China's new Communist Party leaders want to appear more open, but they're not about to give up control of the media. That's the lesson of a dustup involving an influential newspaper whose staff briefly rebelled against especially heavy-handed censorship.
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. Some observers took solace in the fact that no journalists were punished — at least not yet.
"The fact that no one is being immediately punished is a victory. That is not insignificant," said Steve Tsang, a China politics expert at the University of Nottingham in Britain. "It's a smart use of the party's power but it's not actually making any compromise in terms of the basic fundamental principles of the party staying fully in control on anything that really matters."
China's new leader, Xi Jinping, has raised reformist hopes and struck an especially populist note in vowing to tackle official corruption. In an early December speech he praised China's constitution and said people's rights must be respected, comments that helped set the stage for the censorship clash.
The constitution grants Chinese many rights, including freedom of speech and of the press, but it is often ignored. Many in China interpret the constitution as limiting the power of the ruling Communist Party.
"No organization or individual has the special right to overstep the constitution and law, and any violation of the constitution and the law must be investigated," Xi said. Many media commentators viewed his remarks as an opportunity to push for the rule of law the party has long promised but failed to deliver.
The staff at the Southern Weekly newspaper in Guangzhou — a southern city known for freewheeling commerce, political boldness and year-round flowers — joined the fray with a New Year's editorial extolling adherence to the constitution as the new Chinese dream.
Journalists say the provincial censor morphed the item into a piece praising the party — and did so without running it by the editorial department. That violated an unwritten rule in the way censorship normally is carried out.
For three days, hundreds of supporters gathered in front of the newspaper offices on sidewalks scented with osthmanthus blossoms to shout for greater press freedom and wave banners. One man wrapped himself in newspaper to show his solidarity. But the dispute also drew political conservatives who called the newspaper's journalists "traitors" and "running dogs."
By Thursday, police began to clear the scene, chasing away loiterers and hauling at least five people into vans. Journalists from the Southern Weekly mostly kept silent under directives not to speak to foreign media.
The staff threatened to go on strike, and after days of negotiations, officials agreed they would roll back recently introduced measures to directly censor content prior to publication. However, the previous status quo of directives, self-censorship, threats of dismissal and many other longstanding measures will stay in place to ensure obedience to the party.
The paper was published as usual Thursday. An editor said some of the staff had tried to insert a commentary praising the newspaper as a tribune of reform, but were rebuffed by management. The editor asked not to be named because he had been repeatedly warned not to talk to foreign media.
The Southern Weekly has been a standard-bearer for hard-edged reporting and liberal commentary since the 1990s. Senior party politicians and propaganda functionaries have repeatedly attempted to rein in the newspaper, dismissing editors and reporters who breach often unstated limits.
A former managing editor of the Southern Weekly, who was himself purged from the publication in 2001 after officials complained about the paper's aggressive reporting, said he thought this latest challenge might give censors pause.
"When incompetent officials repressed the media and used Cultural Revolution tactics to order the media to publish commentaries, it created an even greater conflict and more trouble for the leaders," said Qian Gang, now director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. "The leaders definitely do not hope in this era to play the role of tyrants. As for whether they can treat the media kindly, that remains to be seen."
This is not the first time new leaders have raised hopes of liberalizing China, only to push back against people trying to test the limits. Under Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, China's leadership talked up the need for rule of law, scrapped a much-abused rule giving police the power to jail rural migrants and, after a botched government cover-up of the SARS pneumonia epidemic, called for more openness. But by year's end, Hu's government was taking aim at activist lawyers and public intellectuals pushing for faster change.
Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan said part of the problem for Xi is that the transition of power is not yet complete. Xi became the Communist Party's general secretary in November but will not be installed as China's president until March.
"It's hard for the new leadership to resolve because they are not fully in power yet," Zhang said. "Before the new power gets settled in, it will sway left and right, like a tightrope walker before it can steady himself toward the end."
Liu Kang, a Duke University professor of Chinese media and communication studies, said the incident shows that the party's leadership is faced with an impasse on press freedom.
"If it loosens its grip, the country will plunge into chaos," Liu said. "If it doesn't, the frustration will continue to build up."