For the first time in more than two decades, hundreds gathered with journalists outside one of China's most influential papers on Monday, staging a strike to protest the Communist Party’s censorship of press freedom.
Its reputation for bold reporting, and its weekly readership of more than 1.6 million, Southern Weekend, which is sometimes called Southern Weekly, based in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, is one of the most influential media outlets in the country.
This public hunger for a media free from censorship, one that is allowed to challenge corruption and the wrongdoings of private and state enterprise, is the reason editorial staff at the Southern Weekenddecided to stage a strike against government censorship.
The fed up journalists at Southern Weekend made the decision after government propaganda officials hijacked Southern Weekend's official microblog last week, and issued a misleading statement to its readers claiming that a controversial front-page New Year editorial that ran in the paper had been written by Southern Weekend journalists instead of calling it what it really was: a last-minute hatchet job by Tuo Zhen, Guangdong's top propaganda chief.
The original wording of the editorial called for constitutional reform – a dream of greater civil rights. It was titled "China’s Dream, The Dream of Constitution, which was a play on new Chinese premier Jinping's now much-popularized phrase, the "China Dream", the Huffington Post states.
Newspaper insiders say Tuo apparently balked at the brazenness of the piece and decided that changes needed to be made-- a day before publication. By the time Tuo got finished with editorial changes, the piece was unrecognizable: it ultimately became a poorly-written, error-riddled ode to the current one party rule political system, in which the Communist Party exercises authority over all aspects of governance.
"Prohibit speech mask" -- a clever wordplay on the Chinese word for "condom".
This latest move was simply too much, Al Jazeera writes. Chinese journalists called it the “rape of Southern Weekend".
As a result, the staff later issued a statement via another microblog denying the propaganda officials' statement and announced a strike.
"The statement [on the official microblog] does not represent the opinion of the editorial staff. It is a result of pressure applied by the authorities on the … management," the department said. "The editorial staff will fight against the falsified statement … Until the issue is resolved, we will not do any editorial work."
Strikes are effectively banned in China, exceptions being when they have been orchestrated by the party against foreign-owned firms.
So-called free media cannot exist
Hundreds of intellectuals, journalists and internet users also signed an online petition condemning the lack of press freedom and censorship.
“Our yielding and our silence has not brought a return of our freedom,” the students said in their petition on Sunday, according to a translation by Hong Kong University’s China Media Project. “Quite the opposite, it has brought the untempered intrusion and infiltration of rights by power.”
Almost all Chinese news media outlets are owned and controlled by the state and explicitly seen as a tool for “guiding” public opinion to uphold party rule.
On Monday, People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, for example, ran a signed commentary that referred to a recent meeting of propaganda officials in Beijing and said propaganda officials should “follow the rhythm of the times” and help the authorities establish a “pragmatic and open-minded image.”
The Communist Party-backed newspaper Global Times published an editorial on Monday morning that was critical of the Southern Weekly journalists.
"In the social and political environment of today's China, the so-called free media cannot exist," it said, according to CNN.
"Even in Western countries, the mainstream media will not choose to openly confront the government. To do so in China, there will certainly be losers."
But the Shaanxi-based China Business News published a commentary, defying a gag order from Beijing, calling the strike a test of the leadership's ability to govern and heed public concerns, South China Morning Post stated.
"The conflict between public opinions and authorities in Guangdong also underlines a pressing issue of greater importance: it is high time to review and reform our policies regarding media control," The Post quoted the newspaper as writing.
According to the Times, some political analysts have said that resolving the Southern Weekend concerns raises questions about whether the central government, led by Xi Jinping, the new party chief, will support the idea of a more open media by moving to support the protesting journalists. Others, see the protests as a waste of time, saying nothing will change.
Hoping for a spring in this harsh winter
Nevertheless on Monday, hundreds of young student protestors, gathered at the Southern Media Group headquarters holding handwritten signs saying "Freedom of expression is not a crime." One banner read: “Get rid of censorship. The Chinese people want freedom.”
Many also brought white and yellow chrysanthemums, the flowers of mourning, to symbolize the death of press freedom.
Southern Weekend supporter picking up scattered chrysanthemum petals
One journalist from Southern Media Group, which owns Southern Weekly, told CNN that colleagues joined the protest to express their outrage.
"We stand up now because we were pushed to the limit," the journalist, who asked to remain anonymous said.
The journalists also received support on the Internet from celebrities and well-known commentators.
“Hoping for a spring in this harsh winter,” Li Bingbing, an actress, said to her 19 million followers on a microblog account, according to the Times. Yao Chen, an actress with more than 31 million followers, quoted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian Nobel laureate and dissident: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.”