China Free Speech: Protests in Guangzhou Are a Small Win for Press Freedom

The week-long strike at a newspaper in the city of Guangzhou, the largest and most open protest for free speech in China in decades, has come to an end. Editors and journalists reached a compromise with the propaganda department officials allowing the newspaper to go to press this week. 

Employees of the Southern Weekend paper went on strike after they accused the provincial propaganda minister of directly revising an editorial that had called for greater adherence to the constitution and rule of law, to one that supported the party line. Since January 4, both supporters of the journalists as well as those supporting the government had gathered outside the paper’s office, some holding signs calling for freedom of speech and even democracy.

In what seems like a small victory for press freedom in China, the Guangdong propaganda ministry has agreed not to directly intervene in editorial decisions and the journalists will not be fired or punished. But the issue of press censorship remains basically unchanged, and as party memos regarding the issue stated recently, “party control of the media remains a basic principle.”

While the event has focused popular attention to the issue of press censorship in China, it also indicative of a growing regional divide in China: between the increasingly wealthy, outward-looking coast, and an interior economy that is still largely dominated by state-investment.

The episode comes on the heels of a recent visit by incoming president Xi Jinping to Shenzhen (near Guangzhou), a visit that many interpreted as a sign that Xi would want to continue the economic reforms that began in this southern region in the 1980’s. When Deng Xiaoping made his famous “southern tour” to the boomtown of Shenzhen in 1992, he sent a message to hardliners and conservatives that economic reforms he began in the 1980’s should continue.

Politicians in China often send messages in indirect and subtle ways, sometimes by imitating the actions of past leaders. In fact, Deng Xiaoping’s tour was not unlike the frequent visits to the south made by China’s emperors to inspect government infrastructure and win support from southern gentry who were often antagonistic toward imperial control.

While China’s capital has been in northern Beijing for most of the last 800 years, the south was and still is the economic heartland. The Yangzte delta area (around present-day Shanghai) was once the most developed area of China. Today’s Guangdong province holds that title and is where China’s market-oriented reforms began. The region is known for its independence from decision makers in the north, described by the old phrase, “the mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.”

Recently, citizens in other coastal cities of Ningbo and Dalian have successfully protested toxic factories in their communities. Like in Guangzhou, middle-class citizens in these areas are increasingly vocal about expectations for rights and participation that would have been unthinkable years ago. 

It’s realistic to expect that Xi will push for continued economic reforms to lessen monopolies of state-owned industries in critical sectors and allow for more private competition. It’s quite another to expect deep political changes like more transparency in government or fostering a more independent judiciary, or even relaxing the controls on speech and media that have only been strengthened under the Hu-Wen government.

And as they call for greater internet and press freedom, China’s netizens may be equally passionate about pressing the new adminstration to take a harder line in territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Allowing public expression also has the potential to escalate nationalist sentiments beyond government control, as the recent protests over the Diaoyu islands showed. And at the Guangzhou protests, supporters of the newspaper were met by equally passionate crowds calling the paper’s editors traitors and denouncing their “American dream” as un-Chinese.

Xi Jinping’s subtle gestures should not be overinterpreted. He still must consolidate support among key consitutiencies, including the military. If Xi succeeds in pushing for bold reform where his predecessor mainly adhered to the status quo, it will likely be because he commands more respect and support from “conservatives,” which in China generally describes those in favor of more state involvement in the economy or hardline generals.

One of the toughest challenges for the new leadership will be balancing the increasing demands for change coming from the educated and coastal middle class with those favoring maintaining strict party control. The Bo Xilai scandal brought divides within the party to light: between those of the “Guangdong model,” favoring more privatization, and the “Chongqing-model,” of increased state participation in developing the economy and providing social services like public housing that Bo had championed (along with promoting songs from the Mao era).

Xi, in treading this delicate path, would do well to heed more advice of Deng, who remarked that China’s opening up would require improvisation and constant experimentation, “crossing the river by feeling the stones.”