An influential weekly newspaper whose staff rebelled to protest heavy-handed censorship by Chinese government officials published as normal Thursday after a compromise that called for relaxing some intrusive controls but left lingering ill-will among some reporters and editors.
The latest edition of the Southern Weekly bore no hints of the dispute that erupted last week over a New Year's editorial that was rewritten to praise the Communist Party, driving some staff to stop work in protest. Still fuming, some editors and reporters tried late Wednesday to insert a carefully worded commentary praising the newspaper as a tribune of reform, but were rebuffed by management, an editor said.
The editor, who asked not to be named because he had been repeatedly warned not to talk to foreign media, described the mood among editorial staff as indignant. He predicted that some would resign, either voluntarily out of anger or forced out by management.
Academics spoke of a coming reckoning by authorities to reassert control at the Southern Weekly and any other media that might take encouragement.
"Overall, the authorities do not want this situation to spread," Peng Peng, a political science researcher at the Guangdong province Social Sciences Academy, told reporters.
The weeklong fracas at the Southern Weekly evolved quickly from a row over censorship at one newspaper to a call for free speech and political reform across China, handing an unexpected test to the party leadership headed by Xi Jinping just two months after he took office.
Hopes that the dispute would strike a blow against censorship initially ran high. Internet microblogs crackled with messages of support. Liberal-minded academics wrote open letters. And hundreds of people this week gathered outside the newspaper's offices off a busy street in the southern commercial center of Guangzhou, a city long at the forefront of reforms, waving signs that called for freedom of expression.
Expectations for change began fizzling Wednesday as a compromise to end the dispute took shape. Under the deal, according to the editor and another staff member, editors and reporters would not be punished for protesting, and propaganda officials would no longer directly censor content prior to publication, though directives, self-censorship, threats of dismissal and many other longstanding measures would stay in place to ensure obedience to the party.
The outpouring had challenged one of the key levers of party rule — its right to control the media and dictate content — and officials pushed back this week to reassert authority.
In a further sign of tightening, police attempted Thursday to prevent more protests outside the compound housing the Southern Weekly and its parent company, the Nanfang Media Group. About 30 police officers guarded the area and ordered people to move on, chasing away any who wouldn't leave. At least five protesters were hauled from the scene.
Eventually, a crackdown might extend to the journalists themselves, with authorities meting out punishment once the incident blows over, said Qian Gang, director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.
However, Qian said he did not see the outcome so far as a loss for the journalists.
"For such an influential newspaper with a team of more than 100 people to express their refusal to accept government control carries great significance. Their most basic demands can be partially satisfied. Even if pre-publication censorship still exists, it has been heavily hit," Qian said.
Qian himself was purged from his post as managing editor of the Southern Weekly in 2001 after officials complained about the newspaper's aggressive reporting on sensitive topics.
The standoff at the Southern Weekly echoed through the newsroom of the Beijing News, which is co-owned by Nanfang Media and has a reputation for aggressive reporting. Editors at the newspaper all week defied an order to run a commentary that many other newspapers carried that blamed resistance to censorship on meddling foreign forces, but a propaganda official visited the newspaper late Tuesday and forced publication of the commentary.
The Southern Weekly dispute was touched off after its New Year's editorial, which called for better constitutional government, was changed to insert heavy praise for the party in a version the paper's journalists say was written by provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen. The revised editorial was not submitted for review by editors before publication, violating an unwritten practice in censorship and enraging the staff, which saw it as an attack.
The Southern Weekly has been a standard-bearer for hard-edged reporting and liberal commentary since the 1990s. Throughout, senior party politicians and propaganda functionaries have repeatedly attempted to rein in the newspaper, cashiering editors and reporters who breach often unstated limits.
The special commentary that reporters and editors tried late Wednesday to insert into Thursday's edition was meant to extol that legacy, said the editor. Many other editors and reporters declined comment or refused to answer phone calls and emails. Dai Zhiyong, the columnist who drafted the original New Year's editorial, also declined comment, but posted to his Twitter-like microblog account an essay he had written three years ago titled "Before becoming free, one must suffer."
Even if censorship remains largely intact, the standoff has showed the breadth of support independent-minded media like Southern Weekly have among many Chinese, who are wired to the Internet and increasingly sophisticated in their expectations of the government. Peng, the politics scholar, said the confrontation showed that the party's censorship system needs to change, though the pace may not be as quick as many in the media would like.
"To put it simply, the media cannot go beyond the existing system to pursue radical reform, but the management method also needs to change," Peng said.
Associated Press writers Gillian Wong and Charles Hutzler and researchers Zhao Liang and Flora Ji in Beijing contributed to this report.