BEIJING, China - Editors of a Chinese newspaper known for bold reporting were meeting Tuesday with propaganda officials to find a way out of a censorship dispute that has triggered protests and evolved into a political challenge for China's new leadership.
What started out as a confrontation by Southern Weekly journalists with a top censor over a New Year's editorial has rapidly become a focal point driving public calls for the authoritarian Communist Party government to loosen its grip on information.
The dispute centres on how the editorial, originally calling for political reform, was transformed into a tribute praising the Communist Party. Scholars have signed open letters calling for the censor's dismissal, celebrities are speaking out for the paper on microblogs and hundreds of people gathered for a second day outside the publication's office bearing flowers and signs in support.
On Tuesday, the paper's editorial committee was to hold a fourth round of negotiations with its top management, which is part of the provincial propaganda office, according to a Southern Weekly editor. The editor spoke on condition of anonymity because of an internal directive not to talk to the foreign media.
Propaganda officials want the newspaper to publish — as per normal — on Thursday but editors are negotiating over whether to do so, and the terms under which they would be willing, for example, if they could include a letter to readers explaining the incident, the editor said.
The committee is also pushing a larger appeal to abolish censorship of the newspaper's content prior to publication, the editor said. The suggestion is that Communist Party leaders could provide direction but not interfere with reporting and editing, and should refrain from taking issue with content until after publication, the editor said.
Protesters again gathered Tuesday outside the offices of the newspaper in the southern city of Guangzhou bearing signs and shouting slogans, said two participants. A handful of party supporters had also showed up and they were engaged in heated debates with the crowd, they said.
"Southern Weekly is the only mainland newspaper that, relatively speaking, is more able to report the truth," said one of the protesters, Cheng Qiubo, a democracy activist. "We are very angry that it has been censored ... so we hope that this country can have media freedom, to abolish the news censorship system."
The issue also galvanized a wide variety of people on China's popular Twitter-like microblogs, with many journalists, scholars, entrepreneurs and celebrities posting messages of support for the newspaper's stance.
"One word of truth outweighs the whole world," celebrity Chinese actress Yao Chen quoted the Russian Nobel Prize Literature winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a post that was accompanied by the newspaper's logo.
The newspaper's name in Chinese translates literally to "Southern Weekend," and in a sign of the authorities' sensitivity about the dispute, searches on microblogs were blocked for that name and even for the otherwise mundane individual Chinese phrases "southern" and "weekend."
Political expression in the public sphere is often viewed as risky in China, where the authoritarian government frequently harasses and even jails dissidents for pro-democracy calls.
The Guangzhou-based writer and activist Wu Wei, who goes by the pen name Ye Du, said police had visited him at home and ordered him not to attend the protest. Wu had posted multiple photos of Monday's protest on his microblog that were widely circulated but found by night that his microblog account had been shut.
Also joining the chorus were 18 Chinese academics who signed an open letter calling for the dismissal of Tuo Zhen, a provincial propaganda minister blamed for the censorship. The scholars included legal professors, liberal economists, historians and writers.
Six weeks ago, China installed a new generation of Communist Party leaders for the next five years, with current Vice-President Xi Jinping at the helm. Some of Xi's announcements for a trimmed-down style of leadership, with reduced waste and fewer unnecessary meetings, have raised hopes in some quarters that he might favour deeper reforms in the political system to mollify a public long frustrated by local corruption.
The Guangdong provincial propaganda department did not immediately respond to a faxed list of questions. But the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial that no Chinese media outlet should fool itself into thinking that it could occupy a "political special zone" in which it is free from government control.
The U.S. State Department said Monday that media censorship is incompatible with China's aspirations to build a modern information-based economy and society. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it was interesting that Chinese are now strongly taking up their right to freedom of speech.
"We hope the government is taking notice," she told a news briefing in Washington.
China's media in recent years have become increasingly freewheeling in some kinds of coverage, including lurid reports on celebrities and sports figures. Still, censorship of political issues remains tight — although government officials typically claim there is no censorship at all — and the restrictions have drawn increasingly vocal criticism from journalists and members of the public.
Associated Press writers Didi Tang in Beijing and Matthew Pennington in Washington and researcher Flora Ji in Beijing contributed to this report.
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