Censorship Fears Grow in China After Government Forces Newspaper to Run Editorial

2012-04 BIZ China Illustration H IPAD

The dominance of western brands in China has long been a sore spot for the country's leaders. Chinese authorities have begun to take greater notice -- and umbrage.

Following the article in the "Beijing News" that attacked a censor-defying daily, a critic says propaganda chiefs have given the country's new leader “a big slap in the face.”

HONG KONG – The reformist credentials of China’s new leadership have been thrown into doubt as a Beijing newspaper was forced by propaganda officials to publish a government-sanctioned opinion piece attacking a liberal-leaning publication in Southern China.

Political commentators describe this move as contradicting the recent pledges from Xi Jinping, who has spoken publicly about the need of transparent and responsible governance in China since he succeeded Hu Jintao as the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary in November.

The publisher and editor-in-chief of the Beijing News have reportedly offered their resignation after they were coerced by Yan Liqiang, a deputy head of the Chinese capital’s propaganda office, into running an editorial from the Global Times, a government mouthpiece.

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The piece is critical of Southern Weekend, the Guangzhou newspaper that found itself at the center of a censorship battle with authorities this week when its journalists went on strike after officials altered a reform-demanding New Year’s Day editorial into a pro-government article.

A truce was reached when top-ranking government officials backtracked and promised to remove the provincial propaganda chief reportedly responsible for the intervention. That decision was reached after protesters took to the streets to voice their anger about press censorship, and bloggers – including A-list actors – expressed their discontent on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

No such happy ending was forthcoming at the Beijing News, however, as journalists failed to stop the pro-government piece – even if only in a shortened version – from going into the Wednesday edition of the newspaper and onto its web site. The editorial staff highlighted their defiance, however, by running an article on the same day praising the fiery warmth of “congee [rice porridge] from the south” – a veiled reference to the audacity of Southern Weekend.

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The censorship episodes have come into sharp focus in China, as they seem to contradict the recent pledges made by the country’s newly-appointed leader, Xi Jinping, now the head of the ruling Communist Party, about the development of a more transparent government. His promises were already thrown into question last month, when the authorities announced new regulations requiring Internet users to register under their real names to access the Web, a move that might deter whistleblowers from uploading exposes about corruption and government failures.

The heavy-handed clampdown on Beijing News illustrates how the victory achieved by Southern Weekend journalists and their supporters against official censors is “limited,” said Cheng Yizhong, the founder and former editor of Southern Metropolis Daily, a sister publication of Southern Weekend.

“The Weekend staff might have achieved their aims of challenging official intervention in their work, but you can see [from the Beijing News episode] that the authorities have no plans to improve or reform the fundamentals,” Cheng told The Hollywood Reporter. “They have just shaped the Southern Weekend row as an official’s individual mishandling of the press."

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While there have been previous incidents in which decisions undertaken by over-zealous provincial officials were eventually undone through the intervention of the central authorities, Cheng said he is not sure whether the recent clampdowns of liberal media outlets were green-lit by leaders in Beijing.

“I don’t know whether [Xi] is just making empty promises,” continued Cheng, who now works as CEO of the Hong Kong-based TV network SunTV. “But the propaganda departments are not doing these things independently, so the way they deal with things is not just their problem. In any case, they have really given Xi, with his new policies, a big slap in the face."