Thursday, January 10, 2013

China and Press freedom-Battling the censors

Three articles look at relations between individuals and the state. First, calls for press freedom; next, reforms in the detention system; finally, a traffic-light revolt

AT THE end of December, China’s newly appointed Communist Party chief, Xi Jinping, told his colleagues to “respond positively” to the public’s “strong cries and eager expectations” for reform. He had no idea just how strong those cries were about to become. By a busy road in the southern city of Guangzhou, protesters this week called for freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Rarely since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 have such demands been aired so openly. Mr Xi has faced a tough challenge.

The protests in the heart of the capital of Guangdong province began on January 7th, after allegations appeared on the internet that Guangdong’s party censors had watered down a new-year message that was due to appear in Southern Weekend, a popular and outspoken newspaper that is based in Guangzhou but has a nationwide readership. As drafted, the message called on the party to uphold the freedoms guaranteed by China’s constitution. Implementing this, it said, was the only way of enabling citizens to “speak out loudly in criticism of government power”. The revised version dropped all mention of political demands.

This change triggered a rare revolt by staff at a Chinese newspaper (Southern Weekend is controlled by the Nanfang Media Group, which answers to Guangdong’s party leadership). Petitions signed by dozens of staff and former journalists at the newspaper, which were widely circulated online, called on Guangdong’s chief of propaganda, Tuo Zhen, to step down. Some staff said they were going on strike. Nanfang Media’s headquarters quickly became the focal point of public protests calling for wide-ranging political reform.

The gatherings have been relatively small: a few hundred people at their height. Tens of thousands of similar demonstrations occur every year in China, but their slogans rarely stray into the realm of national politics. The rhetoric of Southern Weekend’s supporters in Guangzhou has been unusually bold, a point that will doubtless be raised by some party leaders who worry that even a modicum of political liberalisation could open the floodgates to demands for far-reaching change.

One of the speakers at a gathering on January 8th was Yu Gang, a self-described philosopher who was a student activist in Tiananmen and remains a strident, and oft-detained, dissident. He told the small crowd that when he graduated in 1990 he expected democracy would soon be realised in China. “Twenty-three years have gone by, and there has been no progress,” he declared. China remained a “dictatorship”, he said, relying on terror to keep people subdued. He told his listeners not to be afraid of government retaliation for speaking out. Another speaker also recalled 1989. 

“Twenty-three years later, once again people of conscience…are again crying out here,” he said. “Democracy and freedom!” he shouted through his megaphone. The crowd echoed his chant. “Down with the Communist Party. The Communist Party must step down!” shouted another man.
Not all agreed. Frequent, bitter debates broke out between supporters of Southern Weekend and members of a group of diehard supporters of Mao Zedong, some of whom carried his portrait on placards. “Ardently love the Communist Party” said one of the slogans they held up. Another called Nanfang Media “traitorous”. China’s Maoists are a vocal lot who enjoy some support among the country’s downtrodden. They have long regarded Nanfang Media as bent on maligning them and peddling Western values.

You can’t shoot them

Remarkably, the police did little at first to intervene in the protests, beyond breaking up a couple of scuffles between members of the rival groups. As The Economist went to press on January 10th, however, it appeared the police were becoming less tolerant, dragging several protesters away. By then, reports had emerged of a compromise: the staff would return in exchange for a promise by censors not to demand changes to stories (the press are normally controlled in China by self-censorship and official directives that are issued to the media generally). The newspaper appeared as normal on January 10th, but it appeared censorship, whether self-imposed or by the party, was still in force. It made no direct mention of the controversy.

Propaganda officials in Beijing have also been trying to suppress widespread expressions of sympathy for the newspaper on the internet—a tough challenge as support for the journalists has been widely voiced online. Searches for Southern Weekend are being blocked on Twitter-like microblog services. Newspapers were ordered to reprint an editorial that was first published on January 7th by Global Times, an often-hardline Beijing daily. It said that the press freedom demanded by Southern Weekend’s supporters could not exist under China’s “current social and political realities”. Even Western newspapers, it argued, would not choose openly to confront their own governments.

Some Chinese newspapers dared to resist. Beijing News, which is partly owned by Nanfang Media, only agreed to publish the editorial after propaganda officials paid the newspaper a menacing visit. Staff said the newspaper’s publisher had threatened to resign in protest. Some newspapers put the editorial on their websites with disclaimers saying it did not represent their own views.

The authorities can perhaps draw comfort from the public response to the protests in Guangzhou. Even as activists delivered their daring speeches, backed up by massive online support, most white-collar workers from nearby office buildings walked past paying little attention. The Economist Guangzhou edition

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