A rare recent public protest in China reflects the tensions inherent in the efforts by government officials to achieve economic modernization while maintaining firm Communist Party control.
The large-circulation, relatively liberal newspaper Southern Weekly prepared an editorial for New Year’s Day that urged greater respect for constitutional rights.
Government censors reviewed the editorial, deemed it too critical and rewrote it, adding praise for Communist Party rule.
Some of the newspaper’s writers walked out in protest. Members of the public, including some Chinese celebrity bloggers, rallied to their cause.
Supporters placed bouquets of flowers and banners with pro-freedom inscriptions at the newspaper’s entrance. After days of negotiations, the government backed down and apparently agreed to reduce censorship in the future.
Achieving a rising standard of living through economic modernization is hard for any government. A refusal to accept some degree of freedom of speech compounds that difficulty.
Beijing tries to keep a lid on free speech and a free press through a range of constraints. They include close government monitoring of, and blocks on, parts of the Internet and social media.
A gulf remains between North China, which includes Beijing and its centralized bureaucracy, and South China, the region in which Southern Weekly circulates, which has been more sophisticated and mercantile in its approach to life.
The fracas could force decisions on China’s new president, Xi Jinping. He is portrayed as more open to modernization and liberalization than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. This episode offers a challenge, and an opportunity, for him to deliver on some new freedoms.
Southern Weekly manifested courage in its desire for freedom of the press. Many Chinese appreciated that stand.