Is China on the brink of a revolution that will being greater press freedom to its more than 1 billion citizens, or will the communist government maintain its draconian grip on the media?
That's the question hanging in the air in Guangdong province, where propaganda officials reportedly agreed this week to loosen controls on the Southern Weekend newspaper after its battle against government censorship made headlines worldwide.
The conflict began when propaganda officials recently rewrote an editorial in the paper, turning a call for respect for constitutional rights into a pro-communist PR piece.
Outraged staffers went on strike, protests were staged and other publications and even celebrities weighed in with their support for the paper. Actress Yao Chen posted the newspaper's logo and quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a microblog post to her 32 million followers: "One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world."
Strikes are common in the West, but as Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported, the walkout by staffers at Southern Weekend represented "the first time in more than two decades that the editorial staff of a major newspaper has openly staged a strike against government censorship."
In response, the government initially tried to toughen its stance. Authorities issued a memo to newspapers blaming "foreign forces" for the dispute and ordered them to run a pro-censorship editorial that read in part:
"The party has absolute control of China's media. This basic principle is unshakeable."
But as protests continued and criticism of the government spread, the incident threatened to become a public relations disaster for China's leaders. So officials negotiated a deal in which staffers would return to work at the paper, which was due to publish its next issue on Thursday.
In return, propaganda officials will no longer review and vet the paper's content before it is published, The New York Times reported.
The agreement was hailed as an important development by journalists and activists who have long fought for press freedom in China, an authoritarian regime where many basic civil liberties are still severely limited or even nonexistent.
Li Datong, former editor of a newspaper supplement shut down by authorities, told USA Today that the broad support Southern Weekend had received showed the tide was turning in China.
"This protest has had definite social effect, as the whole society now supports Southern Weekend, even actresses pay attention to this. The concept of democracy is spreading," he said.
Others, however, said Southern Weekend had always had an independent streak, and that the deal didn't necessarily augur reforms elsewhere.
"Southern Weekend is a special case and has always been. A partial victory fought by them doesn't mean a thaw in the broader censorship climate," an unnamed Chinese reporter told The Financial Times.
Xi Jinping, China's new communist party chief, has called for greater economic reforms but it's unclear whether he also supports greater political freedoms.
Recent history suggests the country's communist leaders aren't likely to engage in a wholesale liberalization of the country's heavy-handed one-party rule anytime soon. The government has issued mind-numbingly long lists of press restrictions, and is tightening its control of the Internet. (Indeed, when The New York Times ran a story on wealth accumulated by the family of the country's prime minister, the government blocked access to the paper's website.)
Meanwhile, China was recently deemed one of the world's worst offenders on a list of countries that imprison journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, China currently has has 32 journalists locked up and routinely jails writers critical of the government.
And when a high-speed train crash killed dozens of people in 2011, the Chinese government cracked down on news outlets that criticized how officials handled the tragedy.