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UNDER WATCH

What did the Guangdong censors hope to achieve by rewriting an article already approved by them? Did they think that readers of Guangzhou’s well-known Southern Weekly would turn into rebellious activists by reading an article that said authorities should adhere to the Constitution?

Well, their worst nightmares have come true. Not only are journalists and intellectuals up in arms about the way the Propaganda Office took over the role of editor of a prestigious publication, but the spark has spread to a very dangerous section. Across the country, university students, including media students, have openly supported the staff of the Southern Weekly who struck work in protest, while in Guangzhou, high-school students even joined demonstrators outside the paper’s office. Popular actresses have quoted Solzhenitsyn in support; businessmen and pop stars have spoken out. The internet is on fire with vicious references to the head of Guangdong’s Propaganda Office, Tuo Zhen. However desperately the censors try to block references to anything connected to the incident — even the words, ‘Constitutional government’, have been censored — netizens are finding newer ways to break the ban.

The authorities have been forced to eat humble pie. Not only was the original article on the internet for some time, they’ve had to promise that no action will be taken against those who struck work, and that the weekly will not be subject to pre-censorship. However, they have refused to sack Tuo Zhen, described in a letter by academics as “wherever he goes, 10,000 horses stand mute’’. Interestingly, Tuo started his career 30 years ago as a crusading journalist who wrote about the poor.

Long shadow

It was not censorship that proved the last straw for the Southern Weekly, but the way it was exercised. For the first time in its history, every feature of the New Year issue — which is eagerly awaited by readers — had to be sent to the censors, and in every one of them, changes were made. The front-page photograph, taken from Chinese history, was criticized as being liable to misinterpretation. An aircraft carrier was suggested as a substitute. Even as the issue was being put to bed, changes were being directed by the Propaganda Office through the editor-in-chief, who is always a party member.

The last straw, however, was the change made after the issue had been sent off and everyone had gone home. The editor-in-chief and his deputy were summoned to the Propaganda Office, and asked to change the title of the issue and the New Year’s Greeting (for the fourth time). An introduction was inserted on the front page. In the final version of the Greeting, the word, ‘Constitutionalism’, had disappeared, and a sentence added straight from an official document of the recent National Party Congress.

Staffers insisted on an in-house inquiry. But after it was agreed upon, the journalist who handled the magazine’s blog was forced to divulge the password. Soon, an announcement came up on the blog that the changes had been carried out by a staffer, and that the internet rumours were untrue. That final duplicity provoked the strike.

The height of censorship was yet to come. The official The Global Times first carried an ambivalent piece on the incident. This was swiftly followed by a strident piece declaring that “free media” simply could not exist in China. All newspapers were directed to carry this. The editor of Beijing News refused, and was threatened with the dissolution of the paper. Finally, the piece was carried as the ‘Global Times’ view’. On another page, a paean was published to “hot porridge from the South’’, a play on the words Southern Weekly.