The Communist Party chief of Guangdong Province, which has been the site of protests about press freedom in China over the last week, personally stepped in to mediate a dispute between journalists and propaganda authorities recently, reaching a compromise with angered media workers.
Hu Chunhua, the Party secretary of Guangdong, helped broker a deal that would see journalists at the influential Southern Weekly newspaper end a strike they are on, and exempt them from punishment, according to Reuters.
Many of the staff at the paper had refused to return to work after the Guangdong propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, used their newspaper for pro-Party propaganda on New Year’s Day, going over the heads of editors at the paper to personally rewrite an editorial. The incident infuriated staff at the newspaper.
Since that incident, ordinary Chinese have been protesting outside the newspaper’s headquarters and leaving flowers. Propaganda authorities have also struck back, and the incident taken as a whole has revealed different views in the regime about how to handle questions of media freedom, and how to respond to frustration from journalists at Party meddling.
In response to the protests by Southern Weekly journalists, propaganda officials forcefully published an editorial by Global Times, a nationalistic state mouthpiece, in a range of newspapers on Jan. 7. They met with staunch resistance at some publications. The editorial claimed that Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief of Guangdong, had nothing to do with the New Year’s editorial rewrite, and that “hostile foreign forces” were somehow involved.
The Propaganda Department then sent a notice forbidding reporters from making online statements supportive of Southern Weekly.
The views in Party Central about how to deal with this incident may not have been unanimous, however. An editorial by People’s Daily, also on Jan. 7, urged propaganda officials in China to “walk precisely to the beat of the central government and adapt to the rhythm of modern times.” It published another editorial on Jan. 8, quoting Party head Xi Jinping saying, “Only by continuously encouraging bold experiment and breakthrough can reform be pushed forward and deepened continuously.”
This was interpreted by some to mean that a more moderate approach to media control should be adopted.
Protesters continued to gather outside the Southern Weekly building while those negotiations were taking place. On Jan. 8 a score of Maoists arrived, holding banners and cursing supporters of the media in its dispute with the regime.
“Almost no one there supported them,” according to Guangzhou resident Yu Gong, speaking to the independent Sound of Hope radio.
Police did not try to shut down the protests, as they usually do.
The differing views in the regime about the manner in which disputes between propaganda authorities and the press should be handled was also on display in the Southern Weekly incident.
In Guangdong, the Party chief Hu Chunhua personally stepped in to broker a deal. A source also told Reuters that Tuo Zhen, whose insertion of heavy-handed propaganda into the newspaper led to the initial contretemps, may later be removed from his post because of how he handled the incident.
Wu Jiaxiang, a Beijing political scholar who used to be a top advisor to ousted Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang, commented that the two approaches arose because of what he called the “two power centers” in the regime.
The People’s Daily is Xi Jinping’s direct mouthpiece, he said, whereas Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee, and propaganda chief Liu Qibao, were able to commandeer the press and propaganda officials to get out a message that “sang a complete opposite tune” to that of Xi. Wu spoke to the Hong Kong-based Apple Daily.
Chris Wu, editor-in-chief of China Affairs, a website focused on Chinese politics run from the United States, warned that there may still be punishment awaiting those that defied the communist authorities too openly.
“After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, many people were punished. Some people were forced out of the country, some were persecuted and died, and many were sent to prison,” Wu said.Political commentator Lan Shu, speaking to Sound of Hope radio, said that even if Tuo Zhen was removed, “nothing will have changed with regard to the Party’s control over the media.” He added: “There is still no freedom of the press, and media can’t speak up for the people.”
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