In a highly unusual embrace of free speech that Westerners take for granted, hundreds of protestors gathered outside the newspaper’s offices Monday to denounce their government’s censorship of a Southern Weekly New Years editorial.
At the same time, prominent business tycoons, opinion makers and film stars used their microblogging accounts to demand greater press freedom in China, according to a Washington Post report.
Editors and writers at the newspaper have taken the controversial step of calling out Guangdong province’s top Communist Party propaganda official, Tuo Zhen, for substantially rewriting and watering down the paper's New Year’s editorial without their knowledge or consent. In it, editors had expressed a “dream for a constitutional government in China.”
“This is actually something pretty amazing,” said Hung Huang, a publisher, writer and blogger. “It’s the first time the media is protesting against censorship. This is the first time they took action and said, ‘We’re not going to take this anymore.’ . . . Somehow, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Tuo remained silent about his role in changing the words and message of the piece and was not available for comment.
Cheng Yizhong, a television executive who is a founder and former chief editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, called the protests “an explosion that was a longtime coming, and with good timing.” He added, “This could be an opportunity to push forward freedom of speech.”
An online post purportedly written by the newspaper’s management team that appeared Sunday evening claimed the New Year’s message published Jan. 2 was written by the paper’s management team, and denied other online reports that said it had been rewritten.
“We laid flowers at the gate to Southern Weekly,” said Song Bingyi, one of about 400 protesters. “But once we put down the flowers, plainclothes police came to confiscate them all.”
“I wore a mask to express my anger at being ‘shut up,’ not because I was afraid,” said Ran Xiang, a protester who said she used her weibo account to persuade others to show up at the protest with flowers. She said she brought chrysanthemums because, “I hope to pay tribute to Southern Weekly, which is dying.”
China relies on capitalism to fuel its economy and fund much of government but continues to maintain strict control over the media, free speech and many other individual rights.