The Southern Weekly affair: No closer to the Chinese dream?

2013 began dramatically in China with a standoff between journalists and state propaganda authorities over a drastically rewritten New Year editorial. Timothy Garton Ash introduces English translations of the original and finally published versions.


In the first week of the New Year, the editors of Southern Weekly, a weekly newspaper in China’s Guangdong province, staged a high-profile protest against the provincial propaganda authorities’ meddling with its emblematic New Year’s Greeting. The paper is known in China for its liberal and progressive stance.

The incident began with the drafting of the New Year’s issue in the last week of 2012. The original essay, drafted by senior editor Dai Zhiyong, was entitled “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism.” The piece was apparently submitted on 29 December to the chief editor Huang Can, who was reportedly unhappy with its liberal tone and ordered it to be redrafted internally.

The revised draft, entitled “We Are Closer to Our Dream Than Ever Before” was cut down from 2,000 to 1,000 words and submitted to the propaganda authorities on 31 December. Later that night the propaganda authorities came back suggesting major changes and the removal of two other articles. In the early hours of 1 January 2013, Huang conveyed further instructions from the propaganda authorities. The headline was to be changed to “Homeland Dreams”. The draft was signed off by senior editors, who then left work with their mobile phones turned off.

Overnight, the chief and deputy editors were summoned to the provincial propaganda office and ordered to make further changes. It remains unclear who finalised the text, but none of the senior editors were informed of the revisions before publication. Not only did it include elementary mistakes, but the title of the revised issue was changed to “Seeking Dreams”. The original tone of the issue was radically changed from liberal reformist to party propagandist tone. The crudeness of the censorship, and the outspoken protests, attracted world-wide attention.

In an example of the power of the internet, a pdf version of the original was posted online, side by side with the final published version. We cannot be absolutely sure which stage of the original was posted here, but it was reposted on highly reputable websites including China Digital Times, with excellent analysis from the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. Chinese-speakers at Oxford University have translated both versions into English, so you can see for yourself what message the Guangzhou censorship and propaganda authorities did not want Chinese readers (and the world) to hear – and the deathless prose which they substituted for it. The translations are not perfectly polished, but should give you a good idea of what was being said.

Note that the penultimate sentence of the original – “One word of truth outweighs the whole world” – is an unacknowledged quotation of the Russian proverb which was central to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize Lecture, entitled ‘One Word of Truth’. This sentence was also subsequently tweeted on Sina Weibo by actress Yao Chen, together with the Southern Weekly logo. She has over 38 million Sina Weibo followers.

The original version, as posted online in pdf format on Sina Weibo, and later picked up by other websites:

China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism

Between Heaven and Earth come times of blossom.

This is our first encounter in 2013. We hope that your dreams will enlighten you.

In 2012, you have protected your life, and they have protected their work. Protecting this work means protecting their dreams towards life.

In 2012, the voices of constitution echoed loudly among those who govern. As they proclaimed, “‘the life of the constitution lies in its implementation, the authority of the constitution also lies in its implementation.” We look forward to the growth of the constitution and the birth of a constitutional government. Only by this can we achieve the tortuous transformation of this ancient nation. Only by this can our nation and people stand again on solid grounds.

Today is the day China becomes able to dream. Today is also the day we can realise our dreams. We experienced the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution when the constitution was absent, and it took us more than thirty years to return to rationality and common sense. From the household responsibility system to the creation of the self-employed, township enterprises and private enterprises, we have experienced the partial return of rights for people to arrange their own lives autonomously. We have then created a prosperous city – hoarded with good harvest of food.

We again experience what is real and what is false. We tell the truth and reject the lies. We rekindled our passion for justice and our longing for freedom. We march together hand in hand to confront violence and cruelty, to overcome the hard times together, and to welcome a new turning point in life.

Today, we can finally stand tall from the dust of our heavy history. We can raise our head from the triviality of our daily lives. We can repeat the long march undertaken by our predecessors towards constitutionalism and revisit their mighty dreams.

Around 170 years ago, we began to wake up from the nation’s illusory dream. We suffered a defeat by the British and then another defeat by the Japanese. People lived in growing miseries. The feeling of shame penetrated the heart of the Chinese gentry. Defend the nation! Defend the diversity of the race! We travelled from the self-strengthening to constitutional monarchy, from the constitutional establishment to the revolution. Then the angry masses hesitated no longer to remove the fetters of Confucianism in the form of objects, system and culture, and they decided with no mercy to uproot their civilization thoroughly.

After the 1911 revolution, the Qing emperor abdicated, and our ancestors finally built the first republic in Asia. But a free, democratic and strong Chinese constitutional government did not follow.

