GUANGZHOU, China — Communist Party-backed management and rebellious editors at an influential weekly newspaper have defused a high-profile standoff over censorship that turned into a test of the new Chinese leadership's tolerance for political reform.
Under an agreement reached Tuesday, editors and reporters at the Southern Weekly will not be punished for protesting and stopping work in anger over a propaganda official's heavy-handed rewriting of a New Year's editorial last week, according to two members of the editorial staff. One, an editor, said propaganda officials will no longer directly censor content prior to publication.
The staff members asked not to be identified because they feared retaliation after they and other employees were told not to speak to foreign media. Executives at the newspaper and its parent company, the state-owned Nanfang Media Group, declined comment other than to say the Southern Weekly would publish as normal Thursday.
Aside from getting the presses rolling, the agreement appears likely to deflate the confrontation that presented a knotty challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping two months after taking office. While the crisis began over the propaganda official's rewriting of the editorial calling for better constitutional governance to include praise for the party, it soon evolved into calls for free expression and political reform.
Expressions of support for the newspaper poured across the Internet and, for two days this week, protesters came by the hundreds to the gates of the compound housing the Southern Weekly. On Tuesday, supporters of the newspaper squared off against flag-waving Communist Party loyalists near the compound off a busy street in Guangzhou, one of China's richest and most commercially vibrant cities.
Some 30 uniformed police officers stood guard outside the compound, as a handful of protesters showed up for a third day Wednesday, renewing calls for press freedom.
Defusing the crisis took the intervention of Hu Chunhua, the newly installed party chief of Guangdong, the province where Guangzhou is located, according to an editorial staff member and an academic in Beijing, who asked not to be named because officials at his university ordered him not to speak with the media.
The agreement to keep propaganda officials from censoring articles before they appear rolls back more intrusive controls put in place in recent months, but does not mean an end to censorship. The Propaganda Department, which controls all media in China, relies on directives, self-censorship by editors and reporters and firings of those who do not comply to enforce the party line.
The Southern Weekly editor said it was hard to call the agreement a victory because controls still remain in place and punishments, though forestalled for now, may be imposed later.
Management refused to yield to one demand: that this week's editions include an explanation of the dispute, the editor and a colleague said.
The dispute was touched off after the editorial, originally calling for better constitutional government, was transformed into a tribute praising the party. After the dispute spiraled out into wider protests and open letters of support from scholars across the country, the newspaper's editorial committee entered negotiations with its top management, which is part of the provincial propaganda office.
Tuesday's protests outside the newspaper became especially heated when supporters of the party waving Chinese flags showed up to confront the more liberal demonstrators.
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."