China censors turn New Year "seeking dreams" editorial into nightmare

Wed Jan 9, 2013 6:43am EST
 

By James Pomfret

GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - When former Xinhua state news agency vice president Tuo Zhen was appointed as head of the propaganda department in Guangdong, one of China's most liberal provinces, he carried with him a reputation as a hard-line leftist.

High on his agenda was how to rein in two of China's most outspoken media outlets - the Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily - under the sprawling Nanfang Media Group that owns a stable of nearly 20 newspapers and magazines.

Half a year later, his heavy hand sparked a rare newsroom revolt and strike by journalists at the Southern Weekly, while unleashing broader calls across Communist Party-ruled China for press freedom.

Over 29 years, the Southern Weekly has earned a reputation for pushing the boundaries in pursuing agenda-setting, hard-hitting news, attracting some of the country's best journalists and a weekly circulation of 1.7 million nationwide.

While the system of government oversight had already been well established, including an internal censor to vet stories, current and former staffers said the levers of control tightened substantially with Tuo's arrival last May.

Xiao Shu, a former columnist at the Southern Weekly, said Tuo treated the paper not as an asset for pursuing the truth but "as a burden, or a negative thing, to trample on as much as he liked".

While the work of propaganda officials is kept out of the public eye, the standoff at the Southern Weekly exposed some of the arbitrary inner workings of the system. It also highlighted growing middle-class demands for greater freedoms, fuelled by social media that crackled with debate on the paper before posts were blocked.

Yao Chen, an actress with over 32 million online followers, posted a quote from dissident Russian writer and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: "One word of truth outweighs the whole world." It was reposted over 95,000 times.   Continued...

 
A policemen walks past as supporters of Southern Weekly demonstrate outside the office of the liberal newspaper in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou January 9, 2013. REUTERS/Bobby Yip