Censorship incident tests leadership

Jan. 10, 2013 at 1:42 AM
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BEIJING, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- The events set off by the anti-censorship protest by the staff of a Chinese newspaper may force China's new leaders toward political reforms, says an expert.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said Chinese Communist Party authorities seem to have temporarily defused the mini-crisis brought on by the protest against the "ham-fisted censorship" at the Southern Weekly in Guangdong province.

Under a deal reached Wednesday to settle the censorship protest, whose details were not disclosed, authorities reportedly had allowed the highly popular Southern Weekend (also called Southern Weekly) to publish Thursday.

In return, journalists at the newspaper may have agreed not to publicly air their grievances about Tuo Zhen, propaganda head for Guangdong province, who had been accused of censorship. The journalists had threatened to strike over a New Year's editorial on political reform that was allegedly censored and rewritten by a local propaganda official.

The incident comes as the Chinese Communist party made its leadership transition at its congress last November, with the reform-minded Xi Jinping taking the helm, along with the six members of the powerful Politburo Standing committee.

Professor Pei wrote provincial party official have promised to relax some of the recently imposed censorship measures such as prior approval of reporting topics and examination of copy before publication and in return, the journalists would end their walkout.

"On the surface, this outcome may not seem worth celebrating," Pei wrote. "After all, the party did not meet a key demand of the protesting newspapermen: sacking the local propaganda chief who had allegedly eviscerated the newspaper's New Year editorial calling for constitutional rule in China."

Pei also warned local officials, despite the deal, may likely retaliate against the newspaper's editorial once the incident loses media spotlight.

"Nevertheless, the protest over censorship at Southern Weekly and the Party's modest concessions constitute an important development" since Xi became the new leader.

"The incident shows the promise of glasnost from below as China's society becomes more defiant and willing to challenge the Party's authority. But this means if the newly installed leaders want to maintain any credibility, they will soon be forced to take a stand on the most divisive and dangerous issue in China -- political reform," Pei wrote.

The professor noted the Southern Weekend action was not isolated as last month, 38 prominent academics, writers and journalists wrote an open letter to the Communist party calling for democratization and constitutional rule.

"What was even more heartening about the incident at Southern Weekly was that the defiant journalists immediately drew support from a broad, albeit informal, alliance of elites," Pei said.

"The battle at Southern Weekly is unlikely to be the last attempt by China's progressive forces to push for more political change and test Mr. Xi's commitment to reform. The new leadership's soft handling of these three separate incidents will probably encourage more people to come forward and press their demands."

Pei warned that Xi, meantime, is likely to find his real enemy not among those calling for greater openness and freedom in China, but within his small circle of colleagues.

"He must be aware that his political 'Achilles' heel' will be his perceived weakness in handling overt challenges to the party's rule, such as this week's anti-censorship protest. In the past, conservatives forced out top leaders who failed to pass the litmus test on their willingness to suppress pro-democracy forces."

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