Echoes of Tiananmen Resound in China

Kathrin Hille in Guangzhou
A supporter of Southern Weekly protests outside the newspaper's offices in Guangdong.
AFP | Getty Images

The revolt among Chinese journalists spread to a second newspaper on Wednesday amid and even echoes of the democracy struggle of 1989.

The Beijing News refused a request from censors to republish a propaganda editorial that criticised the Guangdong-based paper Southern Weekend for fighting back against restrictions on what it could publish.

Meanwhile, Guangdong residents continued a demonstration in front of the Southern Weekend offices for the third day even though editors and party officials had reached a deal on Tuesday night that ended a partial strike and included assurances that some censorship measures would be softened.

Yu Gang, a 44-year-old activist addressing the crowd outside the newspaper building in Guangdong, declared: "For the first time in 23 years, we have come not for jobs, for houses or for money. We have come for freedom."

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His reference to the 1989 student democracy movement, which the ruling Communist party crushed, has been echoed by others and observers believe the party's new leadership under Xi Jinping, general secretary, must also be pondering the similarity to the Tiananmen Square protests.

Almost 24 years on, it is much more difficult for the authorities to contain demonstrations as activists can turn to the country's microblogs to spread information faster than it can be blocked.

The nascent protest movement forces Mr Xi, who is also set to become president in March, into crisis management mode little more than a month into his first term.

Mr Xi took office in November amid a growing clamour for political reform that has stalled during the past decade. His ascent follows a protracted power struggle that produced a leadership seen as relatively conservative.

A few weeks ago, a group of 70 scholars warned in an open letter that the country could face violent revolution unless it started to adopt political change, and called for the implementation of the rights enshrined in the constitution, the latest in a series of such appeals.

There are a number of reasons why people are hopeful of change. As the son of one of the Communist party's revolutionary veterans, Mr Xi is seen as potentially having more leverage in a party that has come to rule by consensus. In his short time at the helm, he has already signalled some changes.

His first trip after taking office took him to Shenzhen, the city across the border from Hong Kong that was used by Deng Xiaoping, China's former leader, to experiment with economic reforms.

Some demonstrators said on Wednesday that they believed the leadership was split and Mr Xi needed public support to back reform. But rival hardline Maoist protesters also declared their support for Mr Xi and denounced potential backers of political reform in the party as "traitors".

The refusal of Beijing News staff to reprint the pro-government editorial led to a showdown in the newsroom early on Wednesday between a municipal propaganda official and the newspaper's editor, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation.

Many of the paper's staff were left in tears after the official threatened to close the title if it did not publish the editorial, according to a former employee who was present.

After the stand-off, the Beijing News did publish the editorial but it was buried at the back of the paper and two-thirds of it was cut to remove the most contentious paragraphs. Among the lines left unpublished was a warning to journalists not to challenge the government publicly.

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The Beijing paper also ran a cryptic tribute to Southern Weekend, its sister title, disguised as a food column. "A bowl of bubbling hot congee in an earthen pot from China's southern lands . . . it seems to have a brave heart," it said. "When you open your mouth in the cold night, white steam billows, there is so much ordeal in the world, all you have to warm you up is this bowl of congee, telling you the power of love and consolation."

A person said to work at Beijing News wrote on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblog: "We didn't want to kneel down, but our knees were shattered. We gnashed our teeth and knelt down one time."

Online censors quickly sought to suppress news of the dispute as reports of it spread across the internet. They closed the Weibo account of the Beijing News and deleted posts about the incident.

But at the same time, people in Guangzhou were allowed to continue their openly political demonstration with minimal interference from the police – a rare occurrence.

"It is absolutely incredible that we can stand here and say these things and hand out our leaflets and nothing happens," said one of Mr Yu's friends. "Any other time in the past, the People's Armed Police would have moved in a long time ago."

The after a propaganda official rewrote a pro-reform editorial at Southern Weekend, a title known for its investigative reporting, into an article parroting party propaganda. Journalists at the paper walked out on strike. Following Tuesday's deal, reporters said Southern Weekend would publish this week's issue as normal on Thursday.

Additional reporting by Gwen Chen and Zhao Tianqi in Beijing