Tensions are flaring between China's journalists and government officials after the Southern Weekend newspaper took a stand against government censorship last week. Recent protests against the nation's long-standing government involvement in the press launched what many are referring to as the Beijing News Incident.
The affair began when the New Year's issue of a Guangdong province newspaper, Southern Weekend, printed a piece by the local propaganda minister that ran without the knowledge of any of the editors. This was the final straw for several of the newspaper’s employees, who up to that point had been obeying China's censorship laws by not running pieces that the government had asked them to pull from print.
Though news media employees in China are no novices to the pressure of censorship and propaganda, this time was different. Southern Weekend's fed-up editors publicly spoke out on Chinese microblogging site Weibo, claiming that the article allegedly written by Tuo Zhen, a provincial-level official, was "raping" the newspaper's autonomy. The post went viral and was eventually taken down, but that hasn't stopped a flow of criticism against China's censorship laws.
The most recent backlash occurred when officials answered Southern Weekend's plea for less government involvement with increased censorship and additional propaganda.
According to the South China Morning Post, Dai Zigeng, the Communist Party official who serves as publisher of the Beijing News, which is co-owned by Southern Media Group, submitted his resignation after his paper was forced to run an editorial that originally ran in the Global Times. (The Global Times is a subsidiary paper to the People's Daily, which is the official newspaper of the Communist Party.) That editorial blamed the recent opposition to propaganda and censorship on "foreign forces." Propaganda officials eventually forced the Beijing News to run the story as well, prompting Dai's resignation, which could not, however, be verified independently.
However, it was not as easy for officials to get news outlets to run the article this time around. Officials issued an order to several newspapers nationwide to run the article Tuesday, but only a handful followed through. However, newspapers like the Beijing News, who chose not to run it on Tuesday, were forced to do so the following day. The Beijing News did not give in easily and caved only when authorities physically arrived at its offices.
What really happened at the Beijing News office is still unclear, but several posts on Twitter said that the Weibo accounts of Beijing News employees were all deleted. Alleged photos of a chaotic Beijing News newsroom also made its way through Twitter.
One Beijing News employee, who chose to remain anonymous, confirmed that there was a meeting of administrative-level employees Wednesday morning.
"I can't be sure. [Dai Zigeng] only mentioned that he was going to resign yesterday," the Beijing News employee said.
If Dai's resignation is confirmed, this will likely be the most defiant act a newspaper head has taken in response to the recent Southern Weekend situation. However, it should be noted that, though many are claiming he resigned, it is not out of the question that he was in fact forced out by the government.
Weibo, China's version of Twitter, has blocked all chatter on the Southern Weekend situation, as well as of the Beijing News incident, but that has not stopped Chinese sources from getting the news out.
"China Communist propaganda officials face the dilemma of running the system the old way, in a new era of the Internet and microblogging," one longtime China analyst, who asked to remain anonymous, said. "You now have more young, professional journalists, able to jump the firewall and still get the word out and communicate."
Southern Weekend has had strong support during the past week's events, even from some celebrities, who made subtle references to what they hope will come out of the situation.
"Hoping for a spring in this harsh winter," Li Bingbing, a Chinese actress said to her followers, perhaps alluding to the Arab Spring revolution that was ignited by social media.
Another actress, Yao Chen, quoted Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to her 31 million followers: "One word of truth outweighs the whole world."