China newspaper journalists stage rare strike


The BBC's Martin Patience said readers had been leaving flowers at the paper's offices in support

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Journalists at a major Chinese paper, Southern Weekly, have gone on strike in a rare protest against censorship.

The row was sparked last week when the paper's New Year message calling for reform was changed by propaganda officials.

Staff wrote two letters calling for the provincial propaganda chief to step down. Another row then erupted over control of the paper's microblog.

Hundreds of supporters of the paper gathered outside its office on Monday.

Some carried banners that read: "We want press freedom, constitutionalism and democracy".

"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, one of the protesters, told Reuters news agency.

Police were at the scene but "security wasn't tight", a former journalist of the Southern Media Group told BBC Chinese.


If the Southern Weekly strike continues for any length of time, this scandal will create a major headache for China's new leader, Xi Jinping. Since he took the reins of power in Beijing, Mr Xi has generated kudos for his seemingly laid-back, open style of leadership. But the Southern Weekly uproar will force him to reveal his hand when it comes to censorship.

Will he support Tuo Zhen, the zealous propaganda chief who ignited the fracas at Southern Weekly by censoring its editorial message? The highly-popular newspaper has experienced run-ins with government censors in the past, but its stellar reputation has also allowed it to publish hard-hitting reports on a wide range of sensitive topics, from working conditions at Foxconn factories to the spread of HIV in China's rural areas.

Other major Chinese media outlets have been forced to toe the government line in recent years, leaving Southern Weekly unrivalled in its pursuit of top-level investigative journalism. If Mr Xi allows Southern Weekly's special status to be wiped away, he risks tarnishing his carefully cultivated reputation as a humble man of the people.

"They tried to ask those holding placards to show their ID cards," he said, adding that many had refused although "there wasn't much argument".

People were continuing to arrive by mid-afternoon when he left the scene, he added.

Southern Weekly is perhaps the country's most respected newspaper, known for its hard-hitting investigations and for testing the limits of freedom of speech, says the BBC's Martin Patience in Beijing.

Chinese media are supervised by so-called propaganda departments that often change content to align it with party thinking.


It is thought that this is the first time that there has been a direct showdown between newspaper staff and party officials, correspondents say.

The row erupted after a New Year message which had called for guaranteed constitutional rights was changed by censors into a piece that praised the Communist Party.

In response, the newspaper's journalists called for the Guangdong propaganda chief's resignation, accusing him of being "dictatorial" in an era of "growing openness".

In two open letters 35 prominent former staff and 50 interns at the paper demanded Tuo Zhen step down, saying the move amounted to "crude" interference.

On Sunday night, a message on the newspaper's official microblog denied the editorial was changed because of censorship, saying the "online rumours were false".

The microblog updates, said to have been issued by senior editors, sparked the strike among members of the editorial team who disagreed with the move, reports say.

Almost 100 editorial staff members have gone on strike, saying the newspaper is under pressure from authorities.

Key figures

  • Southern Weekly - weekly paper with 1.6m circulation, based in southern province of Guangdong. Seen as influential and daring, but like all China's media, it answers to the ruling Communist Party.
  • Tuo Zhen - former economics journalist who took over as Guangdong propaganda chief in 2012, prompting increasing criticism of his heavy-handed measures
  • Huang Can, Southern Weekly's acting editor in chief
  • Hu Chunhua - newly appointed Communist Party chief of Guangdong province, and touted as a future leader of China. Will be tasked with resolving the stand-off.
  • Among those signing open letters opposing Tuo Zhen's actions are prominent legal scholar He Weifang, outspoken economist Mao Yushi and prominent blogger Li Chengpeng

"Not since the time of reform and opening up and the founding of China has there been someone like Tuo Zhen," Yan Lieshan, a retired Southern Weekly editor, also told Reuters.

Searches for "Southern Weekly" on the Twitter-like weibo are being blocked, reports editor Zhuang Chen, who adds there is huge public interest in the story.

Posts deemed to contain sensitive words such as the name of the paper or Tuo Zhen are being actively deleted.

In one post on Monday, swiftly removed, a former Southern Weekly reporter asked current editor-in-chief Huang Can: "If the newspaper no longer exists, where shall we pursue our ideals?

"Naive as I was, I firmly believed that it's always better to dance with shackles than to have no right to dance."

Some influential Chinese journalists have had their social media accounts deleted in recent weeks, Agence-France Presse news agency adds.

When asked about the Southern Weekly issue at a regular press briefing last week, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said that there is "no so-called news censorship in China".

How the case is handled is seen as a key test for Chinese officials, installed just two months ago in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, observers say.

