Newspapers in China have been pushing the boundaries of censorship with more reports of disgraced officials, profiles of corruption cases and testimonies from wronged villagers. But in the southern city of Guangzhou, one paper went too far over the Western New Year holiday.
Southern Weekly is published in the south but has a national distribution. This weekly has 1.6 million readers and is hailed by many as the leader of the left faction. It is more critical of government and more likely to be pushing for reform. According to Wikipedia it is an internationally recognised publication:
Southern Weekly is considered the most outspoken newspaper in China. It is strongly recommended by liberal intellectuals and is said to contribute to public democratic debate and the formation of civil society. The New York Times has described the Southern Weekend as “China’s most influential liberal newspaper”.
For the New Year edition, an editorial was penned calling for the government of China to honour and recognise the country’s constitution. China’s current Constitution was first accepted in 1982 and was later amended. In China, the Constitution is a living document subject to continued revision:
The current version was adopted by the 5th National People’s Congress on December 4, 1982, with further revisions in 1988, 1993, 1999, and 2004. Three previous state constitutions—those of 1954, 1975, and 1978—were superseded in turn. (Source: Wikipedia)
In the base document from 1982, the Constitution of China guarantees basic freedoms:
Article 35 of the 1982 State Constitution proclaims that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration.” (Source: Wikipedia)
But last week it all went wrong – and that’s led to massive protests across the country.
In the New Year editorial, Southern Weekly asked the government to honour the 1982 Constitution and allow Chinese citizens freedom of speech and allow newspapers freedom of the press. It also called for greater legal rights.
Censors took umbrage at the proposed copy and rewrote the editorial. Instead of a rallying cry, the final printed editorial became an honorific to current government. Gone were calls for freedom. In their place were words of praise for the new leaders.
Perhaps in other newspapers this heavy-handed rewriting would go unnoticed. But this was Southern Weekly – a darling of liberals and intellectuals across the country. Now protesters are outside the newspaper headquarters. Some lay funeral wreaths. Others leave placards of support. One was wrapped head to toe in newspapers like a burn victim, according to The Wall Street Journal.
This incident comes at a time of greater openness and initial attempts at people politics by China’s new leaders (See earlier post, “China’s Leaders Share Personal Photographs“). In the aftermath of the censorship incident the Communist Party’s primary newspaper, People’s Daily, called for less heavy-handed censorship:
Stable society “must rest on a healthy public opinion environment for support”…and “blunt preaching” must be firmly rejected.
Today the staff at Southern Weekly remain on strike. Protesters are likely to occupy the space outside the newspaper again today.
As with any change, in China press and personal freedom of expression is being pushed in increments. This incident at Southern Weekly is likely to be a major milestone in the approach to censorship by China’s government.
Until then the protests continue.