Influential China newspaper publishes after deal defuses dispute between censors and reporters

An influential weekly newspaper whose staff rebelled to protest heavy-handed censorship by China's 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 and that drove 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 into 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, waving signs that called for freedom of expression.

But 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 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.

"This crisis rings alarm bells for journalists and liberal intellectuals. The new government might kick-start economic reforms in certain areas, to ensure continued growth. But swift political reforms are not on the top leaders' agenda, as they are still calculating resistance from conservative blocs," Zhang Hong, deputy editor-in-chief of the business newspaper Economic Observer, wrote in a commentary Thursday in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.

In a further sign of tightening, police attempted Thursday to prevent more of the protests outside the compound housing the Southern Weekly and its parent company, the Nanfang Media Group, in Guangzhou, a city long at the forefront of reforms. About 30 police officers guarded the area and ordered people to move on, chasing away any who wouldn't and detaining at least one local university student who came with a group of friends.

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 provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen rewrote the New Year's editorial, which called for better constitutional government, to insert heavy praise for the party. 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; its title: "Before becoming free, one must suffer."

Even if censorship largely remains 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," said Peng.


Associated Press writers Gillian Wong and Charles Hutzler and researchers Zhao Liang and Flora Ji in Beijing contributed to this report.