The Southern Weekend Incident
China’s Journalists Get Up off Their Knees
Pushed to the brink by years of excessive censorship, media workers in China are rising up and demanding the press freedoms that China's constitution guarantees. Will their voices be acknowledged?
China’s Journalists Get Up off Their KneesBy Annie Jieping Zhang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 514 )
With the beginning of the new year, Southern Weekend, long regarded as the most outspoken newspaper in China, was given the cane. Yet contrary to the expectations of those who delivered the blow, their actions did more than shatter the myth that the new government is intent on reforms. They also unleashed the pent-up anger of Chinese media workers who have long endured humiliating censorship. A growing number of journalists are joining signature campaigns and protests as the flames of anger keep burning.
On Jan. 2, the Southern Weekend New Year's special edition with its traditional New Year's Greeting went to press – the layout and final proofs had been done and the editors had gone home – when Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief of Guangdong Province, intervened to stop the press. The provincial party committee propaganda department directed Huang Can, then the newspaper's editor-in-chief, to personally make sweeping changes to the theme of the special edition as well as the New Year's Greeting. While media censorship is a daily occurrence in China, it is extremely rare that the Propaganda Department and an editor-in-chief circumvent frontline editors to directly rewrite newspaper pages.
The Southern Weekend version that people saw on newsstands on Jan. 3 sang the praises of the government and was riddled with errors. In the words of its editors, the entire edition had been "raped."
The New Year's Greeting has always been the most important manifestation of Southern Weekend's spirit and tradition. Since 1997 the New Year's greetings have been famous for their deep concern and their polished language. Some phrases coined by the newspaper, such as "Hope always lies with us" and "One word of truth outweighs the whole world"... have even become proverbs that have inspired the idealism of generations of young Chinese journalists.
The title of the 2013 New Year's Greeting went from the original version "The Dream of China, the Dream of Constitutionalism," to the version that emerged after the editorial department and censors demanded that the paper engage in "self-castration," which read: "Dreams Are Our Pledges Toward What Should Be." The Propaganda Department's final "raped" version that was printed carried the headline, "We Are Now Closer to Our Dream than Ever Before." The dream of constitutional politics broken, the Chinese dream vanished into thin air, readers found a New Year's Greeting with gushing praise for the government for the first time in Southern Weekend's history.
Unable to bear the insult, the weekly's editorial staff began to post protests on the Sina Weibo microblogging site and other social media late into the night on Jan. 2. While venting their anger, they also posted all three versions for readers to compare – the original New Year's Greeting, the editorial department's compromise version following censorship, and the final version directly written by the Propaganda Department that hit the streets.
Efforts to suppress public opinion in connection with the Southern Weekend incident have also reached unprecedented dimensions. Sina Weibo's search engine filtered out the term "Southern Weekend," and all discussions about the incident were immediately deleted from the microblogging platform. Within a single day at least 25 editors were prohibited from posting opinions on Weibo, and the Weibo accounts of at least five Southern Weekend reporters were deleted. These numbers continue to go up rapidly.
But the search engines were not able to block the infuriated journalists. As the accounts of Southern Weekend reporters went dead, journalists and anchorpersons from the Southern Metropolis Daily, Caijing Magazine, Jiangsu Satellite TV (JSTV) and China Central Television (CCTV) followed suit speaking out.
Overnight, the Sina Weibo star bloggers who usually lightheartedly compete for fan attention no longer cared about their massive fan bases, taking over where other bloggers had been silenced.
Tan Weishan, deputy chief of the video channel of the Southern Metropolis Daily, states on his verified real-name Weibo account: "Why have we always remained silent? Because this is an era in which a single phone call can take away your job, because you still need to support your family, put a roof over their heads and live a simple life, because resistance on your part could implicate colleagues above and below you, and even cause the closure of the entire newspaper... Today we stand out to say a few words because we cannot stand it any longer, because if one falls, the others will be in danger too, because every media worker has a sword hanging over their head, because we know that those who pursue justice and freedom are not alone." The Southern Weekend's official Weibo account published the first open letter in the afternoon of Jan. 3: Under the headline "An Explanation of the Southern Weekend 2013 New Year's Edition Publication Incident," the letter stated that the revisions "were made as frontline editors were on leave at home and completely left in the dark about the situation." Pointing out five places in the article that had been altered, it urged a thorough investigation of the entire affair.
The open letter was quickly deleted after its posting, but it kept spreading on the Internet, as Internet users forwarded it.
After two days, on Jan. 5, the official Weibo account of the Southern Weekend economic news desk issued a second open letter addressed "to our readers and all those who care about Southern Weekend." "Two days ago we released an open letter which called for a thorough investigation of the incident. Now that two days have passed, the facts have not become clearer, yet more and more people who call for the truth are silenced… Thank you all! Because of you, we are still standing." On the same Weibo account, it was also claimed that "according to incomplete statistics, the editorial department of Southern Weekend saw a total of 1,034 articles revised or withdrawn in 2012."
In close succession former Southern Weekend employees, interns and readers posted signed open letters declaring their support for the newspaper, protesting against censorship and calling for Tuo's dismissal. As of Jan. 7, more than 5,000 people had already added their names to the signature campaign in support of Southern Weekend.
On the other hand, official suppression of the blog storm quickly escalated. On Jan. 7 Southern Weekend's official Weibo account was taken over by authorities. The newspaper's current reporters and editors collectively signed a statement declaring that they had nothing to do with the government-controlled Weibo account. At the same time they distanced themselves from those inside the newspaper company who were responsible for going along with the work of the Propaganda Department.
As momentum is building for a strike, the storm triggered by the censorship incident is bound to break loose very soon.
Given that China's longstanding, sophisticated censorship system has been perfected to the point where every organization, process, product and individual in the media industry is tightly controlled, Southern Weekend's fate of being "castrated" is not a rare incident. Even Southern Weekend itself has more than once faced the situation where a front page story was suddenly withdrawn so that the paper could only react by purposely leaving a blank space on the page. Clearly, the New Year's Greeting incident this time is not the mistake of one single bad official, but the inevitable result of systematic, structural censorship. Likewise, the fierce protests from Chinese media workers in connection with this incident are not directed at Tuo alone, but are an explosion of anger over the newspaper's longtime suffering from censorship.
Shen Changwen, the former editor-in-chief of Reading magazine, once said that China's intellectuals are a bunch of people who "protest on their knees." In February 2006 when Freezing Point, a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily, was temporarily shut down by authorities, its deputy editor-in-chief at the time Lu Yuegang revealed the inside story in angry protest. He said that he was no longer "willing to protest on my knees, but instead will protest with a bowed waist."
In 2013 the Southern Weekend incident again enraged reporters and editors who regard the pursuit of freedom as their job. From protesting on their knees to protesting while bending at the waist… Will the Chinese media now be able to stand up, lock their knees and straighten their backs, to fight for the freedom of speech that they ought to have enjoyed in the first place, the freedom of speech that is clearly spelled out in the Constitution?
Annie Jieping Zhang is currently the managing editor of iSunAffairs Weekly, based in Hong Kong.
Translation from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
The above article is featured in the new CommonWealth Magazine website, "Independent Opinion@CommonWealth Magazine" (http://opinion.cw.com.tw). The goal of this Chinese-language website is to present independent voices from Taiwan and the greater Chinese-speaking world, across the broadest spectrum of age, expertise, group identity and vantage point.