BEIJING--In an apparent attempt to quell the uproar over censorship, Chinese leader Xi Jinping expressed displeasure toward the media control division and said he would not punish journalists who disobeyed its latest order, sources said.
Xi, general secretary of the Communist Party of China, appears to have given top priority to preventing the row from expanding further and threatening his new leadership installed in November.
Arguments for free speech erupted after the reform-oriented Southern Weekly based in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, was forced to rewrite its New Year edition before it was published on Jan. 3.
The propaganda department then instructed all major newspapers to toe the party line concerning the censorship of the Southern Weekly.
At a meeting in Zhongnanhai in Beijing on the night of Jan. 9, Xi, visibly displeased, asked if the media control division was not adding to confusion, sources familiar with the discussions said.
Xi was responding to a report from Liu Yunshan, chief of the propaganda department of the party central committee, on censorship of the Southern Weekly, the sources said.
Liu headed the propaganda department for 10 years under former General Secretary Hu Jintao. He is a fifth-ranking party official after being promoted to the seven-member Politburo standing committee in November.
Xi expressed concerns about Liu’s order that major newspapers around the nation carry the editorial that appeared in the Jan. 7 edition of the Global Times, which is affiliated with the People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece.
The editorial denied authorities’ involvement in the rewrite of the Southern Weekly’s New Year edition.
“If a media organization publicly confronts authorities in China, it will end up being a loser,” the editorial said.
In an earlier editorial titled, “We need to think about the Southern Weekly in a level-headed manner,” the Global Times said, “We cannot continue old media control methods.”
Liu took it as criticism directed at him, sources said, and the propaganda department instructed the newspaper to publish the new editorial.
Xi suggested that Liu’s handling of the matter has harmed social stability because a problem in Guangdong province has spread nationwide, the sources said.
Early on Jan. 9, the president of the Beijing News newspaper expressed his intention to resign to protest the pressure from propaganda authorities to reprint the Global Times editorial.
Postings appeared on the Internet about growing confusion in Beijing and elsewhere, but they were soon deleted by censors. Still, Xi appeared to acknowledge the repercussions created by Liu’s order.
Liu had decided to impose penalties, including dismissals, against editors and reporters who disobeyed the order. But Xi gave instructions not to punish journalists who protested the propaganda department, according to a party source formerly involved in media control.
Xi has apparently attempted to contain the fallout even by accepting demands from Southern Weekly reporters.
He decided to remove the chief of the propaganda department of the Guangdong provincial party committee, who led prior screening of the Southern Weekly.
The official is not expected to leave the post until at least March, when the National People’s Congress is scheduled to convene, because an immediate removal would reveal confusion within the party.
China’s roughly 1,900 newspapers are under the supervision of the propaganda departments of the party’s central, provincial and municipal committees. The Southern Weekly comes under the Guangdong provincial propaganda department.
Many Southern Weekly staff members are dissatisfied because none of the newspaper’s management or the party authorities has stepped down, according to reporters and former senior editors for the newspaper.
The censorship issue led to protests against the government outside the Southern Weekly’s headquarters.
On Jan. 12, police removed about 20 farmers when they approached the building that houses the Nanfang Media Group, which includes the Southern Weekly, in Guangzhou.
The farmers came from the village of Sanshan in Foshan, which borders Guangzhou, to support the Southern Weekly.
In 2011, a daily newspaper published by the Nanfang Media Group aggressively reported on the Sanshan village government confiscating agricultural land.
“(The farmers) are the people who personally learned the importance of free speech and free newspapers,” a lawyer said.
The farmers were released after being questioned at a junior high school, according to the lawyer.
About 60 policemen were patrolling around the building on Jan. 13. Passers-by were told not to stop. Some were asked to present ID when they only looked up at the building.
Meetings around the building have been prohibited since Jan. 10.
Hong Kong newspapers reported Jan. 11 that an autograph session in Beijing by actress Annie Yi has been canceled. Yi, from Taiwan, has supported the Southern Weekly on the Weibo microblogging service.
Yi’s representative said the event was canceled out of consideration to the safety of bookstores, but authorities may have restricted her activities in China.
(This article was compiled from reports by Atsushi Okudera, Kenji Minemura and Kentaro Koyama.)
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