The nation was plagued by ongoing wars outside and from within. The people were faced with endless cruelty.

At one time, people are distanced from benevolence, righteousness and the ways of heaven. They distanced from the commitment to freedom.

At another time, people replaced wrong with right. They saw the deer as a horse. The vitality of thousands of creatures was severed.

Beautiful dreams and mountains and rivers, all shattered into pieces. Freedom and constitutionalism both vanished.

Despite the misfortunes of life, and despite the darkness of humanity, we remain to be people who can still dream, because we all have a heart to dream.

Today, we dream not only of material wealth; we dream also of the enrichment of our soul. We dream not only of stronger state power; we dream also for the dignity of the people. Between renewing the people and renewing the nation, between salvation and enlightenment, none can do without another and none can override another. And constitutionalism is the foundation of this beautiful dream.

Enact constitutionalism and defend our rights, so that the hearts of all can shine like a moon over clear waters; so that the widowed and the needy can feel the warmth in the winter chill and shield them from shivering, so that the ”City Management” officers and hawkers talk lightheadedly like friends; so that homes can become the safe bulwark for our families.

Enact constitutionalism and limit and divide power, so that people can voice their criticism towards public authority; so that all of us can live a free life on the basis of our beliefs; so that we can build a free and strong nation.

Enact the grand dream of constitutionalism so that everyone can fulfil his or her own dreams. And this requires us to act right now with our hands, to protect our current livelihoods rather than leaving this important responsibility to our grandchildren.

Many people understand this point deeply. Many people have long been striving to practice it.

Dreams are not the exclusive privilege of outstanding individuals. Dreams are for good dreamers.

You have an inherent right to dream and to realize the dream!

Celebrate your dream, and make an effort for the dream of this nation. This is the dream of many of those in the journalistic industry, their modest ambition. They are loyal to journalism and even more so to their soul. May you also have a rosy dream. May you pursue your own goals with freedom and complete what Heaven has endowed you with.

Always dream that everyone may live a dignified life, regardless of whether they are privileged or not.

Always dream for love inside everyone’s heart. Nothing is unforgivably evil even when it comes to a criminal, for the sympathetic heart always beams freely.

Always dream that class is merely a motivating force for people to move freely from one to another, and not a boundary that breeds hatred and jealousy.

Always dream that a civilisation of five thousand years of perpetually renews itself to improve the modernity of human beings, and to proffer humanity a sweet, flowing spring.

Let us realize our hundred millions of dreams so that we can relieve the excruciating pain of the past century.

Going around in circles in the past 170 years, how difficult it is for a dream to come true! After 170 years, there are still people who hope that our consciences will sprout, to go back to what the Mandate of Heaven ought to be. There are still people who insist on grounding our rights, on returning politics to righteousness, and on making justice flow freely.

There are still people who believe, regardless of how difficult it is, that the dream of a constitutional government will become a reality, and that modesty will become our social norm.

Our predecessors strived for justice and benevolence when they pioneered in tattered clothes. Now, our generation will inherit their aspirations and march forward with our lights lit.

We must reflect on the wisdoms of our predecessors to realize our dream, to mediate with their beliefs, customs and sentiments. Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Legalism and Mohism, all of them are sources of inspiration. Zhou, Han, Tang, Song and Ming, every dynasty offers learning.

This is by no means simply to restore tradition. Ancient sages cannot give all that is required today. Let us not disparage our predecessors easily but calmly absorb, transform and progress, so that the Chinese civilization can blossom and bear new fruits.

Lessons from the world must be learnt to realize our dreams. We must earnestly assess the democracy of the Greeks, the laws of the Romans. We must learn from British and American constitutionalism and catch up with modern technology and civilization.

Yet, this is not to say we should simply learn from the Western civilization like obedient students. The West has progressed through its own tracks. These tracks may not be able to provide us with what we need today.

We stand on our land, together with people from other nations, to merge the old ways of living into a new livelihood and to create a new civilisation by combining the East and the West. We have to comply with the common values of mankind from the ancient and the modern, the East and the West, but at the same time we must not fear to make new dreams.

Praise our predecessors and compliment our neighbours, not because they are perfect but because we recognize the familiar happiness in their eyes, the flow of freedom that lies in their hearts.

The Chinese people are supposed to be free. The dream of the Chinese nation is supposed to be a dream of constitutionalism.

Only under a constitutional government can our nation and our people continue to grow strong and prosperous. Only under a constitutional government can we fulfil the dream of constitutionalism. Only after realizing the constitutional dream can we speak of safeguarding our sovereignty and protecting our civil rights and freedom. Then the freedom of the state will come down to the freedom of the people, and come down to a time when people can speak their own mind and dream with their hearts.

