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

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


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.

"If I don't stand up today, I won't be able to stand up tomorrow," a sign outside Southern Weekend's Guangzhou headquarter read.

"We can still choose to stay silent and passive today, in the face of power that has run amok," students at Sun Yat-sen University wrote in an open letter titled "Today, We Have No Choice." "It is because we have yielded to power that it has become unbridled and wanton; it is because we have been silent that the Constitution has become a rubber stamp."

Similar sentiment has also prevailed on Sina Weibo, where outspoken Web users urged fellow citizens to join their cause. "Don't think press freedom is only the journalists' concern," one user named ConnieLeelixin wrote in a message. "Everyone should have freedom of expression, and that is exactly what [the Southern Weekend journalists] are fighting for."

"I used to think things were OK as long as I was able to lead my happy life. But now I realize this is the environment we all live in," user mmx139 wrote. "It's the environment our children and grandchildren will live in. If so, how are they going to have a free mind and free will?"

In a widely reposted message, Web users found inspiration in the story of Rosa Parks, the iconic African American civil rights activist. "Her sitting down allowed African Americans to stand up...Perhaps she wasn't thinking about bravery, but was just very tired, and had had enough of the rules [of racial segregation]," the message read. "When we've all had enough, history has then reached a tipping point."

Some Western observers have found parallels between the current protest and China's democracy movement in 1989. Granted, the new protest, which germinated on the Internet, does not compare in its scale to Tiananmen, which mobilized tens of thousands. The current protestors' demands, which are largely focused on rights enshrined in the constitution, are far less radical than the student rally's cry for democracy and a multi-party system 23 years ago. However, the current protestors do share with their 1989 counterparts a rising level of civil consciousness in their words and actions. They perceive themselves as members of an organic society to which they bear responsibility, and one in which each will be affected by the actions they collectively take or fail to take.

The Tiananmen movement is still a taboo subject in Chinese public discourse, and few in the most recent protest brought it up. Instead, most protestors made carefully calibrated demands that dovetailed with calls from incoming president Xi Jinping for stronger constitutional protections. Now is a perfect opportunity to test the strength of the leadership's commitment to fulfilling its pledges -- and more tests are sure to come.

For now, demonstrations over the Southern Weekend spat are winding down, and journalists have returned to work. They put out the paper's newest weekly edition on Thursday. They have extracted promise from provincial officials to loosen some of the intrusive censorship control, and will be closely watching how the deal will be followed through.

On the day of the agreement, however, another face-off took place at Beijing News, a sister newspaper of Southern Weekend. The News balked at pressure from censors to print an editorial attacking Southern Weekend. The editorial eventually appeared on Wednesday's edition of The News, while a detailed account of the incident offered by a journalist at the paper also came into public view. "The way news is managed, I feel that I should be a witness," it began.