Thursday February 27, 2020

January 22, 2013

Chinese media censorship has received a lot of international attention lately, largely due to recent anti-censorship protests. These protests erupted after Southern Weekend criticized Tuo Zhen, a top Propaganda Department official, for taking his censorship and re-writing of the paper’s New Year’s editorial too far. The editorial, originally calling for reform, was changed into a fluff piece praising the government.

While newspapers in China are under government control and oversight, censorship is generally done at an internal level, with editors and authors self-censoring. China blogger Evan Osnos conjectures that Southern Weekend spoke out after this instance of censorship because “it violated the delicate balance between dignity and control that allows Chinese journalists to go to work every day and feel good about themselves.” It intensified pre-existing concerns the journalists had about their journalistic integrity and spurred them into action.

With prominent Chinese, such as actress Yao Chen who has the largest social media following in China, showing their support for Southern Weekend, anti-censorship protests spread. Protesters gathered with signs calling for freedom of the press and netizens turned to the web to express their support. Journalists threatened to strike and vocal calls were made for Tuo Zhen to step down from his post.

The conflict was quickly resolved and Southern Weekend started publishing papers again. News stories about the events, however, seem to have varied opinions about the outcome of Xi Jinping’s “first major challenge” as president. A CNN article praises the “surprise turn of tolerance” the government took in handling the protests, choosing to settle the dispute through discussion and mediation rather than punishments or crackdowns. According to The Epoch Times, however, “The Propaganda Department has won, and Southern Weekend’s revolt has failed.” Tuo Zhen kept his job and the agreement made between the government and the Southern Weekend journalists before they resumed work is unclear. The Epoch Times does consider the accompanying public outcry for freedom of speech a success though.

One thing is clear, social media and the publicity and international notice it brought to the Southern Weekend played an important role. Netizens flooded Chinese blog sites with political cartoons and commentary (see the China Digital Times article below). Bloggers got the word out about the heroic Southern Weekend staff and the wrong doings of Tuo Zhen. The extremely public nature of these events also likely influenced the way the Chinese government responded.

Where does this incident leave Chinese censorship and freedom of expression? The signs are mixed.  We have Hollywood filmmakers allowing Chinese censors to preview movie scripts, hiring censorship consultants, and adapting films in order to access the huge Chinese market. At the same time, Chinese media is openly criticizing China’s pollution problem, and the government censors are not stopping them. Will this candor spread to other topics or is pollution the exception?

With China’s new leadership just taking power, it will be interesting to see how the Chinese censorship, media, and blogosphere interact with each other and change in the future.

For more information on censorship in China, see the following news articles:

New Yorker- Letter from China (blog): Solzhenitsyn, Yao China, and Chinese Reform

The Epoch Times-Southern Weekly Incident: Root, Failure, and Future

CNN– “Censorship row reveals tolerant side of China’s new leadership

China Digital Times– “Drawing the News: The Southern Weekly Protests

New York Times- To Get Movies into China, Hollywood Gives Censors a Preview

Huff Post- Skyfall’ Censored: China Chops Scene, Alters Dialogue of Bond Film

The Atlantic- In China, Can Pollution Spur Media Transparency?

BBC- Beijing’s hazardous pollution sparks Chinese media anger

For Chinese language news on censorship in China, see the articles below:


Radio Free Asia: 事件表明媒体人士对习近平抱有希望

Radio Free Asia: 南周事件引发明星效应 名人明星微博发文相挺


Compiled and edited by Ariane Rosen