  when they found that a New Year’s editorial in last week’s edition, hoping for firmer rule of law in China, had been mangled on the censor’s orders, and its meaning traduced. Some threatened to strike.

The dispute spread rapidly, even as the authorities sought to keep a lid on it. Supporters of the paper gathered to demonstrate outside its Guangzhou editorial offices, celebrities and other newspapers expressed their sympathy with the weekly, and the state-run tabloid Global Times drew widespread scorn on blogging platforms for an editorial blaming “foreign forces” for stirring unrest at Southern Weekend.

The Central Propaganda Department, the branch of the ruling Communist Party that controls the Chinese media, demanded that the country’s largest and most important newspapers and websites reprint the Global Times editorial. Most did, though they added their own disclaimers; one Beijing paper refused to print the article, but its editors finally bowed to government pressure a day later. 

Unusual debate?

Highly unusual debate over the merits of Southern Weekend’s case continued even in Communist Party-owned media; China Youth Daily – official organ of the party’s youth wing – showed sympathy for the weekly, arguing in a front page article yesterday that “the news media are not evil troublemakers” and urging officials to behave less arrogantly.

Southern Weekend journalists made it clear, in blog posts and occasional public comments, that they were not seeking an end to press censorship, which has been a pillar of Communist Party rule for more than 60 years.

Rather, they were angry that the new head of the Guangdong provincial propaganda department, Tuo Zhen, had started to censor stories, articles, and ideas before publication. Under this 'prior censorship,' as it is known, Mr. Tuo had killed 1,034 Southern Weekend articles since he took over his job in May 2012, according to Yan.

Normally, Chinese newspapers, magazines and websites censor themselves, following guidelines they are issued verbally or in writing by local or national propaganda departments. Editors are expected to know where to draw the line, and if they push the envelope too far they risk losing their jobs.

Propaganda guidelines 

Propaganda bureau guidelines are regularly leaked onto the Internet by the journalists who receive them; they are often remarkably specific.

Recent examples, translated by the China Digital Times website, which tracks orders from the bureau known to reporters as the “Ministry of Truth,” include a December 29 edict from the Central Propaganda Department: “Do not sensationalize the issue of traffic [jams] caused by the snowstorm in Beijing. Do not put this news on the front page.”

A few days earlier, media nationwide had been warned not to “republish, report, or comment on the contents of a report on eight provincial [Communist] Party secretaries who have been removed over the past four years” for criminal offenses. A muckraking business magazine had dared compile and publish the report, but it was not picked up by other media.

In the midst of the Southern Weekend row, the propaganda authorities issued an “Urgent Notice” to “responsible party committees and media at all levels” stressing that “state-run media is an unwavering basic principle” and that “every responsible work unit must demand that its department’s editors, reporters and staff discontinue voicing their support for Southern Weekend online,” according to China Digital Times.

'The future of censorship'

In negotiations with local government authorities, Southern Weekend journalists had initially hoped for Tuo’s resignation. It became clear, however, that the government would not concede on such a visible and sensitive issue. How the censors’ office will behave now remains unclear.

“The future of censorship depends on the overall atmosphere for social reform,” says Yan. Liberals have been pinning their hopes on the new leader of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, but since he took office in November he has done no more than make speeches that have encouraged some reformers to believe that he is on their side.

Reporters at Southern Weekend and elsewhere are reining in their expectations. “We know that it is impossible to get rid of censorship, but we are hoping for gradual change in the future,” says one former Southern Weekend reporter who asked to remain anonymous to avoid official recriminations. “For the time being we are dancing in handcuffs.” 

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