A dispute over censorship at a Chinese newspaper known for edgy reporting evolved Monday into a political challenge for China's new leadership as prominent scholars demanded a censor's dismissal and hundreds of protesters called for democratic reforms.
The scholars and protesters were acting in support of the Southern Weekly in its confrontation with a top censor after the publication was forced to change a New Year's editorial calling for political reform into a tribute praising the ruling Communist Party. Rumors circulated that at least one of the newspaper's news departments was going on strike, but they could not be immediately confirmed.
Protesters, including middle school students and white-collar workers, gathered outside the offices of the newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou to lay flowers at the gate, hold signs and shout slogans calling for freedom of speech, political reform, constitutional governance and democracy.
"I feel that the ordinary people must awaken," said one of the protesters, Yuan Fengchu, who was reached by phone. "The people are starting to realize that their rights have been taken away by the Communist Party and they are feeling that they are being constantly oppressed."
Political expression in the public sphere is often viewed as risky in China, where the authoritarian government frequently harasses and even jails dissidents for pro-democracy calls.
Another protester, Guangzhou writer and activist Wu Wei, who goes by the pen name Ye Du, said the protest marked a rare instance in which people were making overt calls for political freedom since large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed in a military crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
"In other cities, we've seen people march, but most of the time they are protesting environmental pollution or people's livelihood issues," Wu said. "Here they are asking for political rights, the right to protest. The Southern Weekly incident has provided an opportunity for citizens to voice their desires."
The protest came as 18 Chinese academics signed an open letter calling for the dismissal of Tuo Zhen, a provincial propaganda minister blamed for the censorship. The scholars included legal professors, liberal economists, historians and writers.
Peking University law professor He Weifang, who was among the signers, said the newspaper's good work needed to be defended from censorship.
"Southern Weekly is known as a newspaper that exposes the truth, but after Tuo Zhen arrived in Guangdong, he constantly pressured the paper. We need to let him know that he can't do this," He said. "This incident is a test to see if the new leadership is determined to push political reform."
Six weeks ago, China installed a new generation of Communist Party leaders for the next five years, with current Vice President Xi Jinping at the helm. Some of Xi's announcements for a trimmed-down style of leadership, with reduced waste and fewer unnecessary meetings, have raised hopes in some quarters that he might favor deeper reforms in the political system to mollify a public long frustrated by local corruption.
The Guangdong provincial propaganda department did not immediately respond to a faxed list of questions. But the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial that no Chinese media outlet should fool itself into thinking that it could occupy a "political special zone" in which it is free from government control.
"Regardless of whether these people are willing or unwilling, common sense says: In China's current social political reality, there cannot be the kind of 'free media' that these people hope in their hearts for," the editorial said.
The U.S. State Department said Monday that media censorship is incompatible with China's aspirations to build a modern information-based economy and society. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it was interesting that Chinese are now strongly taking up their right to freedom of speech.
"We hope the government is taking notice," she told a news briefing in Washington.
China's media in recent years have become increasingly freewheeling in some kinds of coverage, including lurid reports on celebrities and sports figures. Still, censorship of political issues remains tight — although government officials typically claim there is no censorship at all — and the restrictions have drawn increasingly vocal criticism from journalists and members of the public.