Last updated: January 4, 2013 5:40 pm

China censors clash with media on reform

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Chinese journalists have clashed openly with government censors, as the new political leadership’s unexpectedly tough political stance frustrates hopes for reform.

On Friday the authorities shut the website of Yanhuang Chunqiu, a magazine run by liberal senior members of the ruling Communist party, a day after the magazine published its latest call for political reform. Hours later, 35 journalists formerly affiliated with Southern Weekend, known for its daring investigative reporting, called for the resignation of the party’s chief propaganda official in Guangdong province over what they called “excessive” censorship.

Both media outlets had demanded enforcement of China’s constitution, a document that enshrines many democratic rights but bears little resemblance to political practice in the one-party state. “If we hold our constitution against our reality, we discover a huge gap between the constitution and the behaviour of our government created by the system, the policies and the laws currently in force,” Yanhuang Chunqiu wrote in its December 31 issue. “Our constitution is basically void.”

A Southern Weekend journalist penned a new year greeting message for the paper’s front page that echoed this message. Playing on the “Chinese Dream” slogan touted by Xi Jinping, the new Communist party chief, the article spoke of a “dream of constitutionalism” and demanded that the document be used to empower citizens. “Only thus will we be able to build a strong and free nation,” it said.

After a decade of political inertia, Mr Xi’s first month in power has prompted calls for reform. The new leadership, however, appears to have launched a crackdown in response.

Authorities cancelled Yanhuan Chunqiu’s website licence. Internet users visiting the site were greeted by a cartoon policeman and a message: “The website you have visited has been shut down because it failed to register.”

In another unusual move, Tuo Zhen, head of party propaganda in Guangdong, rewrote the draft Southern Weekend article, according to several journalists at the paper. Although strict censorship is common in China, it is normally enforced by senior editors who practise self-censorship or act on instructions from propaganda officials.

In an open letter distributed on Sina Weibo, China’s leading Twitter equivalent, the reporters called Mr Tuo’s intervention “an ignorant and excessive act”.

The censors’ stand-off with the two publications came after the country’s rubber-stamp parliament passed a new rule last month, requiring internet users to register their real names . Although some Chinese journalists at times try to push the envelope, the country’s media professionals are more likely to oil the censorship machine than oppose it. Open conflict between the authorities and large numbers of journalists is unusual.

The government made clear that it is determined to discipline the journalists. Liu Yunshan, the party’s propaganda chief, said on Friday that the media must “better reflect the messages of the party and the government”.

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