The 'Southern Weekend' Strike in China

This is a reading-guide and basic-context note about the fast-developing and potentially important (but also potentially-leading-nowhere) showdown underway in China now, between much of the staff of the 'Southern Weekend' newspaper -- 南方周末, nánfāng zhōumò -- and the Chinese government's censors.

The paper itself: On the spectrum of Chinese publications, Southern Weekend has long been on the more-daring, more-outspoken, more pushing-the-limits frontier. In keeping with the general principle that central-government control is tightest in and around Beijing and falls off with every mile of distance, it's not surprising that Southern Weekend is based in the far southern city of Guangzhou, north of Hong Kong. For some past references to SW in this space see this (about a tainted-food expose), this and this (about the interview SW did with Barack Obama during his China trip in 2009), and this (about the punishment the SW editor received for doing that interview).

(Photo, from here, is of supporters holding signs saying Nan zhou Jia you, or roughly "Stay strong, Southern Weekend!")

The Chinese media in general: As I never tire of pointing out, China is a giant, diverse, contradictory place in every conceivable way, and that applies to the media as well. Virtually all outlets operate under the threat, and often the imposed reality, of strict government control. But some reporters, editors, and broadcasters make the very most of the opportunities and openings they find; they represent some of the bravest journalists working in the world today. Others are just time-servers and system-supporters who accept their salaries and often the "red envelope" bonus pay-offs. For more on the red-envelope culture, see the wonderful satirical novel The Banquet Bug, by Geling Yan.

Chinese censorship: It's a race, changing every day. China's population is steadily better informed, and steadily more inventive about finding ways around official blackouts, "firewalls," etc. The government's censoring officials are steadily better-equipped and more aggressive about increasing surveillance and plugging up leaks. From the Western tech perspective, it's natural and easy to say, "Information wants to be free. The truth will always get out." And in the long run I believe that too. (This is, in effect, the subject of China Airborne.) But the long run can take a very long time, and the advantage in these struggles can shift back and forth. Just yesterday, Google appeared to back down from one of several stands it had taken against Chinese censorship.

Chinese openness and reform overall: This is the Big Question, which like anyone interested in the country I've gone at repeatedly over the years. Its simplest statement is this paradox:
   - The Chinese system has to change, if the government is to keep up with an increasingly sophisticated population with an increasingly modern economic system. (Otherwise the economy will stagnate, the people will withdraw the legitimacy they have given the government for 30+ years of development, etc). AND
  - The Chinese system cannot change, because of the power and paranoia of the entrenched interests that control the security agencies, the government-industrial complex, and other sources of power. For American readers it may help to think of much of China's senior security officials as being that country's counterparts to Dick Cheney.

Many people have opinions about how this contradiction will be resolved. But of course no one can be sure, and the evidence changes every day.

So those are the stakes. Brave journalists, from one of the country's bravest publications, are objecting to the censorship rules that until now journalists have found a way to live with (or work around). Everyone knows this could be important -- or it could just peter out, as some other apparent tipping-point movements have.

Now, your reading list, which I'll update as I can:
  • Background from China Digital Times of the specifics of the censorship and the dispute. See here, here, here, which will link to other coverage. Also, this item is a translation of orders from the Chinese censorship ministry about how to cover the dispute.
  • An item from Rachel Lu, of the Atlantic's partner Tea Leaf Nation, on the larger stakes.
  • Coverage from NYT, the Independent, Time (among others).
  • Evan Osnos, at the New Yorker, with a story on how support for the journalists' strike is spreading. A report from Australia about solidarity there.
  • A Chinese copyright-report site, on the way some government-controlled publications are striking back at the dissidents. A WSJ report on efforts to blame the whole uproar on "foreigners."

No offense to any analyses left off in this first batch. I'm sacrificing completeness in the interests of getting something posted. Will try to catch up soon.


And: I meant to mention earlier Ian Johnson's report in the NYT and the book edited by Susan Shirk, Changing Media, Changing China. And Jonathan Mirsky's very interesting essay in the NYRB.