Protests over censorship at Southern Weekly newspaper gain some support. Significant?

Would you say those protests have some potential to change something in China?

Steve Tsang, Professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies & Director, China Policy Institute, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham

The Southern Weekly affair did come as a surprise, as it happened mainly because of a deputy Minister censor behaving particularly badly.  He went too far and thus triggered a reaction.  There is also an element of the journalist there trying to push the envelope and see if they can get away with a liberal interpretation of what new General Secretary Xi Jinping talks of constitutionalism.  The latter is to be expected.  Only a combination of the two could deliver the incident.

We have now seen how the top decided to handle this.  The strong and decisive response shows Xi’s true colours, and it is not different from his predecessors in a significant way/shade.  It does not matter if Tuo (the censor in Guangdong) were stupid or what, he is a deputy minister level cadre of the Propaganda Department and the Party was not going to move him side way under pressure, as doing so would signal the Party was willing to see the envelop being pushed.  This has now been stopped by the apparent compromise, which has ended the strike.  Whether the promises being made to Nanzhou staff will be kept for long is another issue.  Something to watch but there is no reason to be optimistic.

Suzanne Ogden, Professor, Department of Political Science, Northeastern University

Predicting what will happen in China is always risky. The protests are also happening in southern China as opposed to Beijing, so they could have a quite different dynamic as the national party and government leadership is in Beijing. We have always tended to focus on Beijing, but actually Guangdong province is one of the most dynamic and forward looking provinces in all of China, in part because of its location next door to Hong Kong. Further, Southern Weekly has for a long time been one of the boldest of all newspapers, and thus far its take on various topics and stories and its investigatory stories have been tolerated. As you can see by the news reports, SW’s journalists have been rather quiet since this happened. The real action is among the public, especially the Internet. Journalists and editors right now no doubt have in mind the steps back from freedom of the press as a result of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations and the subsequent crackdown on the press. The press felt it lost a great deal in 1989 and it must be worried that protests against recent censorship could backfire and result in even more censorship. The press may also be hoping that once Xi Jinping becomes president in March, if not before, that censorship may loosen one further notch. So the press right now may not want to jeopardize it. But the Chinese public is quite different, and things may get out of hand. Still, Chinese people are quite cautious and don’t want anything that would destabilize society and the economy. Any people anywhere would probably always prefer more freedom of the press, as long as there were not accompanying negative consequences. In China’s case, then, I think it will depend on how the public weighs the possibly negative (destabilizing) consequences of taking their anger to the streets versus the possibility that the censors will back down under public pressure.

Kerry BrownExecutive Director, China Studies Centre, University of Sydney

I think for Chinese journalists generally there is immense frustration, because on the one hand there is all this grand rhetoric from Xi and leaders around him about getting tough on corruption, and on the other nothing but impediments for one of the key groups who will be important in fighting this problem – journalists. They, after all, have been at the forefront of exposing many corrupt officials over the last decade. So this seems very contradictory, to clamp down in this heavy handed way on one of the most vocal liberal media in China, by imposing an propaganda chief who has used intervention in such a heavy handed way. I also imagine that like any professionals, journalists see the amazing work that publications like the New York Times and Bloomberg have done on the wealth of this leadership’s circle of friends and family and feel like they are kept away from the best stories because of this velvet prison and culture of invisible red lines. In this case, procedurally, having such heavy handed intervention has given them a legitimate target to go for, and at a time when they at least can get the ears of leaders in Beijing who are a bit more willing to compromise at the start of their time in power. At least this case will test out their commitment to not just say things but do something. We have to remember though that Liu Yunshan, the new propaganda chief, is a carbon copy of Li Changchun, his predecessor, so I can imagine that there won’t be much compromise without Xi sticking his neck out early on and saying there needs to be less contentious relations now between the media and the apparatchiks. I can’t see him making this sort of bold move so early on, so the likely outcome is some sort of cosy compromise for the time being and then subterrenean renegotiations over the ensuing months as this leadership get its feet under the table and start to establish what battles they are willing to fight, and which they’d best leave be.

Vincent Wei-cheng WangProfessor, Department of Political Science, University of Richmond

The Southern Weekly protest did catch many people by surprise.  However, such “spontaneous” protests (at least the police did not break up the protest) in contemporary China (e.g., 1987, 1989) often belie a split at the top — between the conservative forces and those that seek to open up the system a little bit.  How this case unravels could provide us with an early look into the general proclivity of the post-18th party congress leadership concerning the scope and pace of political reform.


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