In the past few days, Chinese journalists and their supporters have launched startlingly direct opposition to Communist Party rule, protesting a heavy-handed move by Guangdong’s provincial propaganda department to unilaterally replace a Southern Weekly editorial on constitutionalism with pro-Party bromides. Defying censors’ directives, media organizations around the country continue to post messages of support of Southern Weekly reporters who have gone on strike and called for the dismissal of provincial propaganda chief Tuo Zhen. It is the 21st century equivalent of carrying placards through Tiananmen Square.
Propaganda authorities have repeatedly issued directives banning discussion of Southern Weekly, but they are largely ignored by Internet users. Many domestic papers have used the traditional “good night” message posted to their Weibo accounts at day’s end to speak out for Southern Weekly (which is also known as Southern Weekend) and press freedom. The Beijing-based Caijing, for example, wrote: “This Weekend, don’t rest, don’t say good night.”
In a subtle move that was not missed by netizens, Sina News, the country’s largest news portal, posted its list of daily headlines so that the first character in each line could be read vertically as “Keep it up, Southern Weekly!”, a rallying cry for protesters. Netizens discovered messages of resistance on other news sites. On Monday, all media were required to repost an editorial from the Global Times condemning the protests. Not giving in, the major news portals all posted it as required, together with a disclaimer, such as this one posted by Sohu: “All information from other media is reposted; it does not represent the opinions of this website.” The Weibo account of the official People’s Daily even appeared to express implicit support for Southern Weekly, writing, “Power belongs to the people, and the people want truth.”
Dozens of people also showed up to demonstrate at the offices of the Southern Weekly for a second day today, international news reports said. While the physical presence of protesters is not huge, the online defiance is in many ways the most direct challenge to Party rule since Tiananmen. In 1989–after weeks of protests by students, workers, and others in the square–the movement reached a turning point when journalists working for People’s Daily and other official media joined with signs demanding, “Don’t force us to lie!” People’s Daily journalists are officially employees of the Chinese state, and their protest was a courageous and unprecedented act of resistance.
Back then, the top leadership didn’t initially take a unified position against the protesters, leaving space for domestic media to report on the protests, which galvanized a nationwide movement. Today, a new leadership is in power amid increasing public anger over many of the same issues that brought protesters to the streets in 1989: corruption, privileges enjoyed by the powerful elite, and the lack of free expression. For the first few days of protests by Southern Weekly journalists, Beijing did not send a clear public signal to the media, giving journalists an opportunity to spread their message through social media platforms like Weibo and other online forums. As we saw in 1989, once information spread nationwide, the government lost control of the message. The only way to wrest it back is by launching a harsh crackdown, though it’s unclear what form that may take.
The public dispute between Southern Weekly and Communist Party censors comes against a backdrop of dashed hopes for looser restrictions now that Xi Jinping has been installed as General Secretary of the Communist Party. In recent weeks, China has announced new requirements on Internet service providers and mobile phone companies to identify users; blocked virtual private network (VPN) connections used to evade the “Great Firewall;” and refused to renew the visa of a correspondent for The New York Times, forcing him to leave the country.
The Internet has opened up worlds of information and self-expression that didn’t exist in China in 1989. Twenty-four years ago, we saw how far the government was willing to go to maintain control. We are about to see how far Chinese citizens will go to defend their right to speak freely.