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Will a Victory for One Newspaper in China Mean Less Censorship for All?

Expert Says More and More Chinese Want a Free Press


Will a Victory for One Newspaper in China Mean Less Censorship for All?

Journalists report the opening ceremony of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing

A censorship fight between China's communist leaders and a rebellious newspaper in Guangdong province seems to have ended for now. Staffers at Southern Weekend, who went on strike when a propaganda official rewrote an editorial, returned to work and published the paper as scheduled on Thursday. There was no mention of the clash in its pages.

But what happens next remains unclear. Does the deal struck between Southern Weekend and government officials, which reportedly gives the paper greater editorial control, augur a move toward greater press freedom nationwide, or simply a return to business as usual under authoritarian rule?

Arthur Waldron, a China expert and professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, believes change is coming to the world's most-populous country, though at a measured pace.

"If the government is actually going to let one paper determine its own editorial policy, then the question arises why not others," Waldron says in a phone interview. "I think this could spread."

Indeed, Southern Weekend isn't the first Chinese news outlet to challenge authorities.

When propaganda officials tried to control news coverage of a train crash in 2011, journalists rebelled. Instead of doing the government's bidding by focusing on the human interest angles of the tragedy, Chinese reporters asked tough questions about what caused the accident, and whether officials had ignored safety concerns in a reckless campaign to build a high-speed rail network.

Waldron says the Chinese have become better-educated in recent years and, as such, are less likely to accept government control of the news media.

"If you think back 23 years to the Tiananmen Square massacre, there have been several decades during which a whole generation have become better eduated," he says. "People are more literate than ever before. This fundamentally changes the nature of public opinion. People with a college degree are much less likely to be satisfied with a censored paper."

Technology also plays a role. Waldron says if China wants to keep up with the West technologically, censorship becomes more and more of an archaic holdover from the past.

"China could decide to shut down, but if you want to develop as a country you have to go with the technology of the time," he says. "There's a fundamental contradiction between wanting to be an advanced country and the desire to have a bureaucrat read every sentence of a news story before it's published."

Then, of course, there's the Internet. Chinese authorities still crack down on web access and social media sites when surfers are spreading anti-government messages, but even then, word gets out. At one point during the Southern Weekend turmoil, 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."

"Previously she'd been known primarily for the way she fluttered her eyelashes and here she is quoting Solzhenitsyn," Waldron says. "You know that by the time this issue gets to someone like her it's very widespread."

And there's yet another factor to consider: Xi Jinping, China's newly selected communist party chief. He has called for more economic reform but whether he'll throw his weight behind greater political freedoms is still unknown.

Waldron says he has friends in China who know Xi, "and they are uniformly optimistic. He's going to be very concerned about his image. He doesn't want to be seen as the hammer coming down on the media."

But, sounding a note of caution, Waldron says, "I remember the optimism that accompanied the advent of new Chinese leaders in the past and how it ended in disappointment.

"The issue is the system," he adds. "You either have a censored media or you don't. This is going to have to be an up-or-down decision for Xi. If the government tries to compromise by liberalizing somewhat, then that will represent a defacto loosening of control."

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