nanfang zhoumoby Zhengxu Wang.

Southern Weekly has long been the banner of media freedom. Indeed it has, since the mid-1990s, long been the banner of general ideas of political freedom, democracy, civil liberty, freedom of speech, human rights, and the like. The quality of its content and professionalism of its staff have sometimes been called into question, but in general it has succeeded in maintaining its credibility among the liberal camp (called “the right” in the Chinese context) in China’s political and intellectual circles. Therefore how it fares is highly indicative of the overall political trends of China.

Through these years it has always tried to push the limits of China’s media freedom by running sometimes very controversial articles. Other liberal media such as Hu Shuli’s Caixin and the magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu are also similarly trying to push the envelope while staying alive (and thrive, hopefully) by “correctly” gauging the degree of tolerance of the political authority.

So indeed there is some space for media freedom. It is, of course, not a secure space. And it could shrink when a more hard-line political leadership settles in. Regional papers, such as Southern Weekly, are subject to two levels of political censorship—one by the Central Propaganda department, and one by their Provincial/Municipal Propaganda Department. This makes their censorship environment much more complex.

In this current episode, it started as an intervention by the Guangdong Provincial Propaganda Department. Details are still missing. It is unclear, as it is to this commentator, whether the Director of the Propaganda Department directly intervened into a piece the paper was going to run, or whether it is a Deputy Director of the Propaganda Department that did it. There is indication that Mr. Tuo, the Guangdong Propaganda Chief now despised by the Southern Weekly supporting microbloggers, was not in Guangzhou when the event took place.

The Deputy Director, however, serves concurrently as the vice chairman of the paper’s controlling company, the Southern Newspaper Group. If indeed it was him that requested the rewriting of the editorial triggering this crisis, then we have to debate whether this was a censorship issue or whether this was an internal management issue.

Regardless, the liberal community has framed the issue as a life-and-death struggle for the paper, and a referendum for freedom of speech. Public opinions have been mobilized on microblogs, and people, most of them young , have staged peaceful demonstrations in front of the paper’s building in support.

But the event has also invigorated the leftists. In the last few days, demonstrators holding Mao Zedong’s portrait and Maoist slogans actually appeared in sizable numbers outside the paper’s building too. For the leftists, the paper has long been on the wrong side of the history, and is working hard to undermine China.

chi zhenSo it is another episode showing how divided Chinese society is today. The Party will weather this storm, but the social divide that made this incident so emotional for many people will not disappear.

The challenges from the right  to the Party’s rule will continue to rise, and such confrontation between left and right will erupt with a higher frequency.

How the Party can manage such intra-society divisions is the key for its sustained ability to rule China. Unfortunately, it is proving increasingly incapable in doing that. Again and again it will have to resort to heavy-handed measures to put things down, yet it will find it harder and harder to do so.

Zhengxu Wang is Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors


  1. Zhengxu, this is good. However, people supporting Mao may not be classified as leftists as you suggested. In fact, those people are not happy with the current serious divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘not haves’. They went to the demonstration because they really wanted the leadership to understand the poor or disadvantaged better, in my view anyway.

  2. Zhengxu, please explain the difference between the the rewriting from the director or the deputy director of DOP. Why is one consideried political and the other managerial? What we could possibly argues is that the deputy exercises even more self-censorship wearing the hat of the chair of the media group, because he is conccerned with the implications for the profit of the media group. thus, this is a case of censorship from both political and ommercial.

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