Southern Weekly Incident: Root, Failure, and Future

By Mo Zhixu Created: January 15, 2013 Last Updated: January 20, 2013
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Demonstrators display banners and posters to support journalists from the Southern Weekly newspaper near the company’s offices in Guangzhou in southern China’s Guangdong Province on Jan. 8, 2013. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrators display banners and posters to support journalists from the Southern Weekly newspaper near the company’s offices in Guangzhou in southern China’s Guangdong Province on Jan. 8, 2013. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: In a New Year’s edition, the newspaper Southern Weekly, based in southern China’s Guangdong Province, intended to publish an editorial calling for the rule of law in China in accordance with a constitution. The original editorial never made it to print, as it was rewritten by a Party official. This article is part of the ongoing assessment in and out of China of this censorship and the reaction to it. 

China does not have private media. Most of China’s media groups are subordinates of the Chinese Communist Party committees on different levels. 

The Party’s newspapers often look ugly, and their content is unappealing if not repulsive, without any market potential. They have always depended on forced subscriptions and state treasury subsidies for subsistence. 

As China “reformed,” the Party’s media organizations established and published subsidiary media outlets that answered market demand and, at the same time, infused blood back into their parent papers. 

The system has embraced such a model because it not only alleviates the financial burden of the state in supporting large media organizations, but it also ensures that these organizations will benefit from rapid economic growth without the Party losing control over mass communication.

In a very real sense, commercialized media outlets (CMOs) in China, such as Southern Weekly, serve the Party-controlled news organizations as money trees—the latest incarnation of the ancient Chinese myth of a tree that brings wealth to its owners.

Indeed, the Party has kept a tight leash on the CMOs due to the singular significance of the press. Generally, parent newspapers as gatekeepers appoint leadership positions of these CMOs. 

On top of that, the Party’s propaganda department makes direct intervention regarding the content, as well as personnel matters, through phone calls, post-publication reviews, and other forms of supervision.

However, a market-based operation has its own laws. Even though structurally still part of the system, journalists at CMOs have grown to have their own value judgments and interests, as they are immersed in the market and have become financially independent. It is inevitable that they should grow increasingly at odds with management by the Party’s propaganda organs.

The propaganda department’s invasive grip over the publication hurts the market interest of these CMOs, and offends the professional dignity of journalists at CMOs. Resentment runs deep and wide, but it has been largely suppressed for fear of the Party’s wrath because after all, a CMO owes its very existence to the Party and can be shut down at anytime.

Rebellion at Southern Weekly

Southern Weekly is one of the earliest CMOs in China, thanks to its geographic advantage in southern China’s Guangdong Province, the frontline of China’s economic “reform and opening-up.” Peaking around the turn of century and widely regarded as a harbinger of freedom and reform, it has been cherished by both liberals outside the system and reformers inside the system. 

As a result, Southern Weekly has gained huge commercial success over the years (according to the paper’s website, it currently enjoys a distribution of over 1.7 million copies, prints in 19 cities, and grows at 15 percent annually).

Southern Weekly has a clear liberal leaning that can be summed up as follows: recognition of the importance of a market economy, globalization, and the rule of law; warmth toward individual rights, universal values, and political reform. 

For the first time in the last 24 years, we saw banners and slogans calling for “freedom of expression.”

There is nothing extraordinary about such a stand, it should be said, and it does not even exceed the Party’s official narrative, let alone step over “red” boundaries. There was a time when this narrative was promoted by the Party itself to respond to the demands of new social classes so that the system could extend its life by attuning itself to societal changes.

For example, as China develops rapidly, the emergent social groups are making more demands that their rights and interests be recognized. 

The combination of forces unleashed by the market, globalization, and the information revolution have given these new groups a certain level of resources and means to challenge the existing system. This is manifested more and more in efforts to defend rights and in struggles against injustice, and also in stronger and stronger online voices for change.

For its continuous advocacy for change, the Southern Media Group—of which Southern Weekly is a part—has come to be seen as a force alien to the stability-maintenance efforts of the system and must be reshuffled and suppressed. 

And Southern Weekly no doubt is a prime target, not to mention that, over the years, former Southern Weekly journalists have become the most sought-after journalists, and they have brought a certain mindset to new media outlets and online media platforms across China.

In “The Virus of Censorship,” published in the New Statesman last fall, Mr. Cheng Yizhong, former editor-in-chief of the Southern Metropolis Daily (a sister publication of Southern Weekly), wrote that censorship tightening and personnel reshuffling have gone on for several years already. The campaign climaxed in the parachuting in of Yang Jian, deputy propaganda chief of Guangdong Province, to be the Party secretary of the Southern Media Group prior to the Party’s 18th Congress. 

Apart from top leadership appointments, censorship measures that have been implemented include appointing censors to be members of editorial committees, planting followers and informers among journalists, pre-publication topic selection and content review, and so on. 

Since last spring when Tuo Zhen was appointed the Party’s propaganda chief in Guangdong in the spring of 2012, the pre-publication censorship at Southern Weekly has worsened significantly.

During last week’s row, Southern Weekly revealed that in 2012 alone, at least 1,034 of their stories were either killed, canceled, or rewritten by orders from the propaganda department. For a weekly that publishes on average 40–50 stories per issue, it means that half of its stories suffer the ax of censorship. The anger that must have been building up over time finally erupted around New Year’s 2013.


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