Academics, actors and bloggers rally behind move to clamp down on daring Chinese newspaper

Journalists at one of China’s most daring and liberal newspapers on Monday went on strike amid a rare public outcry over a move by the Communist Party to censor one of the country’s few remaining independent media voices.

The Guangdong-based The Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo), a newspaper that has a reputation for hard-hitting and independent journalism — a rarity in China where the Communist Party maintains strict control over most media outlets — has emerged in recent days as the centre of a storm of criticism aimed at propaganda authorities, presenting perhaps the first major test for new General Secretary Xi Jinping.

Journalists, scholars and even well-known actors who rarely venture into sensitive political debates have voiced their anger at moves to clamp down on the paper, after a New Year’s Day editorial was censored by provincial propaganda authorities in southern Guangdong.

The newspaper maintains a tradition of issuing strong editorial ‘greetings’ every New Year. This year’s letter, which called for political reforms and moves to create a Constitutional government, was reportedly replaced by the provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen with a message praising the Communist Party.

The move outraged the newspaper staff and triggered a storm of criticism online, after reporters at the newspaper posted a copy of the original editorial on the popular Chinese Twitter-equivalent Sina Weibo, used by more than 300 million people.

Reporters and supporters of the newspaper gathered outside its office in Guangzhou, the provincial capital, on Monday, with some holding placards calling for freedom of the press. While headquartered in Guangzhou, the Nanfang newspaper group has a loyal nationwide following, particularly among liberal and progressive Chinese.

“The Nanfang [Southern] Media Group is relatively willing to speak the truth in China so we need to stand up for its courage and support it now,” Ao Jiayang, who works with an NGO in Guangzhou and attended Monday’s protest, told Reuters. “We hope that through this we can fight for media freedom in China. Today’s turnout reflects that more and more people in China have a civic consciousness.”

That even well-known Chinese bloggers and actors issued statements on Monday in support of The Southern Weekend has underscored the wide backlash against the move to rein in the newspaper.

Chinese actress Yao Chen who, with 31 million followers, is the most widely-followed celebrity on Sina Weibo, posted a cryptic message quoting Russian writer and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, saying: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world”. The message was forwarded by more than 60,000 people within a few hours.

Writer Han Han, who maintains China’s most widely followed blog, wrote that two messages he had posted on Sina Weibo had been deleted. In a short article praising The Southern Weekend, he said the newspaper “gives power to the weak and hope to the hopeless. So, in its moment of weakness and desperation, I hope we can all lend them some strength, even if just a little, and help it carry on”.

“We end up censoring ourselves, always apprehensive, always afraid, always guessing,” he wrote in the article, which was published on the South China Morning Post’s website. “They grab you by your collar, clamp you by the neck, yet at the same time encourage you to run faster, sing better, and win them more honour… So, my solidarity statement today, is not just for my favourite newspaper or those journalists I respect. It is also for those in worse conditions, those media outlets and journalists who come to much more violent and miserable ends. It is also for ourselves.”

An open letter signed by well-known Chinese academics and lawyers, including Peking University law professor He Weifang and the economist Mao Yushi, called on Guangdong Party Chief Hu Chunhua — a close protégé of President and outgoing Party Secretary Hu Jintao — to sack Mr. Tuo, the head of the provincial propaganda department. How the new Party General Secretary Xi Jinping — who has, in recent speeches, revealed little about his political persuasions as he has walked a tightrope between calling for reform and stressing stability — will respond remains unclear.

“In public opinion, the disgust and opposition toward Tuo Zhen is readily visible,” the letter, which was published by the Hong Kong-based China Media Project, said. “We are concerned that the freedom of expression that newspapers and magazines should have will be completely lost.”

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