Publish and be damned
The apparent success, albeit partial, of striking Chinese journalists against overbearing Communist Party censors may be an important straw in the wind for press freedom. The journalists on the liberal Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Weekly walked out last weekend in a dispute with provincial propaganda officials whom they accused of tampering with an outspoken New Years Day editorial.
They complain that interference in the paper, which has a reputation for in-depth reporting and exposing official corruption, has increased substantially in recent years with more than 1,000 of its articles censored or spiked under the direction of the province’s top propaganda official. Officials have now apparently agreed to relax controls on the paper, which resumed publication on Thursday. Reuters reported ominously that “most staff would not face punishment” but suggested that the paper’s conservative chief editor Huang Can would be fired.
Meanwhile, Dai Zigeng, editor-in-chief of the Beijing News, was threatening to resign after refusing to publish a government-drafted editorial playing down the dispute, and some of the paper’s journalists’ blog accounts have been blocked.
The dispute took place against the background, and was very much part, of broader ongoing tussles between the party and the media, both the traditional press and online outlets. Only last week authorities shut the website of a leading pro-reform magazine, apparently because it had run an article calling for political reform and constitutional government.
But the apparently decisive intervention in brokering a resolution to the strike by the top party official in Guangdong province, Hu Chunhua, a possible successor to incoming president Xi Jinping in 2022, is most unusual. It is being read in China as reflecting both an acknowledgment of the symbolic importance of the row by ambitious Hu and the party, and perhaps, hopefully, also a desire by Xi to signal some relaxing of press curbs on the way.