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Amid Newspaper Standoff, China Keeps Tight Grip On Media

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In China, one struggle over censorship has been defused — for the moment, at least.

Journalists at one of the country's boldest newspapers have published a new issue after a weeklong standoff that started when censors replaced a New Year's editorial. Now the week's events are being parsed for signals about the direction of China's new Communist leadership.

The demands for free speech have spilled onto China's streets — something that has rarely happened since the Tiananmen protests of 1989. As Southern Weekly journalists in Guangzhou engaged in silent battle with officials inside their building, their advocates outside were louder.

This shows the popular demand for civil rights, says Zhang Hong, deputy editor of the Economic Observer in Beijing; he believes the dangers of silence now outweigh the risks of speaking out.

"If I am going to live in this country for the coming years, I have my daughter who will live here for coming decades — if we don't speak out, I cannot imagine what kind of a world it will be," Zhang says. "So it's risky, yes or no?"

Protests And Detentions

For days, messages supporting the journalists seemed everywhere: celebrities voicing their solidarity on China's version of Twitter; hidden acrostics on major websites; another paper printing a paean to porridge, a word that in Chinese sounds the same as Southern Weekly. It seemed to be a window of opportunity; then, it closed.

Outside Southern Weekly's headquarters in Guangzhou, a protester shouts that he's being kidnapped as he's bundled into a van by plainclothes police. Inside the building, journalists have struck an uneasy truce with censors. Details of the truce aren't known, but the paper is back on newsstands — without its political section.

The message of the handling of this week's events, Zhang says, is clear.

"From this incident, we can see that the authorities have no intention to loosen their control on the media. They are not going to do what the people are looking forward to — they are not going to put the political reform on their agenda," he says.

Now, the machinery of state repression has swung into action. More than a dozen people were detained at the protests, some accused of illegal assembly. At least three celebrities say they've been called in by state security and warned off tweeting on the topic.

And in Hangzhou, 800 miles away from the protests, seven people were detained for holding a meeting to discuss free speech. One of them, veteran activist Lu Gengsong, has been warned that he could be charged with inciting subversion.

"After the new leadership came in, we thought Communist Party control might be more relaxed," he says. "We were holding an event to support Southern Weekly. We never imagined it would turn into such a big deal and we'd be detained."

A newspaper in Beijing from the same group as Southern Weekly, the Beijing News, has also clashed with propaganda authorities over the issue — specifically, the order to print an editorial supporting restrictions on press freedom. In the ensuing tussle, Beijing News publisher Dai Zigeng offered his resignation, but it isn't clear whether it was accepted.

Party Reform Vs. Political Reform

Hopes had been high after a southern tour by China's new Communist leader, Xi Jinping. For Chinese people, the destination is symbolic, as the place where China's economic reforms began.

For his part, Xi has launched a high-profile attack on official extravagance, signaling limited reform, according to Russell Leigh Moses of The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies.

"We're already looking at efforts at party reform. 'Political reform' seems to imply something larger, something deeper, something more extensive. We're not at that point now," he says. "Party reform is on the table — not political reform that changes the system, per se."

Others disagree. Huang Weiding, a retired publisher who has been consulted by the new leadership on ways to fight corruption, says that in the Chinese context, party reform is political reform. The problem is how to change fast enough.

"In normal circumstances, reform is just tinkering with the system. You can't just replace the system — that would be revolution," he says. "Sometimes people lack patience. Considering the size of the country and population, there has to be a process to effect change."

This week's collision between new media and old-school censorship shows how fast people's demands are changing. The danger facing China's new leaders is whether they can move quickly enough to fulfill those demands. Otherwise, more such clashes may loom.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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