There still appears to be some conflict over the Beijing News, but assuming its true that a deal has been agreed between Nanfang group and the authorities maybe we can have a crack at a preliminary after action report on the events of the past week.
First, let’s revisit the basic causes of the dispute. These turned around the traditional new year’s greeting offered by Southern Weekly (or Weekend: there are variant translations). That editorial built on Xi’s inaugural promises of renewal to call for more and greater adherence to China’s formal constitution, itself a pretty standard position on the liberal end of the Chinese spectrum. Not unexpectedly, this ran into difficulties with the paper’s censors – I say not unexpectedly because the boys in the Guangdong propaganda apparat have been paying particular attention to Nanfang Group’s output over the past few years.
What made this case different was that the propaganda people not only nixed the editorial but ended up substituting a piece of nonsense it wrote itself, the author allegedly being Tuo Zhen, the provincial propaganda chief. This is a major break with protocol, as Jeremy Goldkorn explains here. The current deal is that the censors, by and large, don’t control the overall news & editorial agenda or write copy: their power is great but essentially negative, though they can and do insist that copy from Xinhua or another such trusted source is run when covering especially 'sensitive' issues, a little more of which below.
When it came to actual protest there were lots of people around demanding an end to censorship as a whole, but the origins of the thing are basically defensive. If the journalists couldn’t mobilize support against this level of intrusion then it would have set a precedent across newsrooms as a whole, which would be shoved back towards the days when the media was simply a Party bulletin board.
As such, it was successful: there were two days of protests in Guangzhou which were fairly substantial (in the mid hundreds) but not rowdy enough to give the cops a public order pretext to suppress, and there was a huge outburst of support expressed online, perhaps most importantly from other media outlets, including major internet news portals and such unlikely sources as the People’s Daily. The authorities also had real difficulty in getting a Global Times editorial on the matter out on a ‘must publish’ order across different publications. (there’s a watered down English version here).
The final deal means that Southern Weekly will continue publication and promises censorship on a looser rein, which I’m interpreting as a return to the status quo. Notably, the provincial party Secretary Hu Chunhua was happy to let his name go forward as the good cop who drove the deal forward.
This might be an indication that Tuo Zhen overstepped the mark, which is not the same thing as saying that his action absolutely contravened the party’s wider agenda. It’s also maybe an acknowledgment that extra-Party ‘liberal China’ for want of a better phrase, is allowed some independent status as a tolerated interlocutor. Apart from being a good thing in itself it’s also probably necessary because while Tuo may have pushed the envelope too far, you don’t get to become provincial propaganda boss without knowing which way to push it.