Dai Zigeng, the publisher of the Beijing News, resigned last night after state censors forced the paper to publish an editorial in today’s edition that is critical of Southern Weekend, a Guangdong newspaper where protests over censorship erupted last week.
Beijing News and Southern Weekend (yesterday we called it Southern Weekly, an alternative translation) are owned by the same media group, and both have an independent streak. Last night Dai Zigeng and state propaganda officials argued over the content of a pro-censorship editorial written by the Communist Party paper Global Times (“Southern Weekend’s ‘Message to Readers’ Is Food for Thought Indeed”), which Dai refused to publish. The censorship office stood firm. A trimmed version of the editorial eventually ran in the back pages of the paper. Dai resigned. And the staff of the Beijing News protested en masse online.
Meanwhile, the Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chunhua, recognized as liberal-leaning and a rising star in the Party, intervened in the Southern Weekend censorship case, and things have quieted down: reporters there are no longer threatening to go on strike.
But, as Evan Osnos writes for the New Yorker, the Communist Party is having an increasingly difficult time maintaining control over the media in China:
. . . [M]ost Chinese press censorship is subtle; there is usually no man with a red pen striking paragraphs in the newsroom. Instead, it’s up to editors to self-censor or face the possible consequences (unemployment, arrest, etc.), an arrangement that not only allows the government to adjust the boundaries at will, depending on its needs, but also allows journalists to feel that they aren’t enacting Orwell’s vision of 1984. And, for the better part of sixty years, it has worked.
But the balance is getting harder to maintain. In his first two months in office, Xi Jinping has made a highly orchestrated effort to show that he is a more modern figure than his predecessors. He has tried to show that he is down to earth by doing away with some of the Party extravagances, motorcades, and pomp. [ . . . ]
And therein lies a problem. For the journalists at Southern Weekend—and, crucially, the widening circle of ordinary middle-class Chinese who are taking an interest in them, thanks to people like Yao Chen—that bargain is no good. They are not willing to play along with the idea that the President’s gestures of reform morally counterbalance the ham-fisted daily humiliation of censorship.
The world, and many Chinese, are watching this battle slowly unfold with intense interest. The Communist Party’s new leaders have much to lose if they let this get out of hand. Like Hu Chunhua did in Guangdong, they will likely take a softer line to avoid protests spreading across the country. But the facts remain that some Chinese newspapers are starting to push the boundaries of acceptable journalism, censoring the press is becoming more difficult, and Party officials aren’t sure how to react.