Censorship in China is a strange thing, invisible but omnipresent. There is no official list of banned books, yet books get banned every day. There is no official list of “sensitive topics,” yet everyone knows which topics are sensitive. And though you might not know exactly where the line between acceptable and unacceptable is, you know stepping over it has serious consequences. The majority of censorship in China occurs in the form of self-censorship. Most editors and writers naturally avoid topics and stances that could get them in trouble. Websites and forums maintain their own staff of moderators who delete sensitive posts before they can be shared. If a potentially upsetting newspaper article or blog post gets past this first line of defense, someone from the vast propaganda apparatus will intervene.


Usually, this kind of interdiction is done with a scalpel, not a hammer. Which is why the events surrounding Southern Weekly (or Southern Weekend) were so out of the ordinary. Instead of a scalpel or a hammer, propaganda officials in Guangdong and Beijing elected to use a carnival-sized mallet. The incident began when a New Year’s editorial by Southern Weekly, one of China’s most liberal newspapers, was bowdlerized beyond the point of recognition. Now Southern Weekly is no stranger to censorship. In fact, 1,034 of their articles were censored or spiked altogether in 2012. Indeed, the paper is famous for its investigative reporting and reporters there have consistently pushed the boundaries of what is publishable, sometimes to their detriment. But imagine you’re an editor there.


You’ve OK’d tomorrow’s proofs, and you’re happy with this mildly critical editorial that urges further political and legal reform. You sign off on the stories and leave the rest to your publisher. The next morning, you grab a copy of the new issue and find that, not only have your words been cut and edited into a paean to the government, there are also basic factual errors in the copy, right there on the front page. That, in a nutshell, is what happened to Southern Weekly. The editorial, originally titled “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutional Government,” was cut by about half and renamed “Chasing Our Dreams.” Editors at the paper were furious over what they saw as illegal alterations and demanded an investigation. When this investigation was stalled, they went on strike, which is super illegal in China. They also wrote an open letter that called for the dismissal of Tuo Zhen, the propaganda chief of Guangdong province.


Realizing that they had the first full-blown scandal of 2013 on their hands, the Department of Propaganda snapped into action. But instead of dealing specifically with Guangdong and Southern Weekly, like a surgeon removing a localized tumor, they attacked the entire body of the Chinese press corps. The department released an urgent notice emphasizing that “party control of the media is an unwavering basic principle” and that “external hostile forces are involved in the development of the situation.” They asked that every media outlet’s “editors, reporters, and staff discontinue voicing their support for Southern Weekly.” But by the time the directive went out, it was already too late. Hundreds of protesters rallied outside of Southern Weekly’s headquarters and people all over China posted pictures of themselves holding signs of solidarity. Celebrities including Yao Chen, who has over 32 million followers on Weibo, and Li Bingbing, with over 19 million, posted veiled messages of support for Southern Weekly. Yao quoted Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “One word of truth outweighs the whole world,” while Li wrote, “There’s no heat in the south, take care of yourselves.” (Li’s double entendre plays on the fact that the government doesn’t provide central heating to residents south of the Yangtze River.)


Influential bloggers like Li Chengpeng and Han Han also wrote posts in support of the newspaper. (Han Han’s post on his blog and Weibo have both been deleted.) It was at this point that the topic became as officially banned as it gets. Weibo posts mentioning the newspaper and the surrounding incidents started to disappear. The four individual characters that make up “Southern Weekly” became banned search terms, along with “constitutional government.” But there was one more demand in the propaganda directive that further inflamed the situation. In addition to the media blackout and blaming external forces, which is pretty textbook, the Department of Propaganda also required “media and websites in all locales [to] prominently republish the Global Times editorial “Southern Weekly’s ‘Message to Readers’ Is Food for Thought Indeed.” The editorial is typical of Global Times, the worst of the worst of party rags, and emphasizes the need for the freedom of the press to be subservient to the government and the party. How the press can be called free when it serves the interests of the ruling party is not addressed. Demanding that every paper carry the editorial was not just a heavy-handed attempt at thought control—it was a reminder that the Department of Propaganda, and thus the Communist Party, is in charge.


The media would have to obey or face the consequences. I can’t help but think what would have happened if every news outlet had refused to print the editorial. Would we have seen a shift in the balance of power between the media and the party? Would the military have been mobilized to assert control? (Not as far-fetched as it sounds.) As it happened, only one major news outlet refused to carry the editorial: Beijing News. That evening, Beijing News got a visit from Yan Liqiang, the deputy director of the Beijing propaganda department. According to an insider account, Yan’s position was “very clear: This editorial must be published on the 9th.” This led to Dai Zigeng, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the newspaper, to threaten to resign. In the end, the two sides reached a compromise. Beijing News did run the editorial the next day, but on page A20 with the sterile headline, “Global Times Publishes Editorial on ‘Southern Weekly Incident.'”


A friend who works at the paper said this is how her boss sold it: “They are giving us a pile of shit, and we have to eat it.” It should be mentioned that, although other newspapers published the editorial, they showed solidarity where they could. One placed the editorial next to a prominent ad for pesticide and another went as far as to hide the message “Go Southern Weekly” on their website. Southern Weekly came out more or less on time. Journalists and editors at the newspaper went back to work after censors promised to loosen the leash on the publication. Dai Zigeng at Beijing News didn’t end up resigning, but neither did any propaganda officials.


Some have called this a victory for free speech in China, but that’s overstating it. The Southern Weekly incident was never about free speech, or even freedom of the press—it was about the limits of censorship. Though the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press are enshrined in Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution, no one working in the media thinks China will have a free press in the near future. The dream of constitutional government is still far away. Until that dream is realized, Chinese journalists will continue to risk their lives, pushing that line between what is acceptable and unacceptable forward with ever more daring reporting. But the Southern Weekly incident reminds us that, just as the party will push back when journalists cross the line, the opposite must be true as well—when the party crosses the line, journalists must be the ones who push back. ( By George Ding from )