The Chinese Communist Party aims to control privately owned media without appearing to do so. A strike at a local newspaper imperils that balance, writes Liu Jin.
The recent heated protest by a Chinese newspaper against government censorship appears to have ended more positively than anxious observers had expected. Local officials precipitated the crisis when they allegedly watered down an editorial calling for greater constitutionalism in the Southern Weekly (nanfang zhoumo), a Guangdong newspaper known for its progressive stance. A weeklong standoff with local authorities involving street protests, a staff strike, arguments across weibo (a form of social media), and petitions from Hong Kong and Taiwan has finally reached some sort of resolution. Fortunately, no one who joined the protest appears to have been punished yet, in contrast to the Bingdian Incident in 2006, in which two senior editors of China Youth Daily were sacked after the party issued a temporary suspension on the weekly supplement. The Southern Weekly, unlike its counterpart Bingdian, is now back in print, with little mention of either the controversy or local propaganda chief Tuo Zhen, who became a focal point for resentment.
Whether there will be any form of retaliation on the defiant editorial staff of Southern Weekly remains unclear at present. According to Reuters, who cited an informant close to the Guangdong provincial government, the newly-appointed local party leader, Hu Chunhua, stepped in and brokered a compromise to wrap up the protests: editors will stop their complaints and return to work, while the authorities will replace Tuo in the near future. The account is not yet official, but observers note that Hu likes to see himself as a liberal figure in the tradition of previous Guangdong leader, Wang Yang. To some extent, the case resembles the liberal response to the Wukan protests a year ago, when Wang Yang acquiesced to the immediate demands and approved a village election.
Despite a partial climb down by the provincial party cadres, however, the reality is that government censorship of the press will continue to be an unpleasant routine for Chinese journalism. The Southern Weekly incident suggests competing priorities: censorship is a deeply entrenched form of party control on public opinion even in the liberal and experimental Guangdong. The newspaper estimated that more than a thousand of its articles were censored in 2012. Rumour has it that the propaganda chief Tuo Zhen, who is notorious for his tough hand against disloyal media, was posted to Guangdong with a mission to tame the daring and disobedient local press, one of them being Southern Weekly.
In fact, the row reveals not only the pervasive control of the non-state-owned media, but also the shape of the censorship apparatus, including many of its flaws. During the protest the Professional Ethics Committee of Southern Weekly released a version of the internal process involved in the creation of the New Year’s editorial. Qian Gang, a former managing editor of Southern Weekly (now at HKU’s China Media Project), also wrote an analysis of the typical Chinese censorship process with a detailed narration of the process by which Southern Weekly’s New Year’s greeting was drastically revised by propaganda officials, who did not even care to inform the editors about the final revision before it went to print.
The New Yorker’s China correspondent Evan Osnos wrote some time ago that most Chinese press censorship is subtle. The system operates not necessarily by active intervention in the newsroom but by subjecting editors to the choice of either self-censorship or ‘ex post facto punishment.’ This allows the government to adjust the boundaries of what is acceptable at will while journalists are given the illusion of freedom. The backlash at Southern Weekly was perhaps predictable therefore, given the accounts suggesting that the censor considerably extended the scope of their intervention into the editorial process.
The censorship apparatus in China is relatively well equipped to deal with editorials that stray from the party line. What concerns the authorities most is the sustainability of the censorship apparatus. If the inner workings of the system are exposed, as was the case in the Southern Weekly incident, then the effectiveness of self-censorship will be undermined, leaving the Party in the awkward position of wanting to preventing widespread deviations without appearing dictatorial. Face is important for the Party; over the years the One Party-State has been striving to gain popular legitimacy while refusing to offer alternatives.
Perhaps this is why a foreign affairs spokesman, when asked about Southern Weekly incident, said that “there is no censorship of the media in China”. Ironically, it is information about press censorship in China that is the most ruthlessly protected. Purveyors of basic information about the affairs of state are ruthlessly punished – Shi Tao, a Changsha-based journalist, was sentenced to imprisonment for 10 years in 2005 for releasing an internal party document to an overseas Chinese democracy website. This document contained no state secrets. It merely instructed Chinese journalists not to report on the upcoming anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and warned against the potential of infiltration by foreigners and Falungong.
Censorship of the press is likely to remain an integral part of Chinese politics so long as the Communist Party claims a monopoly on power. Whether it will in fact be looser in future depends largely on how the authorities respond to the Southern Weekly protests. Early indications are that the Southern Weekly has struck a blow for press freedom. Perhaps because of the collective and public nature of the protests, the editors have so far remained unscathed. Two things are immediately apparent from this. Firstly, opposition to the censor will only be successful with a strong local support base – proponents of free speech would be advised to start building bridges in anticipation of future battles. Secondly, the Communist Party has chosen to embrace both the use of force as a means of deterrent, and the concealment of its role in order to enhance its popular appeals. That makes it vulnerable to the exposure of its abuses, and grants a considerable power to journalists, albeit at a not insubstantial risk.
Liu Jin is a pseudonym