A Press Renaissance? The Legacy of China's 'Southern Weekend'

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What effect will the Southern Weekend incident have on the future of Chinese media?

RTR3C9O9-615.jpg A man reads the cover story of the Southern Weekly at a newsstand in Beijing (Jason Lee/Reuters)

As the curtain falls on a dramatic week-long standoff between Chinese journalists and their state censors, which had evoked a torrent of public discussion on issues such as freedom of speech, it may have heralded a new era for civil dissidence in China.

Immediately following the New Year, journalists at Southern Weekend, a newspaper based in the southern province of Guangdong, staged a high-profile protest against their censors, who had watered down the paper's New Year editorial urging greater respect for constitutional rights. The newspaper staff demanded the resignation of Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief of Guangdong province, and threatened to go on strike, and their moves have galvanized tens of thousands of Chinese free speech advocates. On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like social network, countless users rushed to post and repost messages about Southern Weekend in an effort to thwart online authorities. Crowds gathered outside the newspaper's headquarters, carrying slogans demanding freedom of expression and other constitutional rights.

In a nation where censorship is a fact of life, the newspaper staff's brazenness has stunned many observers. The event's quick transformation from an editorial spat into a national-wide political campaign is also remarkable. Together, they are evidence of the public's growing impatience with the state's draconian control of their private lives, and their increasing willingness to find reasons to seek redress for their grievances.

The Democracy ReportFor a long time, journalists at Southern Weekend, a relatively liberal voice in the Chinese media sphere, have managed to maintain a functional, if uneasy, coexistence with censors. Each article goes through four rounds of scrutiny -- by the reporter, the editor, the managing editor and the editor-in-chief -- before it reaches a group of final "reviewers," mostly retired party-loyal journalists deployed by the state to serve as the newspaper's handlers. To avoid riling the handlers, the paper's staff has over the years learned to exercise their own judgment in navigating the censorship minefield. Although the task of self-censorship has left them disgruntled, by and large they have acquiesced, knowing that the compromises were crucial to the newspaper's survival.

The censors' most recent meddling with the New Year's Greetings, however, appears to have been the last straw. More than anything else, it has trampled upon the newspaper's sense of journalistic integrity, already weakened through more subtle methods of censorship.

"It is our view that Minister Tuo Zhen's actions overstep the bounds," wrote a number of former Southern Weekend journalists in an open letter, according to a translation provided by China Media Project. "They are dictatorial ... they are ignorant and excessive."

"The New Year Greetings is like the face of our publication, and this is a slap in the face," as one journalist -- who left Southern Weekend last year after a 10-year stint and who prefers not to be named -- told me. "If you keep putting up with things like this, how can you live among other media professionals in the industry?"

If the journalists' anger has led to open letters and a strike, it has led them to conduct some soul-searching among themselves: what have they done, or failed to do, that allowed such things to happen?

"We are like frogs being slowly cooked in warm water," the former Southern Weekend journalist told me. "We were perishing slowly without knowing it, until this bowl of boiling water was dumped on us."

"All these years, people like us have seen our articles killed and our voices silenced, and we've started to get used to it. We started to make compromises and to censor ourselves," reflected Lin Tianhong, a Chinese journalist at Renwu magazine, in a message that had been reposted over 5,000 times. "We've gone too far, as if we have forgotten why we had chosen this industry to begin with."

Just as journalists consider their collective acquiescence to censorship in the past partially responsible for their current humiliation, citizens who decided to speak out are also demonstrating a keener awareness of their own civil responsibilities. Large-scale protests in China in the past were triggered mostly by perceived foreign affronts or economic grievances, and limited mainly to the working class. In the most recent protest over speech, however, both online and on the street, middle- and upper classes have come out in large numbers. Besides the traditionally more vocal government critics like writers, lawyers and academics, movie stars, corporate executives, students, and tens of thousands of other ordinary citizens have joined the fight. Many of their messages at the protests show a new sense of urgency.

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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