Has China's Media Censorship Reached a Tipping Point?

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Why an obscure weekly magazine has become a touchstone for Chinese debates over press freedom

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Men read official daily newspapers on display at Ritan Park in central Beijing on September 21, 2012. (David Gray/Reuters)

When Mr. Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief of Guangdong province, rewrote and replaced the New Year editorial of the Southern Weekend magazine without the consent of its editors, he probably did not think it would make much of a splash. Indeed, Mr. Tuo might have believed that it was a natural extension of his job, which involved issuing censorship directives to newspaper editors, approving story ideas and having the final say on whether an article is put to ink.

He could not have been more wrong.

In China, where journalists usually accept censorship of the print press as a fact of life, Mr. Tuo's presumptuous move somehow touched a raw nerve. Through China's social media, in particular its Twitter-like microblog platforms, the editors of Southern Weekend released statements about the incident. And almost overnight, "Southern Weekend" became the rallying cry of users longing for freedom of press in China.

And these include some of Chinese social media's most high profile users from all walks of life. 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, have not dampened users' determination to keep the cause alive.

Ren Zhiqiang (@任志强), one of the most outspoken businessmen in China with almost 13 million followers, tweeted on Sina Weibo, "Freedom of press and freedom of speech are rights given to the society and the people by the constitution; they are also symbols of human rights and freedom. Yet they have become pipe dreams without the rule of law, being seriously distorted and restricted. If truth is not allowed to be spoken, would truth disappear?"

Li Chengpeng and Han Han, China's two most famous bloggers, both wrote articles in support of Southern Weekend. Li wrote, "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."

Even the web editors of China's biggest Internet portals, including Sina, Sohu and Netease, showed their support with a little subversive game. For example, when read vertically, the first characters of seemingly unrelated headlines on a Sina news page delivered the hidden message "Go Southern Weekend!"

Online action has translated into real-life protest. On Monday, hundreds of supporters held rallies outside of Southern Weekend's headquarter in Guangzhou, many bearing chrysanthemums, a flower believed to be able to endure harsh climates. Many were not afraid to show their faces while holding up signs and placards calling for freedom of press. Indeed, one girl held up two fingers in a victory sign as the police took photos of her, presumably as evidence for potential prosecution in the future.

User @吖小寒 reported from the front lines, "I have to say that the rally today was quite orderly. Some volunteers picked up trash at the scene. The police were quite patient too-they kept order without resorting to violence and did not take away anyone's placards. Even when everyone started shouting slogans about constitutionalism and democracy, the police just watched on the sidelines. Thousands of cell phones broadcast information from the scene in real time. I think we can definitely have democracy if everyone behaves like this!"

Lin Tianhong (@林天宏), a magazine editor, penned a Sina Weibo post that seemed to capture the sense that a tipping point may have been reached. He wrote,

Over the years, we journalists have been censored and silenced.  We are used to it. We started to compromise and self-comfort. We became familiar with the explicit and not-so-explicit boundaries of our work, and we began to self-censor. We were like frogs being cooked in tepid water... We have gone too far, as if we have forgotten why we chose this profession to begin with. Why are we trying to protect our colleagues at Southern Weekend? For me there is only one reason, life is just a few decades long, how can you forget your innocence?



This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

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Rachel Lu, editor and co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, spent her childhood in southern China. She is currently based in Hong Kong.  

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