New Year’s message censored – how will the new Chinese government respond?

Joel and I spoke at two local book clubs the other day – happily people are still reading “Rabbit in the Moon” and seem anxious to engage in discussions about China – not only about the events we wrote about in our novel (i.e. the short-lived student democracy movement that was brutally squelched at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989), but also the changes in the country since then. They were especially interested in understanding how the new leader Xi Jinping, who has expressed a commitment to more openness, is dealing with dissent.

Like Joel and me, they’d read the New York Times report about how Chinese reporters and editors working for the reform-minded Southern Weekly newspaper complained after the propaganda chief altered a front page New Year’s message. And unlike 1989 when there was no Internet to help spread news of dissent, today more and more dissenters in China are testing the limits of government censorship by going online.

Last week, because the journalists felt the intrusion of the propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, went above and beyond even current censorhip practices (Internet censors are constantly checking for key words like “Tiananmen” or “Charter ’08″, the online proclamation that China should embrace democracy which sent Liu Xiabo, winner of the 2110 Nobel Peace Prize to jail for 11 years), they published their  complaints on Twitter-like microblogs called weibo.

The original New Year’s message titled “China’s dream, the dream of constitutionalism” reflected the journalists’  hope that China would become a country ruled by law and the constitution. Here’s what they had written: “Only if constitutionalism is realized, and power effectively checked, can citizens voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently.” The version altered by the propaganda chief that ultimately appeared in the paper, was titled “We are now closer to our dream than ever,” and praised the work of the ruling Communist Party, leaving out any of the original references to constitutionalism, democracy and equality.

According the the New York Times article, within 24 hours of reading the weibo posts,  the Central Propaganda Department in Beijing deleted them, shut down the Southern Weekly journalists’ accounts and warned all Chinese newspaper editors and reporters not to discuss the New Year’s greeting on any public platforms.

Like 1989, this push-back from the government, only created more controversy. On January 4th, a group of prominent former Southern Weekly journalists including the director of the China Media Project based at the University of Hong Kong  issued a strongly worded open letter criticizing minister Tuo Zhen’s actions, describing them as “dictatorial”,  “ignorant and excessive”. The letter, which demanded that the central government fire Tuo, not punish the Southern Weekly journalists, and allow the paper’s editorial committee to resume normal operations, was later endorsed by more than 50 former journalists in a separate online letter. Chinese citizen supporters carrying posters calling for freedom of the press protested in front of the newspaper’s office complex. Celebrities in China protested via their microblogging accounts.

Now it will be interesting to see how the government reacts. The New York Times quoted Zhang Lifan, a political commentator’s weibo from Friday January 4th: “The incident will testify to the direction of political reform.”

Not surprising, word is that the new government is not happy. Despite Xi Jinping’s promise of more openness, there has been a recent stepped up policy of suppressing any public criticism of the Communist Party, particularly via social media on the Internet.  The central government does not want to be told what to do by a local newspaper, but they also don’t want the situation to become another Tiananmen.

A real life drama. We’ll all be watching.