Is there anyone born who has no affection for freedom? This freedom is not expressed merely in terms of rights against authority. It is also for the sake of forgiveness, wisdom, benevolence and virtue – against vengeance, ignorance, cruelty and vice.

The way of virtue is that the world belongs to all the people. Thousands of beings exist freely, and live for their well-being. This is the dream of our ancient sages, of our predecessors. This is also the dream of many of us today.

The dream of China is the dream of freedom, the dream of constitutionalism.

All things are mortal but dreams are everlasting. All things are born because dreams continue indefinitely. Dreams are the origins of the living. If, after hundreds of failed attempts you still keep trying, the hundred-and-first attempt will remind you of your immortal dream.

There are still people willing to listen to your dreams and expecting that you dare to dream. They will cheer for you when you stand up to harsh times. Whether you experience the cold of humanity or enjoy a wonderful life - they will cheer you. They have nothing to capitalise on, except the pursuit of promises. They are good at nothing, except their persistence for the truth.

One word of truth outweighs the whole world. One dream can make life shine with flying colours!

The version that appeared after censorship and extensive propaganda re-writing:

We Are Closer to Our Dream Than Ever Before

Dreams are our own promises to ourselves; they are our commitment to responsiblities that ought to be.

This is the one thousand and fifty-seventh time we meet, and our first encounter in 2013. In the past, present and future, we will stand tall to protect this newspaper, at a time when you stand tall to protect your own livelihoods. Let us bless each other, and hope that we shall move closer to our dream in the brand new year.

Dreams are a form of self-promise and have to be revisited from time to time. We have created a spectacular kingdom that has lived on for thousands of years. But the old dream was suddenly awakened from its sleep by the gunfire in 1840. This led us to realize our mistakes from yesterday.  We opened our eyes to see the world, to trumpet our efforts, to witness the intelligence of the masses and to renew our morals. Our reform and restoration started from here. Our republic and revolution started from here. Our cries in the May Fourth Movement also started from here. Our imagination and ideas on the boat in Nanhu (South Lake), our proclamation on Tiananmen and our horns that signal reform and opening, all started from here.

Our promises to ourselves can never be separated from the progress of the era. As the old saying goes, ”if you can renew yourself for a day, do so from day to day.” Only by integration into the progress of civilization can promises save themselves from degenerating into shackles.

Dreams are our commitment to things that ought to be, and we must honour ourselves through this commitment. Just as farmers ought to harvest from the seeds of a good year, and children ought to return home safely from school. Just as the old saying goes: “the old are cared for until death and the adults are gainfully employed. The widower, the widow, the single, the lonesome, the sick or the disabled, will all be taken care of.”

Towards the end of 2012, flames of our dream have been one again ignited. Xi Jinping, the newly appointed general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, said: “To achieve the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream of the Chinese nation in modern times.” This dream, embodying the strength and striving of many people, inherited our nation’s ideal of “Family, Country and the World.” This reflects China’s confident road towards the future, towards a confident theoretical foundation and towards a confident system encompassing the overall interests of the Chinese nation and people. This is the common wish of all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation.

Now, at the start of the New Year, we are closer to this dream than we ever were.

We are closer than ever to this dream, because “the life of a consitution lies in implementation and its authority also lies in its implementation”, and because the constitution is the contract our nation signed to symbolise the dreams of our people.

We are closer than ever to this dream, because “the future and the fate of every one of us is closely intertwined with the future of the nation and the people.” This is the commitment to the people. “If the state is prosperous, and if the nation is prosperous, then everyone will be prosperous.” The dream of national rejuvenation must bring together the little dreams of all people, through the door that unites the nation and the people as one.

We are closer than ever to this dream because we have reached the era in which we can realize our dreams. It is a dream in which we want rights to be realised, and in which we want justice to flow. It is a dream in which our state will become strong to protect our people, and will let everyone receive what they deserve from our national development.

Let us realise our hundreds of thousands of dreams so that we can pay homage to the countless souls who had sacrificed their brave lives. Let us realise our hundreds of millions of dreams so that we can exorcise the excruciating pain from the past century. The better side of things is in the establishment of a new China when we “stood up to the world”, the era of reform and opening when we “got rich”, and in the new century when we “became ever stronger”. Our dream is gradually turning into reality.

All things are mortal but dreams are forever. We listen to your dreams, and we hope that you dare to dream. Dreams are not the exclusive privilege of outstanding individuals. Dreams are for good dreamers, and only they can make them fly. We have nothing to depend on, except our pursuit of promises.  We are good at nothing, except for our persistent attention to our commitments.

This article has been republished on ChinaFile and Eurozine.

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