BEIJING (AP) — Free-speech protesters in masks squared off against flag-waving communist loyalists in a southern Chinese city Tuesday as a dispute over censorship at a newspaper spilled into the broader population, with authorities shutting microblog accounts of supporters of the paper.
What started out as a conflict between journalists at the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly and a top censor over a New Year's editorial has rapidly become a focal point driving public calls for the authoritarian Communist Party government to loosen its grip on information.
The dispute centers on how the editorial, originally calling for political reform, was transformed into a tribute praising the Communist Party. Scholars have signed open letters calling for the censor's dismissal, celebrities and other supporters of the journalists are speaking out for the paper on microblogs — drawing a crackdown by authorities — and hundreds of people gathered for a second day outside the publication's office bearing flowers and signs in support.
The paper's editorial committee was in negotiations with its top management, which is part of the provincial propaganda office, according to a Southern Weekly editor. The editor spoke on condition of anonymity because of an internal directive not to talk to the foreign media.
Propaganda officials want the newspaper to publish — as per normal — on Thursday but editors are negotiating over whether to do so, and the terms under which they would be willing, for example, if they could include a letter to readers explaining the incident, the editor said.
The committee is also pushing a larger appeal to abolish censorship of the newspaper's content prior to publication, the editor said. The suggestion is that Communist Party leaders could provide direction but not interfere with reporting and editing, and should refrain from taking issue with content until after publication, the editor said.
Free-speech protesters started gathering outside Southern Weekly's offices again Tuesday morning, holding signs calling for media freedom and other democratic reforms but were soon confronted by party loyalists waving Chinese flags.
Both sides berated each other — at times resorting to hurling abuse and calling each other "traitors and running dogs," and minor scuffling ensued that was broken up by police.
"Southern Weekly is the only mainland newspaper that, relatively speaking, is more able to report the truth," said one of the protesters, Cheng Qiubo, a democracy activist. "We are very angry that it has been censored ... so we hope that this country can have media freedom, to abolish the news censorship system."
The issue also galvanized a wide variety of people on China's popular Twitter-like microblogs, with many journalists, scholars, entrepreneurs and celebrities posting messages of support for the newspaper's stance.
"One word of truth outweighs the whole world," celebrity Chinese actress Yao Chen quoted the Russian Nobel Prize Literature winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a post that was accompanied by the newspaper's logo.
The newspaper's name in Chinese translates literally to "Southern Weekend," and in a sign of the authorities' sensitivity about the dispute, searches on microblogs were blocked for that name and even for the otherwise mundane individual Chinese phrases "southern" and "weekend."
At least 15 journalists at the newspaper have not been able to post messages on Sina Weibo, a popular microblog site that has served as a key platform for dissenting voices and for spreading information on sensitive incidents. The journalists have declined comment.
The online ax has fallen on sympathizers, too. Wu Wei, a Guangzhou-based based writer who posted photos from Monday's protest said his Sina Weibo account was deleted Monday afternoon. Two guards dispatched by the local police were posted to his residence to prevent him from going out, said Wu, better known by his pen name, Ye Du.
Others targeted by the online police included a prominent real estate magnate and a couple of well-known rights lawyers.
Political expression in the public sphere is often viewed as risky in China, where the authoritarian government frequently harasses and even jails dissidents for pro-democracy calls.
Also joining the chorus were 18 Chinese academics who signed an open letter calling for the dismissal of Tuo Zhen, a provincial propaganda minister blamed for the censorship. The scholars included legal professors, liberal economists, historians and writers.
Six weeks ago, China installed a new generation of Communist Party leaders for the next five years, with current Vice President Xi Jinping at the helm. Some of Xi's announcements for a trimmed-down style of leadership, with reduced waste and fewer unnecessary meetings, have raised hopes in some quarters that he might favor deeper reforms in the political system to mollify a public long frustrated by local corruption.
The Guangdong provincial propaganda department did not immediately respond to a faxed list of questions. But the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper said in an editorial that no Chinese media outlet should fool itself into thinking that it could occupy a "political special zone" in which it is free from government control.
The U.S. State Department said Monday that media censorship is incompatible with China's aspirations to build a modern information-based economy and society. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said it was interesting that Chinese are now strongly taking up their right to freedom of speech.
"We hope the government is taking notice," she told a news briefing in Washington.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in a regular briefing that Beijing is opposed to any country or individual interfering in China's internal affairs.