China media row dims reform hopes
Rare protests over newspaper censorship have ended
Action by China's leaders to contain a row that saw rare protests against censorship shows there is no consensus for immediate change, analysts say, despite rising calls for press freedom and other reforms.
Since China's president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, was installed as the new Communist chief in November, authorities have sounded themes of better serving the people, respecting rights and clamping down on corruption.
But the way the government handled the rare public dispute – a tangible early test for Xi – suggested radical change is some way off.
The row flared after the liberal Southern Weekly newspaper, based in Guangdong province, had an editorial urging greater protection for rights replaced with one praising the ruling party.
Angered by what they saw as heavy-handed, old-style censorship, demonstrators took to the streets with others speaking out in China's increasingly vocal online community.
A deal between staff and officials, reportedly on the basis that the paper would not face direct interference in content before publication, resulted in the Southern Weekly coming out on Thursday as scheduled and police removing demonstrators from the scene.
Reports said Hu Chunhua, the top communist official in Guangdong province and a rising star in the party, had stepped in to mediate.
David Goodman, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney, saw the accommodation of protests and the quiet defusing of the situation as signs that leaders themselves were divided over how much leeway to allow.
"People don't normally go around protesting in China like that without some level of high-level support," he said.
"Both camps will have instructed their people who were at the front line in the situation to back off," he said. "There are people who don't want change and people who do want change."
Such challenges to the government were likely to continue, said Willy Lam, a politics expert at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"I think people are not so naive to believe that Xi Jinping is really serious about abiding by the constitution and so forth because that would mean freedom of expression," he said.
"But I think they want this to be a challenge to Xi Jinping because he has in a high-profile manner committed himself to respecting and abiding by the constitution."
During the row China's major web portals reprinted a hard-line official editorial critical of the Southern Weekly but distanced themselves from the content, while the publisher of the Beijing News reportedly threatened to quit.
Lam said the display of press solidarity, buttressed by a show of force on China's Twitter-like weibos, indicated such challenges would arise again.
"First of all there is a nationwide community of journalists who are willing and brave enough to offer support to each other.
"And secondly there is this potent weapon of Weibo which enables public intellectuals [and] legal scholars to beat the censorship," Lam said.
Social media are subject to strict controls in China, with critical posts rapidly deleted and controversial search terms often blocked, but recently official media have also praised them for exposing wrongdoing.
Vague promises of reform in various fields have been repeatedly sounded recently.
This week reports said China would stop using its widely criticized "re-education" labor camps, and while they were quickly deleted, state media said there would be unspecified reforms to the system.
Changes would also be made to residency permits that leave around 250 million people living as second-class citizens, and other areas the state news agency Xinhua described as "exactly the ones over which Chinese people have expressed most concern" – in an acknowledgement of popular discontent.
Lam said the way the Southern Weekly dispute ended "shows that [Xi] is only interested in economic reform, but regarding political reform including policy towards the media, he is no different from [predecessors] Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin".
But Doug Young, a journalism professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, saw the official response, with its promise of less interference, as promising.
He said authorities had defused the crisis in a savvier manner, avoiding a backlash and signaling a more pragmatic approach.
This "goes hand in hand with the fact that Xi and this new generation generally want to see more openness in the media", Young said.
"They want to see the media become more of a social-type watchdog and not just a propaganda tool for the Communist Party." AFP
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