BEIJING — Declaring that Communist Party control over Chinese media is “unshakable,” the government’s main propaganda organ appeared to take a hard line Tuesday against anti-censorship protesters at the offices of the Guangdong newspaper Southern Weekly, and warned darkly that mostly unnamed foreign agitators were behind the unrest.
The “urgent memo” from the ruling party’s Central Propaganda Department was sent to media heads and local party chiefs. It was obtained and translated by the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post and the website China Digital Times, which regularly publishes edicts from China’s censorship authorities and is derisively called the “Ministry of Truth.”
“The party has absolute control over the media, and this principle is unshakable,” the memo said, according to the various translations. “External hostile forces are involved in the development of the situation.” The memo said that every “work unit” must immediately “demand that its department’s editors, reporters, and staff discontinue voicing support for Southern Weekly online.”
The protests began last week when the reform-minded Southern Weekly’s editors complained that a front page New Year’s Day message to readers — expressing the “dream” that China would soon be ruled by a constitution — was substantially rewritten and watered down into an obsequious ode to the Communist Party. The editors said the text was rewritten without their knowledge by the party’s Guangdong propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, who has become the principle target of the demonstrators’ ire.
What began as a largely online protest by the newspaper journalists quickly gathered steam around the country, drawing support from noted actors and actresses, writers, business tycoons, and others who have used their weibo accounts — the Chinese version of Twitter — to decry heavy-handed government censorship of all Chinese media and demand more freedom of expression in the country. The rare show of discontent has posed a crucial early test for China’s new leadership team, led by Party Secretary General Xi Jinping.
Hundreds of anticensorship protesters donned masks, chanted slogans, and left flowers at the newspaper’s Guangdong headquarters Monday, and smaller crowds protested Tuesday. But they were met by some of the so-called new leftists, who carried pictures of Mao Zedong and voiced support for government control. The groups clashed verbally.
Police in Guangdong have largely stayed on the sidelines and allowed the protests, a rarity in China, where public demonstrations are normally not allowed. But on Tuesday, police installed security cameras around the paper’s headquarters, presumably to film the protesters.
The Central Propaganda Department memo ordered all media and websites in China to “prominently republish” a hardline editorial that appeared Tuesday in the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid owned by the party’s main mouthpiece, People’s Daily.
The Global Times editorial appeared to maintain that the kind of intrusive censorship that happened at Southern Weekly was a routine occurrence in China. “Realistically speaking, many Chinese media outlets have experiences of major reports being altered by officials,” the editorial said. The editorial blamed activists, including blind, self-taught lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who is in the United States, for stirring up the self-censorship issue.
“Some activists outside the media industry in China have been inciting some media to engage in confrontation,” the Global Times said. “Those external activists are expecting direct confrontation between Chinese media and the current system.”