Demonstrators call for press freedom in support of journalists from Southern Weekend newspaper outside the company's headquarters in Guangzhou
© AFP

Chinese Communist party officials and rebel editors from the Southern Weekend newspaper reached a tentative compromise on Tuesday night in their stand-off over censorship, reflecting the pressure on the party to end an incident which has marred its efforts to project a more open image.

Party officials have promised to lift some of the more recently introduced measures, seen as excessive by the journalists, in exchange for a promise from editorial staff to return to work and produce this week’s issue, according to messages on an internal chat group seen by the Financial Times.

“No more approval procedures for reporting topics, no more examination of copy by propaganda officials in the production process,” said one journalist with knowledge of the talks, describing the party’s concessions. This would roll back some of the more intrusive controls introduced at Southern Weekend over the past few months.

In general, the Communist party controls China’s print media with a mixture of self-censorship by editorial management, reporting instructions, including bans, regarding sensitive topics, and disciplining journalists if a story is seen to have gone too far. It was only last year that the party started forcing Southern Weekend, seen as a vanguard of relatively independent reporting in China, to submit individual story proposals and draft copy to propaganda officials for approval.

The furore last week was sparked when external censors intervened in a story that had already been prepared for print. Propaganda officials changed an article that originally called for the implementation of civil rights enshrined in China’s constitution into a tame text that parroted government propaganda.

The affair exploded into a test for the reform credentials and the crisis management of the country’s new leadership under party chief Xi Jinping, as people expressed their support for the journalists and demanded freedom of speech in street protests and on the country’s vibrant microblogs.

On Tuesday, a protest outside the newspaper’s offices in Guangzhou continued into a second day, but groups criticising Southern Weekend and expressing support for the Communist party staged a counter-protest, triggering scuffles that were broken up by the police in the afternoon.

Some of those involved were called in for questioning by state security on Tuesday, according to fellow protesters. Late on Tuesday night, the protesting crowd had dispersed, and about 30 uniformed police officers patrolled the pavement outside the newspaper group’s compound.

One journalist at Southern Weekend expressed cautious optimism that the resolution would bring some improvements for him and his colleagues. “At least we have proved that you don’t die if you fight. Death comes only if you don’t fight,” he said.

But other journalists familiar with the situation remained pessimistic. “The leaders just want to end this incident, which has been embarrassing for them, but any relief will be temporary,” said a reporter at Southern Metropolis Daily, Southern Weekend’s sister paper. “Apart from that, Southern Weekend is a special case and has always been. A partial victory fought by them doesn’t mean a thaw in the broader censorship climate.”

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