NPR

Editorial Ignites Freedom Of Press Debate In China

A dispute over an editorial in a Chinese newspaper has widened into calls for more freedom of expression. Hundreds of people protested Monday calling for an open news media.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

A dispute over an editorial in a Chinese newspaper has ignited a national debate in China over freedom of the press. Hundreds of people protested yesterday outside a progressive newspaper in Southern China, complaining about official censorship and calling for an open news media.

NPR's Frank Langfitt has been following this story, and joins us to talk about it. And, Frank, first of all, what caused this uproar? What was in this editorial?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, the paper is called Southern Weekend. It's a progressive newspaper in South China. And originally, there was a New Year's editorial calling for China to adhere to its own constitution. Now, that sounds pretty innocuous, but it really isn't, because the constitution, as it's written here, calls for free speech, free press and rule of law. The Communist Party doesn't really allow that, because it's really a direct threat to its power in the long run.

So the editorial was rewritten. And, in fact, the new editorial that was - apparently, people are saying was rewritten under pressure from the propaganda department, actually praised the Communist Party and its leadership of the country - not at all what the original writers intended.

MONTAGNE: How did reporters and editors at Southern Weekend react to this?

LANGFITT: Well, there was a lot of anger, and reporters felt that the editorial had been censored. And yesterday, as you mentioned, hundreds of people came out. And this is kind of a rare public protest when it comes to censorship. Even - there were people out in the streets yesterday posting pictures of themselves on Chinese Twitter, called Weibo.

There was one picture of a guy with thick glasses and a spiky haircut, holding up a handwritten sign, saying end press censorship, and that Chinese people want freedom. And then things kind of ballooned from there. On the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, you have a lot of celebrities and movie stars, and they got in on this, saying they were supporting the paper, and they wanted to see more press freedom. And a lot of these celebrities have tens of millions of followers here, so the story really kind of went from there.

MONTAGNE: So how did the government react to all this public support for a free press?

LANGFITT: There's no official word from the top, and cops didn't break up the demonstration yesterday. But Global Times - which is very conservative, state-run paper - put out an editorial criticizing the protest and saying China can't actually have, you know, what we in the West would consider a free press. And they blamed people - what they call external activists - for hijacking the issue.

What was interesting is that some of China's big Web portals, which are much more commercial, they were forced to run this editorial. And they did it as orders, but they actually posted disclaimers, saying they didn't agree with what the government was saying. So there's really a sign of a split.

MONTAGNE: Well, this is all very interesting. And, I mean, what does this episode tell us about where China might be heading?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, you have a new group of leaders coming in. And at the end of the 18th Party Congress, a couple of months ago, they said there would be a lot of economic reform here. But there were no plans for political reform, that the party would very much stay in charge. And the things that people are asking for - like a free press and a rule of law - would actually threaten that rule.

So although this is a small event, you know, in South China, it's really about much bigger issues, and kind of big disagreement about the kind of future direction of the country. There are a lot of intellectuals, people who've traveled abroad who want to see a much more open society, and you still have a Communist Party that wants to really stay in control.

MONTAGNE: Well, then, is there any sense at this point how this might end?

LANGFITT: You know, the protest seemed to really dissipate. It was much smaller today. And usually, this stuff has flared up over the years, and usually they end up with some sort of a crackdown and some people losing their jobs. I mean, in the short run, it's very clear that the government has all the levers of power here and can really put down this kind of a rebellion.

The problem in the longer term is that people in China, especially journalists, are getting more sophisticated. They have greater expectations. So you're probably going to see more and more of this sort of stuff.

MONTAGNE: Frank, thanks very much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt, speaking to us from Shanghai.

And Google has quietly surrendered in one of its censorship battles with Chinese officials. Last year, the company introduced a feature called The Great Chinese Firewall.

INSKEEP: The Great Chinese Firewall was designed to alert users in China when their searches contained politically-sensitive phrases, so they could work around those phrases and hopefully avoid being blocked by Chinese censors. But within a day of its launch, Chinese authorities disabled this feature.

MONTAGNE: Even after Google got it working again, censors were able to continue disrupting and disabling searches on topics, like the names of corrupt Chinese officials. Google this week admitted that the cat-and-mouse game was counterproductive and gave it up. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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