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Chinese Stars Pledge Support for Press Freedom

Chinese Stars Pledge Support for Press FreedomChinese Stars Pledge Support for Press Freedom

HONG KONG – Given the massive followings they command on Weibo – China’s equivalent to Twitter – Chinese A-list actors typically post messages online as gestures of goodwill. It’s not uncommon, therefore, to see stars taking to the internet to ask their fans to take care of themselves during China's cold winter, as actresses Li Bingbing and Yao Chen did on Jan. 7.

What might appear to be feel-good greetings to their fans, however, are actually parts of a much wider campaign denouncing the Chinese authorities’ high-handed attempt to muzzle a widely-read, liberal-minded magazine, with protesters going to the streets in Guangzhou, the city where the publication is based, to decry what they see as the government’s draconian control of the press.

Li, one of the country’s best known actresses, who recently made her Hollywood debut with Resident Evil: Retribution, wrote: “Good morning, having worked eight days in a row, weekends are no longer weekends, but Mondays are always Mondays. Good morning, there’s no heaters in the south, all of you take care. Good morning, looking forward to the arrival of spring in the deep of winter.”

Yao (Caught in the Web), meanwhile, forwarded a tweet from the People’s Daily in which physicians contradicted the advice of a government "expert," who had suggested that people living in comparably warmer southern China should avoid internal heating because they won't be used to it. “Experts should not worry that much – please listen to what the doctors say,” said the actress, the so-called “Queen of Weibo” because of the 31.9 million internet users who follow her account.

Innocuous as they may seem, the pair’s messages are thinly-veiled barbs against the government’s alleged intervention of editorial independence at the magazine, the Southern Weekend, last week, with their messages – such as Li’s – incorporating parts of the publication’s name in it.

Weibo users in China are renown for their subtle means of communication and critique, often using code words to stand in for hot-button issues and sensitive topics in an effort to avoid further retribution from internet censors. At present, simply mentioning the cold in Southern China is understood by fellow social media users as a statement of support for the magazine's editors and protestors on the streets, as well as a reference to the repressive media climate. In this context, for example, Yao's statement is understood as a bold critique of officials prohibiting "heated debates" about government policies in the public sphere.

Staff writers at the magazine – which has long been known for its audacious criticism against government policies – issued a public statement last week describing how propaganda apparatchiks overruled editors and pulled an editorial from the magazine's New Year’s Day special edition. 

While the original piece called for the authorities to consolidate civil rights by referring to “British and American-style constitutional politics”, the published version – which contained nearly nothing of the original – lavished unfettered praise on how the “glory” of the Chinese Communist Party’s reforms are seeking to attain “dreams of wealth and strength”.

In an open letter posted online, staff editors and writers called for the resignation of Tuo Zhen, the head of the Guangdong provincial propaganda department. The document was subsequently taken off the web, and then a statement appeared on Southern Weekend’s official Weibo denying the staff’s claims – a situation caused by the department taking over the account, said the writers.

The incident has since swelled into a significant social movement, as protesters arrived at the Southern Weekend’s office to voice their anger about what they see as a brutal official meddling into the running of one of China’s most liberal publications.

Yao was the first to speak out in support of Southern Weekend’s editorial staff, when she posted a quote from the late dissident Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world” – alongside the publication’s logo on Jan. 7. The message was retweeted nearly 94,000 times; Yao followed with messages referring to the clampdown of Southern Weekend by pasting official reports about the chilly weather in the “south”.

Her fellow A-lister, Chen Kun (Painted Skin: Resurrection), retweeted her message and expressed his support of journalists working in publications of the Southern media chain. He then followed with one of his own, saying how he respects “forward-looking, constructive independent-thinkers” who do not “evade the changes in the larger environment”.

With a changing of guards complete in Beijing and Xi Jinping now securely anointed as China’s new paramount leader – he was appointed general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in November, and is expected to take over the country’s presidency from Hu Jintao in March – demands for reforms have become increasingly vocal in recent months.

More significantly, even figures within the establishment have chimed in. Yu Dong, CEO of Bona Film Group, delivered a keynote speech at ScreenSingapore in December calling for an overhaul of the country’s film censorship system – a call echoed two weeks ago by veteran filmmaker Xie Fei, who also published an open letter on his Weibo account calling for a clearer film classification system.

Now joining them are Yao, Li and Chen, who are part of a new generation of A-listers who wield enormous sway among the younger internet-savvy demographic in the country.