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Censorship Meets Rare Defiance as Journalists Strike in China

Categories: East Asia, China, Freedom of Speech, Media & Journalism

January 6, 2013 will be remembered in China's journalism history as the day Southern Weekend, a highly acclaimed newspaper that once lead the wave of media reform in China, fell from grace.

At around 9:30pm the newspaper’s official Sina Weibo microblog [1] [zh] account issued a statement addressed “To Readers”, which denied the provincial propaganda department's role in the recent censorship and rewriting of its New Year editorial [2].

One hour later, a legion from the current editorial staff announced a strike and distanced themselves from the “To Readers” statement by making a joint statement [3] [zh] through a 163.com microblog account, declaring that the official microblog account had been forcefully taken over.

To show their support, many influential public intellectuals and journalists on Sina Weibo changed their profile pictures to a black and white version of the Southern Weekend logo.

A group of journalism students in China expressed their support for Southern Weekend. Image from inmediahk.net. Non-commercial use.

Inside the Incident

The following day, the editorial team of Southern Weekend published a long microblog [4]on 163.com, specifying how the “To Readers” statement came about. Initially, the management of Southern Weekend and the staff were on the same page, and agreed to do a thorough investigation of the revision incident. However, under pressure from the Guangdong Province propaganda ministry, Wang Genghui, the deputy editor of Nanfang Media (which own Southern Weekend) and Huang Can, a member of the group’s editorial committee and acting editor-in-chief of Southern Weekend asked the editorial team to post the “To Readers” statement that distorted the facts. Wu Wei (@风端 [5]), the person responsible for Southern Weekend's official blog, disagreed with the move, but finally turned in the account and password and announced on his personal microblog that he will not assume responsibility for the content posted on the official blog thereafter (his announcement was subsequently deleted).

Rare Defiance

China is notorious for journalism censorship. Most journalists in China, have no choice but to smile and put up with censorship throughout their career. This incident has, however, enabled a rare open defiance against top-down censorship and even called for collective support from public intellectuals. The rare defiance not only reflects the credibility and visibility of Southern Weekend to the public but also highlights the new power dynamics between the government and the public under the influence of new media.

As a visible figure on Sina Microblog, @五岳散人 wrote:

@五岳散人 [6]:事件发展至今,明显可以看出已然犯了众怒,而且事情有越演越烈之势,不能釜底抽薪、只会扬汤止沸、最终引火烧身。这就是问题所在:所有狗屁倒灶的行为必须维护而不能切割,切割就证明错了,错了就会被追问,追问就会追到执政手法的根子上。

@五岳散人 [6]: Obviously, the incident infuriated the public and the whole incident is only going to intensify. If the government cannot solve the root problem, it will eventually set itself on fire. The government, instead of blocking the public voice, should let the voice go. If censorship takes place, it means the government does wrong things and then they will be faced with queries regarding their governing problems.

In fact, writers, playwrights and directors are all under hostage when it comes to censorship in China. Famous blogger and writer, Hanhan, depicts the real scenario artists face in China in his blog [zh] [7](he wrote the blog after two of his microblog accounts were deleted):

“while you enjoy so-called freedom, they enjoy freedom in punishing you. It doesn't matter whether you work in literature, journalism, film or television, you have to go to exhausting lengths to get their permission. There are no set rules to abide  follow, so you end up more or less breaking their [arbitrary] rules. Essentially, you have to become one of them, and follow these [arbitrary]rules. Therefore, we censor our own work and our peers’ work, as we try to understand what the rules are, we are careful and scared. “

Unlike the editorial staff at Southern Weekend, many others do not want to compromise their position and join the defiance. The deputy editor-in-chief of People magazine wrote on his microblog:

@林天宏 [8]: 这些年,我们这些人,被毙稿,被封口,被噤声,然后开始习惯,开始妥协,开始自我安慰,开始熟悉那些明里暗里的边界和尺度,开始自我审查,就好像温水里煮 着的青蛙。。。我们走得太远了,好像都忘记了当初为什么选择这个行当。为什么要守护Nz同仁?要我就一句话,人生短短数十载,怎能忘掉初心?
@林天宏 [8]: In all these years, we have become accustomed to the fact that our drafts will be killed and our voice will be censored. We began to compromise and began to deceive ourselves. We became familiar with those ambiguous boundaries and started self-censorship. We cannot feel enthusiasm [for our profession] anymore. We have walked too far to remember why we chose this career in the beginning. Why should we support the editorial staff at Southern Weekend? Just one sentence: life is short, how can we forget our initial determination [to choose the career of a journalist] ?