The Communist Party of China appears to have managed to defuse a sensitive and rare protest against censorship, triggered by journalists at a daring southern Chinese daily, which had begun to receive wide support from a cross-section of society in recent days.
Reports on Wednesday said CPC officials had reached a deal with journalists at the Guangdong-based Southern Weekend newspaper, after the provincial party chief Hu Chunhua — a protege of President Hu Jintao — had stepped in to end the row.
Journalists at the newspaper had threatened to go on strike over the weekend and had demanded the sacking of the provincial propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, after he was accused of censoring a New Year's Day editorial comment in the paper.
The row appeared to spread to another newspaper on Wednesday, when reports said Dai Zigeng, the publisher of the Beijing News, a leading newspaper in the capital, had threatened to resign after being forced to publish an editorial criticising the Southern Weekend.
The Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo) is known in China for its brave and independent journalism — a rarity in the country where the party maintains strict control over most media outlets.
Reports on Wednesday said the weekly would publish on Thursday as per schedule, although it remained unclear how the deal had been reached. There was no news on whether Mr. Tuo, the propaganda official who triggered the row by appearing to take a step further the usual censorship restrictions the newspaper reluctantly tolerates, would continue in his position.
The row had been seen as a tricky test for new General Secretary Xi Jinping, as well as a possible indicator of his inclinations — if there are any — for taking forward political reforms. In recent speeches, Mr. Xi has stressed the paramount need for stability and given little evidence of any reformist leanings despite early expectations from liberal Chinese.
While a small gathering of protesters was allowed to gather in front of the newspaper's office in Guangzhou on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Central government has taken a firm stand in recent days to prevent the censorship row from spreading to other newspapers.
A directive issued to newspapers has barred them from reporting on the goings-on in Guangzhou. Newspapers were also told to publish an editorial written by the hard-line Communist Party-run Global Times.
A Wednesday editorial in the Global Times wrote that "freedom of the press must have limits".
"It is simplistic to think that China's news management system only protects the interests of the government," the newspaper said. "China's news management system is walking a difficult tightrope between the nation's development and the development of its media. It has to promote the prosperity of news and prevent it from being at odds with prosperity."
Several media outlets have, nevertheless, voiced their support to the Southern Weekend through subliminal messages that have evaded the censors. Several web portals on Tuesday, while barred from reporting on the news, carried headlines on their front page that were arranged to spell "Support the Southern Weekend" when the first word of each headline was read together.
The Beijing News, which printed the Global Times editorial on Wednesday after refusing to carry it a day earlier, published a culinary tribute to "the porridge of the south" in its lifestyle section - in Chinese, the porridge of the south (nanfang de zhou) sounds similar to the "Southern Weekend" (Nanfang Zhoumo).
"It is said that this year is the coldest winter for decades," the article — ostensibly a food review — said cryptically, reported the China Media Project website.
"In the lingering cold of the night, what can offer us a bit of warmth and comfort? Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is a steaming hot bowl of porridge. And there is nothing better than the earthen pot porridge of the south."