I assume you are a China watcher and already know the Southern Weekend (also translated as the Southern Weekly) incident that’s been raging on for the last couple of days. If you are not, you’ll find out here. Either way, I want to place the incident in the larger picture.
China doesn’t have an independent press – we all know that. The Southern Weekend is a part of the Southern Media Group (南方报业传媒集团), a Guangdong provincial-level state-owned media enterprise. Like any state-owned enterprises, whether they manufacture sewage pipes or produce newspapers, its top leader is the Party secretary (党委书记) and, in NMG’s case, the position is concurrently held by the Deputy Chief of the Propaganda Department of Guangdong province. The Group operates like a corporation, but its important positions are appointed by the Propaganda Department, and the members of its editorial boards, according to what has been revealed, are all censors. On top of that, the Propaganda Department issues written/oral directives about what and how news should, or should not, be reported down to the smallest detail. In this, all media groups and newspapers in China are about the same.
That said, the NMG papers, the Southern Weekend in particular, have been known for their liberal bent, as much as it’s been possible under the muzzle of censorship. A magnet for China’s best journalists, it has enjoyed a reputation for being refreshing, diverse and daring, and, for that, a large and loyal readership across the country.
Over the years, however, the papers have gone through several significant “purges” where editors and journalists were fired for their reports that were considered to have stepped over boundaries. Cheng Yizhong (程益中), former editor-in-chief of Nanfang Metropolis Daily, was falsely charged with embezzlement (the charges were dropped later) but he was really punished for the paper’s aggressive reporting on SARS and the Sun Zhigang case (孙志刚案). Chang Ping (长平), former news director of the Southern Weekend, was forced out in 2011 after being fired twice before for his reports and commentaries. These are only two examples. Many others also lost their jobs such as Xiao Shu (笑蜀), Li Wenkai (李文凯).
With the “purges”, the papers have declined. In an article published in the New Statesman last October, Cheng Yizhong detailed how censorship had been tightened in the paper and how informants had been planted to monitor journalists and editors. In an interview with Radio Netherlands Worldwide on Monday, Chang Ping said that, over the last five years, media outlets in Guangdong had been regressing steadily. He said, although Wang Yang (汪洋) has been widely perceived as a reformist and entertained rhetoric of “thought liberation” when he first arrived in Guangdong, censorship during his tenure has gotten worse. Indeed, many loyal readers of NMG papers will readily tell you that “it’s not like it used to be” these days.
According to a statement by the Southern Weekend editors, in 2012 alone, 1,034 of their stories were censored one way or the other.
1,034! You can just imagine the frustration and humiliation fermenting over there day in and day out.
The Southern Weekend incident that has been raging started from a Weibo post complaining about a procedural breach by the Propaganda Department: The paper has a long tradition of publishing a New Year’s greeting letter, and this year’s letter was entitled “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism.” Approved by censors (everything the paper publishes has to be approved by censors) and signed off by editors, it was ready to be printed. But without the knowledge of the editors, officials at the Propaganda Department rewrote it, retitled it as “Chasing the Dream”, and put it in print (read a rundown of the chain of events here and a more detailed account here).
Over the last few days, Weibo was ablaze with condemnation of the Party’s control of media and support for the Southern Weekend. Several statements and petitions by the journalists themselves, by interns, by prominent intellectuals, by the public have been circulated.
Now, what I want to point out in this post is this: Whatever the journalists at the Southern Weekend may want at the bottom of their hearts, they have NOT been appealing for freedom of the press, or the lift of censorship. They are merely protesting the procedural breach and demanding the resignation of Tuo Zhen (庹震), the Party’s propaganda chief in Guangdong.
They have their prohibitions obviously: this is their livelihood and they are not ready, or not in a position, to give it up.
Besides, the journalist body there is not monolithic: Among them, there are supporters of the Propaganda Department and censorship, or people who have been planted by the department.
However, most of their supporters online and offline are taking the opportunity to appeal for significantly more: freedom of the press and other fundamental demands.
So, essentially, these are two separate campaigns. What will the SW journalists and editors do next? Will they escalate or retreat? How will happen to the public outcry? As I write, protesters from the general public are gathering outside the entrance of the NMG compound with signs such as this:
All in all, the New Year’s greetings from China are surprising and fascinating. Stay tuned.