In an editorial on Friday referring to the row, the state-run newspaper Global Times said: "The reality is that old media regulatory policies cannot go on as they are now. The society is progressing, and the management should evolve."

However it also pointed out that "no matter how the Chinese media is regulated, they will never become the same as their Western counterparts".

"The only way that fits the development of Chinese media is one that can suit the country's development path," it said.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    As China develops and the middle class gets stronger, calls for more freedoms are inevitable. When will it be a fully-fledged democracy? 10-15 years I reckon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Just think . . . no more news . . .we could get rid of the BBC . . we would all be better off . . no more £450,000 payoffs to fat-cat senior BBC executives . . . it might spell the end of a growth industry . . . but the world would be a happier (and perhaps a safer) place . . . no more copycat violence, or riots or mass murders.
    Censorship is necessary - long live PRC and press censorship.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    29 Minutes ago

    Wow. Just imagine UK journalists going on strike over censorship. Fortunately we have the internet.

    So does China, but it's heavily controlled. Just be thankful for free speech and the ability to criticize our leaders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    I'ts been said that the greatest sin a Chinese government can commit is to lose control. Why? because whenever it's happened in the past millions have died.
    Which do we prefer: a stable society, however oppressive; or democracy, however murderous in reality?

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    It will be interesting to see how the Communist Party maintains it's tenuous grip on power in the face of growing calls for press freedom. Without propaganda the CPC will find it increasingly difficult to maintain control over an increasingly well educated and politically active populace.

    I can easily see the younger generation calling for change within the next decade or possibly two.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    The freedom of the press has ramifications the political system in general

    With more freedom of information there may be less favourable views on how the political system works for the ordinary citizen.

    China has a lot of parallells with 19th Europe and may experience something similar with workers demanding fairness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Mao is still alive in the mindset of the Chinese leaders, censorship will never change. At face value the country appears quite forward thinking as its wealth and world power increases. A regime which hid the starvation of 30 million plus can certainly keep its journalists under strict censorship rules

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    propaganda bureaus for spoon feeds us news so we don't get irritated
    censorship bureaus blocks vanities from out-side world so we don't get corrupted
    Maintain Stability bureaus persecutes us so we don't have to be bothered by the complication of fundamental rights
    Maintain Flourish bureaus shoves feces down our throats so we may be eventually spared from the torment of digestion .

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    I really hope China just develops at its own pace into something like the success stories its neighbours, Japan and Korea, have become.

    If it tries to remain a one-party state, and kleptocracy, this will not happen.

    Also, China needs to sort out its issues with Japan and Taiwan, to avoid instability in the area.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Wow. Just imagine UK journalists going on strike over censorship. Fortunately we have the internet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    guess there's going to be a few less journalists in China soon

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Meanwhile. British journalists are sat outside nightclubs and houses waiting to take pictures of celebrities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    We have separate judicial (ppls who interpret the law) legislative (ppls who make the law) and different people who enforce the law

    We also have an independent anti corruption body (separate from the govt and the media).

    Make no mistake, people here probably would be corrupt if they were given the chance, thats what separation of powers are for.

    I wonder which is more stable?

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    The voice of people should be the real path of development. The current situation of censorship in China is not sustainable way to run a country; fire could not be contained by paper. The value of free media and free speech are priceless, it is real bottom – up self- monitoring system! Please don’t just block it when it is not in your way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    @66 joke..We change governments every few years and we're more stable than China is at the present, by a long shot.

    Over here citizens have a voice, if the majority of us don't like it, then whats the point of implementing it? Per capita we have less protests, cleaner environment and a decent economy.

    It's not perfect, but it's the best out there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    What a surprise I can view this article in China,which means chinese can get a touch to truth by lerning English,

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    It is a encouraging start. With millions of people on the internet and mobile phones, no censorship is sufficient to curb all the voices. People just need to try. There is a old Chinese saying "there may be policies from top, but there are always ways to get around".

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    The China government know his wrongdoings and correct them after 80s. What it dose now is just to maintain the so called satibility of the society.Meritocracy prevails in China where people do his own job and only leaders care politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Realworld ex. I don't want to bring out racial comparisons but I thought it would be appropriate because I wanted to make a comparison with the Arab Spring.

    Rightly or wrongly, those people will stand up for each other. When one gets intimidated they have people willing to help out.

    Seen the opposite for the Chinese, when one gets intimidated, the others bail,

    This was in a democratic country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    @59 RobertoB...true that. We can only hope, but I might have to agree with the person you replied just doesn't look promising.

    I live in a democratic country and even here, I don't think they stand up for themselves as much as other people. Here when theyre hard done by here many won't stand up - theyre a bit non-confrontationalist.


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