Rare journalists’ street protests gathers online support

As the Global Times newspaper said in its editorial this week, there’s unlikely to be a surprise ending to the Southern Weekly issue. Which basically means that Chinese media will not miraculously, with one swish of the magic wand of street protests and a strike, come free of the taut control of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Complete freedom from government is probably not what the protesting journalists from the Southern Weekly newspaper – published from the capital, Guangzhou, of the southern province of Guangdong — want either; they most likely were a tired of the frequent interference by the propaganda department and the abrupt, surreptitious changes to the New Year editorial ignited their already shortening fuse.

But the incident did trigger by all accounts a pretty much rare phenomenon in China: street protests by working journalists. The protests clearly were not planned but part of a spontaneous outpouring of resentment; resentment against being dictated for too long, for too much.

Website Tea Leaf Nation, which tracks China’s online trends, carried an unverified version from an apparent insider within the newspaper. If true, it has shed some light on the kind of dark censorship journalists here have to work in.

“Zengs Li’s essay, if genuine, provides a fascinating look at the boundaries that Southern Weekend was forced to accept prior to this latest incident. It depicts a censorship process at once brutal and nuanced, in which editors had to respond to political pressure while remaining highly sensitive to market forces and reader sentiment. It is possible that Tuo Zhen’s recent actions have caused such a stir because they broke this carefully brokered balance,” the website said.

“Over the past two years, we have tightened our internal [censorship] process because of increasingly stringent restrictions from above. Every issue, we had to kill some articles—7 or 8 articles on a bad week, 2 or 3 on a good week, with a dozen or so articles needing major revisions,” the essay translated from Chinese to English said.

It added: “Managers and officials have managed this paper [as if it were] state media [or a] Party publication, establishing a rigid framework within which they have us dance in our shackles. How can we not be angry and frustrated? Every year, the editorial department composes our New Year’s editorial with great care, as if assiduously preparing a wonderful feast for our readers. … The authors of this year’s New Year’s editorial slaved away for about two weeks to reach a version they could be proud of; the article was like their own child, and they cherished it. But the leaders and supervising managers took a giant knife out and randomly hacked it up. How could they not feel hurt and resentful?”

According to the website, some of China’s most popular microbloggers also wrote in support of the journalists.

“Celebrities such as actress Yao Chen (with 31 million followers) and actor Chen Kui (with 27 million followers) tweeted explicit messages of support on Sina Weibo, a microblog platform. Yao quoted the 1970 Nobel lecture of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author and dissident, along with a logo of Southern Weekend. Chen was more direct: “I am not that deep, and I don’t play word games; I support the friends at Southern Weekend.”

Active censorship of this topic on social media, including the deletion of Weibo accounts of several outspoken commentators, has not dampened users’ determination to keep the cause alive.”

It also quoted two popular bloggers Li Chengpeng and Han Han, writing in support of the newspaper. “We don’t need tall buildings, but we need a newspaper that speaks the truth. We don’t need the second highest GDP in the world, but we need a newspaper that speaks the truth. We don’t need a fleet of aircraft carriers, but we need a newspaper that speaks the truth.”

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